Humans seem to be attracted to trees. We like trees in our yard, cute ornamental ones in our gardens, and vast forests of towering spruce and fir in our distant view. Here in Eagle County if you get up to a high overlook, there are times when millions of trees are within our gaze.
Trees make us feel good, and it is no wonder that the log cabin is an American icon. The cozy warmth that logs emanate when relaxing in a log structure is hard to beat. Whenever humans push out to the frontier, the boundary between settlement and vast wilderness, trees are often a plentiful resource.
Think about early settlers and the structures they built. They built shelter from hand-hewn logs shaped with an adz. The mines were also shored up with timbers. They burned wood in fireplaces to stay warm and to cook. Hot-burning charcoal was made in the earliest days to fire steam engines and smelters.
We even feel kinship with trees. Seeing a once beautiful tree turn brown and die makes us all wince a little bit. Witnessing a mighty spruce sway in the wind is a reminder of how we can stand tall, be strong and yet remain flexible enabling us to survive and thrive in the long term.
In the mountains, trees grow where there is sufficient moisture and warmth to support them. Trees in lower elevations generally enjoy a longer growing season, but limited water. High elevation trees get lots of moisture, but have a very short growing season when the temperature is warm enough to provide both water and new growth.
Areas that are dried by wind or sun will often support shrub communities. Shrub lands provide important forage for wildlife such as bighorns, elk, deer, rabbits and mice.
It enriches our experience to look out at a beautiful scene and know what kind of trees you are seeing both far and near. Trees are relatively easy to learn in this part of the Rocky Mountains because there are only a handful of hearty species can tough it out in the high mountains.
Imagine yourself relaxing in a quiet arid landscape in a low-elevation shrub community in western Eagle County. As you look east across the vast ascending landscape you eventually see high peaks rising jutting above tree line as if reaching for the heavens.
You lean back against a ponderosa pine while gazing at the bustling Eagle River at your feet. Water-loving willow bushes, and cottonwood trees line both banks. Clumps of alder hang over the river’s edge creating a tangle along a length of the shore. A blue spruce towers from a shaded riverside nook across the way.
Gazing up the mountain that rises from your feet, the sunniest slopes support juniper and pinions, while giant gnarled and twisted Douglas fir rise from the shaded gulches. One isolated slope is covered in a thicket of scrub oak. Only the tough survive in this dry and often windy climate.
As the mountains in your view rise higher you can see the soft look of faraway and lonely aspens stands occupying high slopes that enjoy both moisture and ample sunshine. In the winter, aspen and cottonwoods are the only tall trees locally that lose their leaves. Remember, cottonwoods always grow near creeks and streams because they require lots of water. In contrast, aspens tend to proliferate just outside of creek drainages or in extensive stands on mountainsides.
In the highest elevations thick sub-alpine forests blanket the flanks of the highest peaks. Engelmann Spruce and sub-alpine fir dominate the highest elevations all the way to tree line, and because they are shade tolerant, they also thrive on shady north-facing slopes and in gulches that receive limited sunlight.
Do you remember how to tell apart pine, spruce and fir? It’s easy; just pluck a few needles from a branch. Did the needles come off in a cluster of two or more? It must be a pine. Remember, “pines come in packages.”
Examples of local pines include the sun-loving lodgepole pine that occurs in great numbers on the sunny slopes of sub-alpine forests from elevations of about 7500 ft to 11,000 ft. The color of lodgepole pine is a striking yellow-green, and the needles create a bottlebrush look.
In western Eagle County relatively low-growing pinyon pines occupy lower elevations where the climate is generally dry and sunny. Ponderosa pines also prefer a warm dry climate and grow tall along the Colorado River, the Eagle River and up on Derby Mesa. Limber pines are relatively rare, but do grow locally on rocky windy exposed ridges where other trees cannot make it.
When you plucked the needles, did they pull off individually? Then you’re looking at a spruce or fir. Spruce needles are “square” and roll in a click, click, click fashion between your thumb and forefinger. Fir needles are “flat”, they are two-sided and typically will not roll. Breaking a fir needle in two and soaking up the aroma is always a pleasant experience.
When curious about what type of trees you’re looking at ask yourself a few simple questions. Is the climate here generally wet or dry? Is this a sunny slope or shady slope? Am I near a creek, river, or a spring? These clues can tell you a lot about what you’re seeing, even when looking from far away.