Famous Trees and Where to Find Them

With their imposing size and universal symbolism, trees are the celebrities of the plant world. But some trees can boast special A-list status.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

—Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us a foundation of integrity in his beautiful love letter to trees—how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Trees are remarkable living things. Not only do they provide shade, oxygen, and often fruit, but they can also live remarkably long—the oldest tree in the world is a 4,852-year-old bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California with the appropriate nickname of Methuselah. However, it’s not the only tree to earn well-deserved recognition. Here are five other famous trees and forests you can visit around America.

Giant Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman

Location: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Age: Roughly 2,000 years

General Sherman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman might possibly be the most famous tree in the world. While the age of the tree is impressive (likely to be around 2,000 years old), it’s actually the size of the tree that brings it fame. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet wide in diameter making it the biggest tree in the world. The tree sits in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California where thousands of visitors flock every year. Fences around the tree keep visitors from trampling on the shallow roots. General Sherman is still growing so it’s anyone’s guess how big it will eventually get.

The Big Tree before Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Tree

Location: Goose Island State Park, Texas

Age: In excess of 1,000 years

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the oldest, most well known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017). The tree has its own dark history as well, as it has variously been associated with hangings, cannibalism, or pirates.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Trees

Location: Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might begin to question your map. Where are we anyway? In wonder, the traveler pulls over for a snapshot of this prickly oddity; the naturalist reaches for a botanical guide to explain this vegetative spectacle; and the rock climber shouts “Yowch!” when poked by dagger-like spines.

Mojave yucca in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family. Don’t confuse the Joshua tree with the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. This close relative can be distinguished by its longer, wider leaves and fibrous threads curling along leaf margins. Both types of yuccas can be seen growing together. The Joshua tree provides a good indicator that you are in the Mojave Desert but you may also find it growing next to a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona or mixed with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legend has it that Mormon pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Today we enjoy this yucca for its grotesque appearance, a surprising sight in this arid landscape.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Location: North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique because it has over 130 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species that grow in five major forest types: Cove Hardwood, Spruce-fir, Northern Hardwood, Hemlok, and Pine-and-Oak. Other national parks have fewer than 15 native trees. Oak trees are one of the most important parts of the national park. There are 12 species of oak trees in the Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest tree in the Great Smoky Mountains is a blackgum that still stands at 562 years old. One of the tallest trees in the Smoky Mountains is a white pine tree that reaches 186 feet tall. The Smoky Mountains have a large population of tulip trees, including some that measure over 20 feet wide.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, North Carolina

Location: 15 miles from Robbinsville off Cherohala Skyway (NC-143)

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time. This forest is one of the Nation’s most impressive remnants of old-growth forest. The forest contains magnificent examples of more than 100 tree species, many over 450-years-old and some enormous tulip poplars more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 3,800-acre forest was set aside in 1936 as a memorial to the author of the poem “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in action in France during World War I (See poem below). The floor is carpeted with wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. This forest, part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness, is maintained in its primitive state.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only way to see the memorial forest is on foot. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers two miles and has two loops: the 1.25-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque and the upper 0.75-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove—a grove of the forest’s largest trees. The trailhead parking area has a flush toilet and picnic tables.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer