They’re out there. Weathered trunks of scaled bark that feed into spires of canopies that eclipse light. At their base, roots that have spent decades burrowing into soil. There is precious little forest in the Northeast that has not been logged or grazed, but stands of undisturbed trees 150 years or older do exist. Old growth makes up less than 1 percent of eastern forests and may be clusters of hardwoods or towering stands of white pine. The following native forests—accessible by hiking trails—represent some of the most awe-inspiring old trees in the region.
More than 500 acres of virgin forest stand on the western flank of a glacial cirque in the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Left alone by loggers, a tiered collection of native trees shift with changing elevations. On the lower slopes, hardwoods like sugar maple, American beech, and yellow birch dominate; many of them may be over 400 years old. At about 2,500 to 3,000 feet, red spruce take over, joined by aged balsam fir higher up. Take the Dicey’s Mill Trail to bisect The Bowl.
Distance: 4.6 miles
White Mountain National Forest, N.H.
On the slopes of Mount Nancy east of Bartlett, N.H., the median age of trees is about 254 years. One of the largest remaining tracts of virgin spruce-fir forest in the state, the old growth is accessible via the Nancy Pond Trail, from Route 302. The trail first passes through second-growth northern hardwood forests and climbs before shifting to red spruce and balsam fir at Nancy Cascades waterfall. These ancient trees may be up to 30 inches around and as high as 85 feet.
Distance: 6 miles round-trip
Information: www.dred.state.nh.us/divisions/forestandlands/bureaus/naturalheritage/NancyBrook.htm; White Mountain Guide, 28th ed. (AMC Books)
Mohawk Trail State Forest
The Mahican-Mohawk Trail in the northern Berkshires retraces a historic Native American footpath used for travel between the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys. Clusters of virgin white pine still frame that route and include the state’s largest white pine, the Jake Swamp Pine. The tree, which is 160 feet tall and boasts a 40-inch girth, stands in a grove of giants called the Trees of Peace. Hemlock and black birch 150 to 250 years old are found higher up on a 1,460-foot ridge.
Distance: Approximately one mile
Information: www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/mhwk.htm; The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast (Sierra Club)
Sages Ravine and Bear Mountain
Mount Riga State Park, Conn.
In a 600-foot ravine, guarded for centuries by two cascades, stand 100 or more acres of ancient forest, Connecticut’s largest old-growth stand. Straddling the border with Massachusetts, small pockets of hemlock 200 to 350 years old rear up 110 feet into the air on Bear Mountain’s southeast slope. The Appalachian Trail climbs this peak and descends into the ravine. Park at the trailhead on Route 41.
Distance: 8.1 miles round-trip
Information: The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast (Sierra Club); Old Growth in the East, a Survey
Saranac Lake, N.Y.
New York’s Adirondack Park, comprised of 2.8 million public acres, contains the East’s largest tracts of ancient forests—more than 300,000 acres by some estimates. Much of the old growth is reached only by bushwhack, but 3,352-foot Ampersand Mountain, which overlooks the Saranac lakes region, provides easy access to elder trees. The trail departs from Route 3 and the level walk for the first 1.5 miles passes through first-class stands of sugar maple and yellow birch (considered by some to be the most impressive in the state) that are 300 to 400 years old.
Distance: 2.8 miles to the summit
Information: www.adk.org; Adirondack Trails: Northern Region (ADK)
Five Ponds Wilderness
Cranberry Lake, N.Y.
Only three trails puncture this 95,525-acre wilderness area in the west-central Adirondacks. Experts estimate there are more than 40,000 acres of ancient trees, the largest known tract of contiguous unlogged forest in the Northeast. Stands of white pine, hemlock, and sugar maple, from 250 to 400 years old with diameters as great as 4.5 feet, are scattered amidst the area’s dozens of hills and ponds. The Great Storm of 1995 destroyed 10,000 acres, but clusters of primeval trees exist along the 3.6-mile High Falls Loop Trail and the adjoining 1.25-mile Cat Mountain Trail.
Distance: 4.85 miles to Cat Mountain Summit
Information: Adirondack Park Agency, 518-891-4050; The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast (Sierra Club)
Cook Forest State Park
Cook Forest State Park, in western Pennsylvania, is home to the tallest trees in the Northeast. Roughly 1,500 acres of the park are rooted in old stock, including majestic stands of white pine and hemlock. In the forest cathedral area, the region’s tallest tree, the Longfellow Pine, stands at 181 feet, dwarfing nearby giants like the Seneca Pine (172 feet) and 60 other white pines standing straight and tall at over 150 feet. Hemlocks cluster beneath these behemoths. They are over 125 feet high.
Distance: 1.2-mile loop on Longfellow Trail
Information: www.cookforest.com; The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast (Sierra Club)