Whitebark Pines: Tahoe’s Highest Tree

Whitebark Pine
Tim Hauserman

When hiking into the highest reaches of Desolation Wilderness or the Carson Range the last

tree species you are likely to see before reaching the tree line is the whitebark pine. While often

growing in clusters about 30 feet high, in the most windswept snow laden places the trees

krummholz, growing low and sturdily close to the ground, just a few feet high.

 

Recently I camped at over 9000 feet in the Carson Range above Tahoe’s east shore. There I

found a few stately western hemlocks, and scattered clumps of whitebark pine trees. I’m not

really sure whether the clumps are a number of trees connecting and growing together, or if they

are one tree with a number of stalks pointing straight up, but they primarily only grow in clumps.

They appear to come out of the ground separately, but have a common root ball. The trunks are

a light gray to almost white color, thus the name. They have small, several inch long cones that

are a deep purple when mature.

 

Whitebark pines are members of the white pine family which includes sugar pines and western

white pines. All of these trees have medium length needles in groups of five. The sugar pine is a

much larger tree, and has long narrow cones. It also rarely grows over 6500 feet, while you are

unlikely to see the whitebark pine below 8500 feet. Western white pines grow in the 7000-9000

elevation range so they may overlap with the whitebark pine’s range, but these trees have about

six inch long cones, and more mature trees have a reddish bark.

 

Whitebark pines have a fascinating relationship with the Clark Nutcracker.This gray-black jay

sized bird is usually seen flapping back and forth between whitebark pines, since the trees

seeds are it’s primary source of food. The bird and tree habitats are closely overlapped and they

are essential to each other. Nutcrackers eat seeds from the tress, and bury caches of those

seeds in a variety of locations for later retrieval. The caches they fail to retrieve may become a

cluster of whitebark pine trees.

 

Krummholz whitebark pines are a harbinger that you are just about to reach the peak of the

mountain. Near the summit of Freel Peak, Tahoe’s highest peak, for example, you will find them

in abundance. Thick batches of dense trees that look like shrubs but are actually ancient trees.

They are there because unlike any other tree, they have the stamina and gumption to take on

the worst wind and snow that Sierra winters can dish out.

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