With opportunities to spend several weeks of October for several years in the ‘lower 48’ (that’s Alaska-speak for the contiguous forty-eight states), I chose to balance filial responsibilities with my chosen avocation (big tree guy).  I have collected lots of images, but much less data than my hardworking ENTS counterparts.  I have begun to correct that, but want to first share some of the backlog of imagery I’ve collected.

I have investigated a number of software packages that manipulate images, and online repositories that wish to share their primary objective of advertising their wares, at the expense of the presence my images. My current solution is to select meaningful images, reduce their file size so as to not unduly impact our less fortunate dial-up members.  All of my images were taken at their highest resolution and vary from 3 to 5 megabytes in file size, and I will be happy to make them available in full resolution for those wishing more detail.

That said, I’ll begin my ‘first installment’, where I visited the eastside of the Sierra Nevada range in eastern central California.  Located directly east of Owens Lake (at elevation around 4000’ ASL), a nice two lane paved road zigzags up the face of the Sierra escarpment , cresting at about 9500’ ASL, before dropping into Horseshoe Meadows (about 9000’ ASL).  For the first 5 miles or so, the our road is shared with the Whitney Portal road (servicing trailhead to Mt. Whitney, at 14,495’ ASL, the highest peak in the ‘lower 48’).

The reason for selecting Horseshoe Meadows as a destination goes back 30 years, when I was sent there as a USFS construction contract inspector to close down the construction of a trailhead/campground/equestrian site for winter.  I spent way more time than required for signing and gating the site, as I was intrigued by the foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) forest ecosystem.  Landscape architects had high resolution aerial photographs blown up to plan size scales, and roads and campsites were placed to minimize impact.  It was my understanding that only three foxtail pines had to be removed in a facility designed to permit nearly a hundred sites.

But I must digress. The foxtail pine is a member of the subsection of Pinus called Balfourianae, classified as the Foxtail Pines. Two other members, now more widely known, are the Bristlecone Pines; the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) and the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata). By habitat they have much in common, by range they distinguish themselves.

All three are found at relatively high elevations, live in rather extreme environmental conditions, are shade intolerant, and will be found either in open woodlands or as solitary individuals. In their seedling to sapling phase, they are handsome symmetrical trees, but over time express the impact of harsh existence, soon trading their symmetry for ‘character’. 

The foxtail pine persists in two California locations, hundreds of miles apart; in Northern California near the Oregon border as a relict species in several wilderness areas; and in south central California where following images were taken.  I have been to the northern California sites, but have no images to offer here.

The image following is one of the first of a ‘photo transect’ where a variety of conditions were captured.  This photo shows a typical low stand density, with sparse understory. The soil is primarily decomposed granite, with foxtail pine and an associated species (lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta)detritus amending it. Lacey, our yellow lab mix is shown here for scale.

The following image tells the ‘whole story’, from birth to death…suffering mortality, a foxtail pine has fallen, and inevitably decomposes in this harsh environment, but in its own time…one of its own seeds or perhaps one of its cohorts, has germinated and has an accumulation of duff that will provide much of the nutrients needed for sustaining growth and participation in this ecosystem.


The south edge of this foxtail pine forest ecosystem is bounded by Horseshoe Meadow, with the outermost trees gradually being replaced by meadow grasses and sedges, and sagebrush at the margins of both. The trail, visible diagonally from lower right to upper left, serves as a transect, as it leaves the trailhead, enroute to Cottonwood Pass and points beyond. One of the later images will look down upon part of the image following.



The image above includes the foxtail pine ecosystem approaching an ‘old-growth’ state in the upper right part of the image, with mixes of horizontal and vertical complexity, as older larger foxtail pines emerge from a more codominant  foxtail-lodgepole pine stand.  Treeline is visible on peak behind, occurring at 11,200’ ASL near Cottonwood Pass.

Part of the foxtail pines’ story involves the role that fire plays in its ecosystem dynamics. With little invading understory to provide fuels to the decomposing granite ‘soil’, fires that do impact the foxtail pine ecosystem are usually wind driven from lightning strikes, not uncommon in the Sierra Nevadas.  Images of some of the foxtail pines that have fallen prey to wildfires follow…


Higher up in the foxtail pine ecosystem, bush chinkapin (Chrysolepsis sempervirens) makes an appearance, no doubt another participant in this fire-adapted ecosystem.  Looking closely at the foxtail pine foliage, its tendency to fully ‘enclose’ the limbs is more apparent and the source of its name, resembling the fully-furred tale of the fox.

In the images below, higher elevation meadows can sustain themselves in drainages where sufficient moisture supports them.  Again, Lacey is shown cavorting in one, for scale.


The foxtail pine is a member of a family of long-lived trees, ranging with species maximums from two to four thousand years.  An example follows.


One of the characteristics of the Foxtail Pine subsection, is their ability to obtain continued sustenance from less and less live cambium. Here in the image above, much resembling a ancient bristlecone pine, a foxtail has but a minimal amount of cambium serving the significantly reduced crown.

The image below, taken at 11,200’ ASL at Cottonwood Pass, the treeline is apparent, with occasional exceptions marching singly up the mountain.  Notice the decomposed granite boulders here, encased in pinkish layer of unknown rock, and potholes from unknown source.



With a hint of the view of my return to Horseshoe Meadow in the top of the above image, I’ll finish this installment first with a view ‘from the top’, to be followed by a hint of the next installment’s content.



In the above image, just to the left of center is the road coming around the last ‘zigzag’ as it heads downhill and to the left enroute to Horseshoe Meadow.  In the background, is Owens River valley, and the south end of the White Mountain Range, with a hint of the Panamint Range just behind it in the upper right hand portion of image.  On the back side of the Panamint Range, lies Death Valley and the lowest point in the ‘lower 48’ at Badwater (282’ BSL);  north of Cottonwood Pass some 10-15 miles stands Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the ‘lower 48’ (14,495’ ASL) differing in elevation by some 14,777’.

Returning back one mountain range to ‘the Whites’, an image of the next installment’s focus follows. Again, Lacey has been included in this image for scale.