Old Growth Forests in the Pennsylvania Wilds  

September 2008 


Old Growth Forests in the Pennsylvania Wilds

by Dale Luthringer

The Pennsylvania Wilds is blessed with an incredible array of old growth forests—forests that have never been harvested or have only lightly seen the hands of man. An old growth driving tour, navigating the Pennsylvania Wilds region, will take you to some of these very unique areas, including the most exceptional old growth of all, the trees found in Cook Forest State Park.

Cook Forest contains the finest stand of tall, aged eastern white pine and eastern hemlock north of the Great Smoky Mountains. Nine different old growth forest areas—covering over 2,200 acres—can be found within the boundaries of the park. Here, 28 pines tower more than 160 feet. Only four other living white pines of such height can be found elsewhere in the commonwealth and some of those reside in the nearby Heart’s Content Scenic Area of Allegheny National Forest. There are only 16 pines in the northeast—outside of Pennsylvania—that attain such grandeur.

Cook Forest also has three pines over 170 feet and one pine stretching over 180 feet. This white pine, named the Longfellow Pine, is the tallest tree in Pennsylvania, the tallest known tree in the northeastern United States, and the fifth tallest tree in the entire eastern part of the country! It’s not only tall (183.6 feet) but broad (over 11.1 feet in circumference at breast height or CBH). No wonder the “Forest Cathedral” is a registered National Natural Landmark.

Cook Forest isn’t just home to lofty white pines. It also contains 19 other trees of record size by species. Just to name a few:

Seneca pine (12.6ft CBH x 173.2ft high) - largest in overall dimensions in Pennsylvania

Seneca hemlock (12ft CBH x 145.4ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

Davies black cherry (11.4ft CBH x 137.3ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

American beech (7.5ft CBH x 127.5ft high) - tallest known in Pennsylvania

White oak (10.7ft CBH x 127.3ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

Scarlet oak (8.2ft CBH x 120ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

Colorado blue spruce (5.1ft CBH x 115.7ft high) - tallest known in eastern U.S.

American chestnut (3.7ft CBH x 84.2ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

Witch hazel (0.8ft CBH x 41.8ft high) - tallest known in the Northeast

While some of the white pines and hemlocks at Cook Forest are more than 300 years old, it also boasts of ancient hardwoods. White oak has been found to exceed 350 years and a cucumber tree was recently documented to over 450 years, a new Eastern U.S dendrochronological record!

Within 45 minutes of Cook Forest are three of Pennsylvania’s other premier old growth hemlock and white pine sites: Heart’s Content Scenic Area, Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Area, and Anders Run Natural Area.

Heart’s Content, another National Natural Landmark, is the second best place to see big hemlocks in the Northeast. At 131 acres, it is much smaller than Cook Forest, but still shows an exceptionally large array of ancient white pine and hemlock.

Researchers from the Eastern Native Tree Society recently documented one white pine here to be in excess of 900 cubic feet. That could equate to over 11,000 board feet of wood in just one tree! Heart’s Content has massive hemlocks as well. The “Heart’s Content Hemlock” (13.9ft CBH x 126.6ft high) is currently the largest single stem hemlock known in Pennsylvania by one system of measurement.

The small Anders Run Natural Area, close to Warren and the Buckaloons Recreation Area, displays several gorgeous pines. The late state champ white pine was located here, dubbed the “Cornplanter Pine” (13ft CBH x 167.7ft high). It is no longer alive.

For a truly remote wilderness old growth experience, the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Area is the place to go. At over 4,000 acres, it is the largest intact old growth forest in Pennsylvania. Hemlocks more than 500 years old have been documented here.

Trek miles into the wilderness—off of forest service roads (not accessible during winter and early spring)—to a place devoid of cars and other man-made sounds, but full of big trees, gentle and giant. This area was devastated by the 1985 derecho that resulted in multiple tornados ripping across the state causing numerous deaths and, years later, by the same winds that took down the Kinzua Viaduct. Beech bark disease has also ravaged this site resulting in yet another major canopy opening event. Tionesta is in a state of recovery and transition, but old growth forests are notoriously resilient. As long as the genetics are retained and human pressures are kept at a minimum, they can recover.

Get out and enjoy these incredible old growth forest stands in the Pennsylvania Wilds.  Some were here before Christopher Columbus founded the new world. Many witnessed the birth of our nation. Imagine what you would see standing in place for 500 years. Pennsylvania’s history is written in its trees. It’s up to us to discover it.

Dale Luthringer is a DCNR Environmental Education Specialist.