Call Her Big Red | The Source Weekly - Bend

Call Her Big Red

La Pine State Park is a popular spot for recreation—but its giant ponderosa remains the star attraction

Located about 150 feet from the Deschutes River in La Pine State Park, it rises higher to the sky than all other big ponderosa trees on the nearby landscape. Many of its branches are bigger than the other, younger ponderosa trees that populate the Deschutes National Forest.

It's known as a Pacific ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), and it claims the crown as the biggest and perhaps the oldest of its kind in the U.S.

It's been around longer than white settlement in North America—and may be around for hundreds of more years. It's affectionally known as the "Old One," but some people simply call it "Big Red."

It's also a sight La Pine State Park Manager Joe Wanamaker never grows tired of seeing.

Tree experts have calculated its age at over 500 years and perhaps as much as 600 years old, sprouting from the seeds of a cone around the years of 1400-1500 AD.

It has survived countless natural disasters including floods, fires, and earthquakes.

"It's believed that because it has that fire scar on it...that when they came through and logged the area...there was such a large defect in the tree that it was spared." —Joe Wanamaker

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Old trees elsewhere

There are older and larger trees of different species, such as Sitka pines in Oregon and Washington, Redwoods in northern California and southern Oregon, and the Giant Sequoia.

A juniper thought to be nearly 2,000 years old lives in the Badlands Wilderness east of Bend, and a ponderosa in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest southwest of Grants Pass is taller, but smaller at its girth. Still, Big Red is the champion of its class.

In 2013, an organization that documents the size of trees and protects old-growth forests—Ascending the Giants—climbed Big Red and measured it. The group determined the tree was a variety of ponderosa – a Pacific ponderosa, according to Wanamaker.

The group determined that Big Red was the biggest, based on points given for size of girth and height. While the Rogue River ponderosa is taller at 268 feet, it's not nearly as big around at its girth.

click to enlarge Call Her Big Red
Big Red may not be the tallest, but it's the biggest.
The Dimensions

Big Red is 162 feet tall. Some 25 years ago, it was taller, losing 30 feet during severe storms. Remnants of its top are found in a rubble pile nearby. Its girth is huge: 29 feet in circumference and 8.6 feet in diameter. It's estimated it contains 25,000 board feet of lumber – enough to build almost two homes. A typical 2,000 square foot house contains about 16,000 board feet of lumber.

One has to wonder, why was Big Red spared? When logging was at its height in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area was extensively logged. Old-growth trees were harvested and milled all over the area. But Wanamaker points to a scar at the base of Big Red that likely saved the tree from harvest.

"It's believed that because it has that fire scar on it...that when they came through and logged the area...there was such a large defect in the tree that it was spared," he said.

Loggers most likely chose to leave the tree, thinking the scar cut down on the quality and the amount of wood they could mill. "The scar goes right up the butt of the tree, and that's usually where the best wood at the base is found. Luckily for us, they left it alone," Wanamaker says.

With its proximity to the Deschutes River, Wanamaker also says Big Red enjoys an aquatic environment. "It's got all the water it needs. It's in a prime growing area – a bowl where water collects." He also says most of the competition around it was logged, so it had plenty of room to grow and thrive.

How Long Can It Live?

Wanamaker says it's hard to forecast how long Big Red may live, but he speculates it may live several hundred more years. Ponderosa trees typically live between 300 to 600 years. While much of its life span depends on nature, some depends on the public.

"The tree was being loved to death. People would go up and give the tree a hug," he says, which presented a danger to it.

Foot traffic was compacting the soil around the roots. While ponderosas have a deep tap root, they also have many roots near the surface. In 2000, workers built a fence around Big Red to keep foot traffic away.

Easy Access to Big Red

Today, visitors can easily get near—but not right up to—Big Red. It's even ADA accessible. A paved path leads from a parking area to the tree only a quarter mile away. A slightly longer trail, part of a 10-mile system of trails in the park, leads from a second parking area to the tree.

La Pine State Park is open year-round and has seen an explosion in use over the past two decades. Its campsites remain open from May to October with an 80 to 90 percent occupancy rate. Several cabins require reservations up to nine months in advance.

And while people recreate in the park in many ways—including camping, hiking, biking, or launching paddle boards on the river, Big Red remains the star attraction.

(Central Oregon Daily's Brian Jennings produces 'The Great Outdoors' seen every Wednesday on KOHD (ABC) at 6 PM and KBNZ (CBS) at 7 PM).