It is the year 1438. High on a mountain ridge in a part of the world hardly anyone even knows about, pine seeds grow in cones at the top of a tree. A large, gray and black bird collects the seeds and stores them in an underground cache. A winter passes and the cache is not disturbed, not needed for food. Seeds germinate; trees grow. Because of their close proximity, they fuse together into one trunk.
Centuries pass; people come; the landscape changes. And still the magnificent tree grows, with branches now reaching a hundred feet high, providing shelter and seeds for new generations of nut-cracking birds.Trees and birds; past and present; routine and happenstance. The story of the Limber Pine, like so much in nature, is one of cycles and connections. In fact, that's the theme of a trail to the giant tree, says Ron Vance, outdoor recreation planner with the Cache-Wasatch National Forest. The Limber Pine Nature Trail runs along the 7,800-foot Bear Lake Summit in Logan Canyon, a mile-long track that takes you in a loop to the huge old tree and back.
A marker at the trailhead invites visitors to take "a gentle walk through a land filled with connections." And all along the self-guided track are places to see the links between such varied things as sunshine and snowfall, habitat and environment, earth and sky, shape and function as they apply to this little corner of the outdoor world.
As naturalist John Muir said: "When you try to change any single thing, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
At one time, it was thought that the huge tree that gives the trail its name, with its 25-foot circumference, was the largest and oldest living limber pine tree anywhere. The age of a tree that size would have to be 2,000 years old, botanists thought. But then they found that the one tree is actually five separate trees, fused together, and that it has been growing on this ridge for only 560 years. Still, that's a no-less remarkable achievement: 1438, after all, was long before the time of Columbus.
Equally remarkable is the relationship between limber pines and a bird called Clark's nutcracker. This bird will peck the tree's seeds out of the cones until it gets a mouthful and then will fly miles away to cache the seeds for leaner times. The birds bury far more seeds than they consume; those that aren't eaten remain in the ground, where they germinate. The pines are dependent upon the birds for this seed planting; otherwise, seeds would simply fall to the forest floor and be eaten by squirrels and chipmunks.
The hike to the Limber Pine has long been one of the favorites in Logan Canyon, appealing to people of all ages due to its short length and fairly easy grade. This summer, a new trail opened that is wider and even less steep. This will make it wheelchair-accessible, similar to the River Walk trail in the lower canyon, and provide for even more use and access.
The tree alone is well worth the walk, but it is not all the path has to offer. Even though it is a short hike, the Limber Pine Trail takes you through several distinct habitat areas. You start out in densely growing conifers, mostly Douglas fir, Alpine fir and Englemann spruce, that shade the forest floor and crowd out other trees with their fragrant branches.
Soon the conifers give way to aspens, growing in groves that clearly demonstrate the links between environment and plant life: Trees that have been twisted and bent by snowfall, trees that have been shaped by the wind. Tortured-looking aspens bear record that winters are harsh here, marked by eight feet or more of snowfall and filled with strong canyon winds that can "flag" the trees (causing branches and needles to grow only on one side).
Then come open sections filled with sagebrush and grasses and panoramic views. Curlyleaf mahogany trees grow along the south-facing slopes of the trail. Their evergreen leaves are a favorite winter food for deer and moose that inhabit the area.
And at the top of the summit, where water on one side flows down to Bear Lake and on the other to the Cache Valley, the majestic limber pines grow. These trees are characterized by needles packaged in groups of five and by an open crown rather than the pointy top of most conifers. The big, old tree is most famous, but others also grow here. They really are beautiful trees, says Vance.
The new Limber Pine Trail officially "opened" Aug. 21 - mostly they just shifted markers from the old trail to the new and began encouraging people to take the new path, says Vance. For the most part, the new trail runs parallel to the old, although in some places, to get the grade they needed, they had to take a slightly different route, says Vance. Eventually, most of the old trail will be closed in and covered over with vegetation. One section of the narrow track, which runs along the top of the ridge and provides a view of the "sinks" area, will be left. Because of the narrowness of the ridge, they weren't able to run the new trail along that area, says Vance.
That ridge is a nice scenic overlook, allowing a view of the area where the coldest temperatures in the contiguous United States have been recorded - minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit. But another especially nice view is also offered on the new trail, a place where you can see the turquoise waters of Bear Lake. The lake was not easily seen from the old track.
So far, says Vance, response to the new trail has been mostly positive. There have been a few complaints, largely from people who have hiked the trail for 20 or 30 years and don't like the change.
And, he admits, it doesn't look as good now as it will when vegetation has a chance to grow back into some of the areas where grading took place. But another plus with the new trail, he says, is that the lower grade will reduce soil erosion.
A lot of volunteers, mostly local Scout groups, helped with the trail. "The whole trail crew has also done a tremendous job," he says. And more volunteers will be brought in to help close down the old trail. That involvement provides another important link - with the community - as does the fact that the trail is well-suited to school-age kids. Already, says Vance, they've had teachers call to schedule field trips. And the trail markers are designed to be easily understood by kids this age, says Vance. It is interesting for them, as for anyone else, to see how everything in the natural world is so intertwined.
Connections: plants and animals; time and space; nature and man. These are the things you can find on a gentle walk in the woods. Think about that, invites a marker at the Limber Pine Trail's end. And think about this: "The clearest way into the universe," said John Muir, "is through a forest wilderness."