Conifers of the California Mountain Trails
Discover the immense diversity of conifers in Northern California's Klamath Mountains.
In 2009, just after the school bell rang for the last time that year, and my 30 seventh grade students ran out the door for summer, I jumped into my car and headed to the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California to start the first-ever, official thru-hike of the Bigfoot Trail.
I am the first person to plan, map, and hike the Trail, which I created by connecting existing trails and Forest Service roads. I decided to name it after Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, the large and mysterious creature purported to inhabit the mountains in this part of the country.
A thru-hike is a hike on an established end-to-end, long-distance trail, with continuous footsteps, that is completed within one calendar year. Over the next 20 days and 360 miles, I walked, mostly alone, on my way across the Klamath Mountains to Crescent City, CA.
A Hike Amongst the Conifers of Klamath Mountains
I first cooked up the idea of this hike in 2007 with my friend, mentor, preeminent botanist, and conifer expert, John O. Sawyer. We envisioned it as a way to connect existing trails, roads, wilderness, and botanical wonders across the Klamath Mountains.
This project would combine hiking and natural history by defining a new thruhike in one of the most speciesrich, temperate, coniferous forests on Earth. North America holds two of the most species-rich, temperate forests in the world: those of Southern Appalachia and those of the Klamath Mountains.
What do these locations have in common? Glaciers and seas did not completely cover them during the Cenozoic Era, and the mountains were monadnocks, or islands above the plains, offering temperate refuges to plants and animals over time. Both locations have historically maintained a moderate climate.
Conifer Diversity in the Californian Klamath Mountains
These areas are beyond the southern terminus of the enormous continental ice sheets of the Pleistocene Epoch (commonly called the Ice Age). Some plants undoubtedly remained in these regions through historic climatic change, while other species repeatedly moved in as the climate cooled, and the glaciers pushed southward, or, then, species moved out and followed other glaciers northward.
These dynamic fluctuations have cradled plant diversity in these two unique regions. The current consequences of these historical patterns are that the Klamaths and the Southern Appalachians have grand floristic diversity, a concentration of endemic plants, and a fundamental importance to the forest floras of nearby regions.
Per unit area, the Klamath Mountains and the Southern Appalachian Mountains hold more plant taxa than any others in North America. Plant genera such as Cornus (dogwood), Asarum (wild ginger), and various conifers (Pinus, Abies, Thuja, Chamaecyparis) grow a continent apart, while providing a comparative glimpse of ancient floras.
A Conifer Botanical Museum in the Mountains
Complex interactions between biotic and abiotic factors have encouraged and nurtured biodiversity in the Klamath Mountains over millions of years. The region is a botanical museum, hiding relicts of epochs gone by, which are called paleoendemics, such as Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana).
The region is also a cradle, promoting the adaptive evolution of new species, which are called neoendemics, like Baker’s cypress (or Modoc cypress, Cupressus bakeri). Complex climates and soils nurture biodiversity. The area also has a central location and continuity with other mountain ranges along the Pacific Cordillera.
Across this landscape, a mosaic of habitats mix at a crossroads of five biotic regions—Cascade Range, Oregon Coast Range, Great Basin, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada—each helping to define the Klamath Mountains.
Within the geologic boundaries defining these complex habitat mosaics of the Klamath Mountains, there are approximately 3,540 taxa (species, subspecies, and varieties) of vascular plants and up to 38 species of conifers, depending on how one delineates the region. In addition to plants, the region holds exceptional diversity in amphibians, mammals, and birds.
A Glimpse of an Older Coniferous Forest
In the Tertiary Epoch, beginning around 65 million years ago, a temperate forest prevailed here, unlike any other in the history of the Earth. In this Arcto-Tertiary forest, as it is called—existing on a landmass that would soon become North America, Europe, and Asia—a blending of conifers and broad-leaved trees dominated the landscape.
With continental drift and climate change, the offspring of these great forests became fragmented. Over time, ice ages came and went, causing a change in flora, as increasingly dry conditions became more common.
The descendants of the Arcto-Tertiary forest became less extensive and more isolated. These progenitors remained, finding refuge in the higher and cooler regions that maintained a climate more similar to that of the early Tertiary—in what we now call northwest California and southwest Oregon.
Here, today, we glimpse a forest that is similar to those of the earlier epoch. Holdouts include, but are not limited to, Brewer spruce, Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica), and Kalmiopsis (Kalmiopsis leachiana).
The Bigfoot Trail
The Bigfoot Trail highlights the immense ecological diversity of the ancient forests of Northwest California and other unique landscapes by connecting existing trails and remote Forest Service roads. It passes through the hamlets of Hayfork, Junction City, Seiad Valley, the town of Crescent City, and gets close to Etna and Hiouchi.
Trekkers from all over the world have hiked either parts or all of the trail since 2009, with at least 40 thru-hikers having completed the route. These folks not only bring monetary rewards to local communities, but also leave with a love for this unique region, as they venture on a conifer treasure hunt.
There is now a non-profit organization overseeing the establishment of the route. The Bigfoot Trail Alliance is a 501(c) (3) that is working to support the establishment and maintenance of this 360-mile route through the Klamath Mountains. The BFTA fosters a community committed to constructing, maintaining, promoting, and protecting—in perpetuity—the Bigfoot Trail.
Visit the Bigfoot Trail website to learn more about the trail and the mission of the organization. After the Summer 2019 ACS National Meeting in Oregon, the American Conifer Society became a partner with the Bigfoot Trail Alliance. For that, we thank you all!
Text and photographs by Michael Kauffmann/Bigfoot Trail Alliance.
This article was originally published in the Fall 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.