Record Sugar Pines Discovered in the Sierra Nevada

California is home to some incredibly impressive trees: oldest, tallest, and largest!

If you’re obsessed with finding big trees, California is a good place to look.  For over 30 years, Michael Taylor – a professional big tree hunter, a fan of sugar pines, and a long-time friend of the Sugar Pine Foundation – has been searching through California forests and finding arboreal giants.

In 2006, Michael co-discovered the tallest known living tree on Earth: 379.1  foot tall “Hyperion,” a Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in Redwood National Park. (Hyperion has grown to 381 feet since then!)  In 2015, he discovered the tallest known living sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) in Yosemite National Park: “Tioga Tower,” a 273.74 foot behemoth.

This past October, Michael made more major discoveries when he explored a new pocket of the western Sierra Nevada full of mammoth trees.  He ended up finding the second, third and sixth tallest known sugar pines – plus a record-breaking champion white fir (Abies concolor v. lowiana)!  Conveniently, all the trees are located quite close to one another – though their location must be kept secret to protect these remarkable specimens.

The two tallest sugar pines are very close in height: 267.5 feet and 267.15 feet, respectively.  The 267.15 foot tall tree, dubbed “Redonkulous,” is a massive 10.3 feet in diameter at breast height, or “dbh” as foresters say – hence the name.  Its slightly taller and still unnamed neighbor across the hill is only 7.3 feet dbh.  The new #6 tallest sugar pine, also unnamed but nearby, is 263.7 feet tall and 9.1 feet dbh.  Amazingly, amidst these huge sugar pines is also the tallest known white fir, which stands at 257.5 feet!

Michael’s findings are truly extraordinary – both in terms of the time he invests in locating the trees, and the enormous trees themselves.

For Michael – an engineer by training – what started as a hobby back in the 90s eventually became a “dream job” in 2019 because of his special expertise.

What’s his magic formula for discovering mammoth trees?  Michael has developed a unique, high-tech approach to finding where tall trees should be by pairing and processing freely available LiDAR data and Google Earth imagery to remotely scan forested areas for giant trees.  LiDAR is a method for measuring terrestrial features using laser beams and their reflections emitted from an airplane.  Government agencies like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and CalFire routinely run LiDAR flights and make the data publicly available.  Michael uses LiDAR data to create Canopy Height Models (CHMs), which visually display tree height – and sometimes even trunk thickness if ultra high resolution LiDAR is available – with different colors. 

An example of one of Michael’s Canopy Height Models (CHMs) overlayed atop Google Earth imagery: different colors represent differing tree heights.

By pasting his CHMs over Google Earth imagery, he can “see” exactly where the largest trees lie before ever setting foot in the field!   While Michael has driven countless dirt roads and hiked hundreds of miles through the woods in search of monster trees, he actually spends many more hours crunching data and hunting through computerized imagery before his ground-truthing expeditions in order to ensure a fruitful search.

This fall, amidst California’s devastating wildfires, Michael’s methods proved successful once again when he found Redonkulous and friends.  He pragmatically yet passionately notes, “I want to document these trees before they’re all gone.”  We agree that this is a noble and inspiring goal, and we’re very glad to be able to share the news of Michael’s latest findings with all you tree huggers and sugar pine lovers!

13 thoughts on “Record Sugar Pines Discovered in the Sierra Nevada”

    1. It is my understanding that the tallest Sugar Pine known has recently been identified in or near the South Grove of Giant Sequoia inside Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It may, or may not, be a part of the virgin mixed conifer forest added the the park in recent years, including a very large stand of Sugar Pines. The state park staff should be able to provide details.

      1. Hi Sanders,
        We ran your comment by Michael Taylor and here is what he said:

        That tree is the American Forests champion sugar pine. It stands about 240′, trunk volume is about 5,300 cubic feet. It’s in a tie with the Black Fox sugar pine but beats out Black Fox due to being 40′ taller. I have all the [data] for S Calaveras Grove and there are no sugar pine over 250′ there.

        Trees can be considered champions by height or by volume. In the case of this tree, it is massive but not tall. The tallest known living sugar pine is still Tioga Tower in Yosemite NP at 274 feet.

        Thanks for checking in!

      2. Wasn’t the Whalen Tree located near Dorrington (near Big Trees State Park) the oldest and largest ever documented? My boss was sad to have to fell it. I have many neat limb and burls from the tree I’ve been turning into art. I want to write something to go on a tag that explains the significance of the specimens and would like to be accurate. I was able to find information on the tree online in the past but none today. If anyone has any links or anything to share on what they may know about the Whalen Tree, I’d appreciate your help.

        1. The Whelan Tree grew outside Dorrington near the aptly named Sugar Pine Girl Scout Camp. It was only 208 feet tall, but it was the largest (by volume) sugar pine ever measured at nearly 9,000 cubic feet. John Muir was photographed by the tree in 1900. It was 618 years old when it was felled as a dying “hazard tree” due to infection and beetle activity in 2014.

  1. I am wondering what is the cold hardiness of this species – what is the lowest temperature they can survive?
    Regards, Michael Vinaver
    Los Angeles

    1. While we don’t exactly know the answer to this question, we do have circumstantial evidence from record lows recorded in South Lake Tahoe in 1972 and 1989: sugar pines seem to have survived -29°F!
      Also, according to the conifersociety.com, sugar pines are hardy to USDA Zone 7 — cold hardiness limit between 0° and 10°F (-17.7° and -12.2°C).
      We have referred this question to our experts and if we get any better answers back, we will let you know!

    2. I live in northeastern Indiana (zone 5a) and planted a sugar pine that I acquired from the foundation about three years ago. It was a very tiny seedling when I got it and it struggled the first couple of seasons. However, this year it appears to be doing better. If all goes well, it might just take off next year.

  2. Hi Sugar Pine Foundation:

    I am a morning Producer here at KHSL Action news now in Chico.
    We think the new tree discoveries are just amazing and are hoping to get a couple of pictures to use on our newscast this week. If you have any we could use, some images of Michael would be great as well.

    , Thank you and regards from the ANN team.

  3. I know the location of more beautiful big old Sugar Pine’s hoping that Michael Taylor will contact me so that I can show him.I am very excited to find out that there is a sugar pine foundation I love this tree immensely

  4. There is a very tall sugar pine near the southern entrance to Lassen Park right next to the road. I measured this tree using the Arboreal app on my android phone; it measured out at 76.1 m.
    I don’t know how accurate this is of course. Have you explored sugar pines up in that area as well?

    1. Hi Gary,
      Michael Taylor is actively searching for and measuring tall sugar pines in the Lassen area and other parts of California. We will let him know about your tall tree and report back if he knows of it or its official height.

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