HD Mountains and the Piedra River Canyon, CO  (30) Bob Leverett
July 02, 2009

ENTS, WNTS, Other Friends,

I spent yesterday with Laura Stransky of the U.S. Forest Service looking at old growth and big trees. Monica was unable to be with us. She was meeting with representatives of Music in the Mountains to possibly be part of the festival next year. She was most pleased with the meeting. We are receiving such a warm reception out here. Great folks.
Yesterday was my last big tree hunting day before Monica and I head back to Massachusetts, so I wanted to make the most of it, and thanks to Laura, I was able to. We first visited an enchanting little mountain range known locally as the HD mountains. There is controversy over the origin of the name. The most popular explanation is that H and D are the first letters of the last names of prominent ranchers who owned property in the HDs. 
The little mountain range has a distinctly southwestern look. It is covered with junipers, pinyons, and small to modest-sized ponderosas, and Doug firs. Most of the timber in the HDs is not of commercial value. However, the mountains are awash in old growth that has not been inventoried. That process is occurring now by Laura and her team. In fact, Laura's assistant was out there identifying old growth as we looked for big trees. 
The HDs have a distinctly linear, ridge-like profile. They rise approximately 2,000 feet above the surrounding landscape and consequently suffer by comparison to the high peaks of the San Juans. But the HDs have their charm and appear virtually unvisited by the general public.  There are tremendous opportunities to find old growth in the HDs and evidently big tree possibilities. Laura is hooking me up with a local landowner who is willing to show me big trees on his land and adjacent Forest Service property. It will be another splendid connection. The local landowner is a rancher and his wife a Forest Service employee - two people with lots of region-specific knowledge.
Now to the trees.  The first part of the HDs we visited are quite dry and don't support large trees, although there are plenty of old ones. Even so, we were able to measure an old Doug fir to 119.0 feet in height and 7.25 feet girth. We also measured some ancient ponderosas. The attached photo entitled LauraStranskyByOldPonderosa shows an old ponderosa approximately 100 feet tall and a solid 9.5 feet in girth. Laura estimates its age to 280 years. We earned the photo of Laura next to the big pine. You have to plow through a dense gambel oak thicket to get to the tree. Scratches are to be expected - but well worth every drop of blood. I view it as a kind of initiation. I gave my few drops of blood. The HDs and I are blood brothers now.
In terms of dimensions, t he best we got out of a ponderosa in the dry zone was 112.5 feet in height, but the tree's girth is a modest 7.5 feet. We did measure a juniper to 59.5 feet in height and 7.1 feet in girth. Next year I hope to spend more time in the HDs. They reach a maximum altitude (I think) of 8,936 feet on Pargin Mountain. I haven't a clue as to what separates them geologically from the main body of the San Juans to the north.

After leaving the remote area of the HDs, we headed toward the Piedra River Canyon. We passed through Yellow Jacket Pass on U.S. 160 and I spotted again some tall looking ponderosas that I had mentioned to Monica on at least four prior drives across the small pass. Like Will, BVP, Dale, and others, I remember the exact trees for years. It is part of being a complete fanatic. But this time Laura and I stopped. Laura explained that the region is still the HDs. I had not realized that. We measured several ponderosas on a ridge and got 130.0 feet out of the tallest. Its girth is approximately 7.0 feet - via the discerning eye of Laura. A second tree was measured to 121.1 feet with an estimated girth of 7.5 feet. 
I think we have the height measure of the pines in the vicinity of Yellow Jacket Pass, but I have a sneaking suspicion that those little mountains harbor a few big tree treasures in their recesses. I look forward to exploring them next year.
After leaving the HDs, o ur next stop was the Piedra River Canyon to the north of U.S. 160 and its huge watershed. The canyon is very scenic and the road through it narrow, but in good shape. Laura is a very safe driver, which helped me. Looking nearly straight down over 1,000 feet to the river below on a narrow one-way road with turnouts in places where they are not needed and no turnouts where they are needed can give one at least momentary pause to reflect on one's life. The road is not really dangerous, were it not for the usual parade of idiots who think they are speed racers. We met one bonehead 4-wheeler speeding, oblivious to road conditions. He gave us a silly grin as he zipped by. Had Laura been going fast, we would have been wearing his teeth on our windshield and cleaned up the human gene pool a bit. My bad, my bad.
The trees we set out to see at first proved a little elusive, but they are there. The following list summarizes the top ones we measured in order of discovery and measurement.

Species             Height             Girth                Est. Age         Name

Ponderosa            142.5           10.5                 250+                Barry's Tree (Image is titled TallPonderosa2)
Doug fir                  140.5             8.1                 175+               Jenny's Tree (Will send image)
Colorado blue       131.0            5.5        
Colorado blue       134.5            6.6                   
Ponderosa             108.0            9.5                 300+               Piedra Pine
Ponderosa             102.0            9.5                 300+               Piedra's Twin
Ponderosa              132.5           9.3                  250+
Ponderosa              148.5         10.5                  250+             Simply Gorgeous
Ponderosa              142.0           8.5                  200+              Elusive One 

The other two images show Laura next to an old Doug fir and Laura at the base of an old fire-scarred ponderosa. I took many other images, but I didn't quite capture the magic of Piedra. The area is deep forest and other than the depth of the canyon, does not have the dramatic backdrop of great peaks like La Plata Canyon. Piedra needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

I'm sure that in the depths of the canyon, there is a ponderosa here or there that brushes 150 feet. They are well down the steep canyon sides and virtually inaccessible without a rappel down to them.

Well, I'll close for now. But there is plenty of exciting news to come. We are considering a rendezvous here next summer - a joint event between ENTS, WNTS, and the Forest Service. Stay tuned for the details.


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