Conifers on The Miracle Mile

By Leah Alcyon

Get to know the recordbreaking conifers of Northern California's Miracle Mile.

Leah Alcyon looking at conifers with binoculars at the parking lot of Devil's Punchbowl in the Siskiyou Wilderness Area, California
Leah Alcyon looking at conifers with binoculars at the parking lot of Devil's Punchbowl in the Siskiyou Wilderness Area, California

Exploring Californian Conifers

California is home to 52 native, conifer species. Some are record-breaking, conifer superlatives. It is a big state, which covers 10 degrees of latitude, with ecosystems from coastal regions to high mountains. The state boasts spectacular specimens: Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine), Tsuga heterophylla (western hemlock), Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce), Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Lawson cypress), and Sequoia sempervirens (coast redwood). California is home to the most massive tree on earth, Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant sequoia), and the longest-lived tree, Pinus longaeva (bristlecone pine). In the northern area of the state, called the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion, there are 36 conifer species. The complex terrain (geology, climate, and biogeographic history) has created great, temperate biodiversity. Yet, the relative remoteness of this area keeps it from being well known. This is where you will find the 'Miracle Mile'.

Several years ago, I found myself in the midst of conifer hysteria. Thanks, Mom! I focused on conifer cultivars, each with a variation on a theme. I chose to start with conifers in nature, in order to learn basic identification. I purchased Conifer Country by Michael Kauffmann, which has identification information and suggests hikes in Northern California, where this great, conifer diversity exists. As conifer mania had become a family passion, my plan was to hike my way to conifer knowledge and, then, into the American Conifer Society. That, at least, was the plan.

Dave Alcyon hiking past majestic conifers into Devil's Punchbowl, North California
Dave Alcyon hiking past majestic conifers into Devil's Punchbowl, North California

Revisiting Devil's Punchbowl

My first trip was to Devil’s Punchbowl, where Cupressus nootkatensis (Nootka cypress, Alaskan cedar) is found. Alaskan cedar had survived there in ice-free pockets during the last Ice Age. I had been there before, while working for the Youth Conservation Corps in 1980, but that trip was recreational and did not include topics, such as plant identification and natural history. I found that information in another highly recommended book, The Klamath Knot, by David Rains Wallace. This more recent trip started with a confusing map of forest service roads and unmarked turns. The parking lot was bordered by the unmistakable Picea breweriana (Brewer spruce).

Brewer spruce is a beginner-friendly conifer, which can be enjoyed and identified with minimal skill, even at a distance, due to its distinct, weeping branches. There is nothing more uplifting and motivating than immediate gratification. The climb up to the lake is not as difficult as the metrics make it seem (a 1,000-foot vertical in 1.5 miles, 8.9 miles with a 2,378-foot, total vertical). There are plenty of trees and stunning views to capture the attention of the visitor.

The hike ends at a beautiful lake, bordered by steep walls of a glacial cirque. The map indicated that there were only a few Cupressus nootkatensis (Alaskan cedar) in number. They were in an area at the approach to the lake. The presence of the glacial cirque means that there was ice erosion in ages past. Therefore, it was a mystery that Alaskan cedar was here! I remember spending the day taking a photo of every cedar in the area. In review, the dozens of photos appeared to reveal real Calodedrus decurrens (incense cedar), without an Alaskan cedar in sight.

Leah Alcyon looking for Alaskan cedar at Devil's Punchbowl in Northern California
Leah Alcyon looking for Alaskan cedar at Devil's Punchbowl in Northern California

A Confusing Conifer Moniker

The common name “Alaskan cedar” poses some problems in itself. Callitropsis appears many times instead of Cupressus. I decided to use Cupressus. The name of the species, nootkatensis, comes from the discovery of the tree on the lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who are one of the First Nations of Canada, and who are also known as the Nootka, hence the other common name, Nootka cypress. The physical characteristics of the trees can vary. In the alpine environment, trees growing out of rocks can be stunted, thus making the comparisons between coastal and alpine trees difficult. The age of the tree can also change its identifying characteristics. All of this can either seem like esoteric nonsense, or the delightful start to an ACS social icebreaker.

Not to be deterred, several other hikes in conifer country were tried over the years, but none as inspiring to the imagination as The Miracle Mile. Who does not love the consonance, which alludes to some grand promenade? The Miracle Mile moniker originated in the 1970’s with two professors from Humboldt State University, John Sawyer and Dale Thornburgh, Botany and Silviculture, and Ecosystems Management, respectively. They described the area which contains an amazing diversity of conifers. Up to now, 18 species have been identified.

A list of conifers to look out for on the North California trail
A list of conifers to look out for on the North California trail

Going on the Miracle Mile

In October 2016, we backpacked up to Little Duck Lake and prepared to tick off the 17 conifer species, which had been originally identified. We had scheduled three days to figure it out. This was not my first trip. In 2013, my conifer- obsessed mom and I had done the hike in a day.

The first obstacle is the physical challenge of getting to the Miracle Mile. The climb up to Little Duck Lake is 9 miles round trip with a 2,000- feet elevation gain. The ridge behind the lake is another 800 feet of rock scrambling. The trail starts on former logging roads, which existed before the wilderness designation in 1984. None of the trail is as steep as the short climb to Devil’s Punchbowl. After the daylong hike, I knew that, in order to see all 17 conifer species, I would have to hike to the top of the ridge, or use a Celestron telescope, to identify the foxtail pine (Pinus alfouriana) and the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis).

At first, I was intimidated by the thought of trying to identify all of the trees, but you might note that the Alaskan cedar is missing from the lineup. Of the remaining trees, most can be identified without too much difficulty, provided that the observer has a basic guide available for identification. It helps that the pines have characteristics which are fairly straightforward. They represent 7 of the 17 on the list at the end of this article. The problem in locating the species is solved by consulting Conifer Country, even when there are just a few individual trees. None of the Pinus albicaulis (whitebark pine), which we encountered, had cones that year. Unfortunately, that became a missing clue. However, I could readily identify Calocedrus decurrens (incense cedar). Engelmann's spruce (Picea engelmannii) posed the toughest challenge to identification.

Leah Alcyon in the cirque above Little Duck Lake in the Russian Wilderness, Northern California
Leah Alcyon in the cirque above Little Duck Lake in the Russian Wilderness, Northern California

Car-Conifering: A Fun Adventure

I always associated the Miracle Mile with a 2-dimensional path and not a space of a square mile. Hence, I contacted Michael Kauffmann for a clarification of the boundaries of this square mile. He told me that it was not exact, but that the general placement is included in the most recent edition of his book. The observer can see Abies lasiocarpa (subalpine fir) from the trail at the lake with binoculars. This was the species, which caused Sawyer and Thornburg (mentioned above) great surprise and debate. We did not locate Juniperus occidentalis (western juniper), which has been added to the list.

However, we did hike the valley south, in order to explore the backside of the ridge and to scan with binoculars. For those conifer connoisseurs who are less inclined to go hiking, the diversity of trees is available on roads throughout the area. After it was all over, I think my most memorable achievement was car-conifering. If you can drive on a windy road at even 40 miles per hour and still point out a number of species, it will be a lot of fun! The next level past that is pointing out brooms. Now, we are talking ACS language!

Photographs by Leah and Dave Alcyon.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.

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