Tahoe Trees: Sugar Pine and Western White Pine

December 22, 2014 | Tim Hauserman

Two of my favorite Sierra trees are the Sugar Pine and Western White Pine. Members of the same family, both are proud and tall with long narrow cones and needles in groups of five. The Sugar Pine, is found almost exclusively below 6500 feet, while the Western White Pine, is rarely found below 7500 feet.

The Sugar Pine is best known as the tree whose humongous long, narrow cones elicit screams of glee from those who have never seen one before. The cones are quite impressive, usually more than a foot long and often reach sixteen inches in length. They truly are the queen of cones. But the tree itself is also worth a look. They are the tallest of all the pine trees, reaching over 200 feet tall in some cases. But each tree has its own unique personality and flavor, with branches hanging out in all different directions. If you can’t see the cones you can identify the Sugar Pine by the short needles, which are just a few inches in length, while the more common Jeffrey pine boasts needles of six inches or longer.

John Muir said of the sugar pine, “It is the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size, but also in kingly beauty and majesty.” And that is just the beginning of his lengthy ode to the sugar pine.

While the Sugar Pine is surely a beautiful tree, I actually prefer the sugar’s more diminutive cousin, the Western White Pine. First, while a sugar pine can be seen rising high above your next door neighbor’s house on the west shore. You have to put on your hiking shoes or skis to find a Western White Pine. They are a higher elevation out in the wilderness tree (and often found at ski areas). They rise up to 150 feet in some situations, but in higher altitudes they tend to be shorter, but wider. Look for some of the best specimens in the heart of the Desolation Wilderness. The White pine cones look like miniature Sugar Pine cones, about 6-8 inches long, but are more fascinating upon closer examination-with alternating dark and lighter color bracts. The Western White’s branches uniquely reach upwards towards the sky.

You will find a quick summary of the trees, and the elevations they can be found, in “Tahoe Rim Trail: The official guide for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.”