They soak up carbon from our air, protect our soil, and provide homes for birds and other animals. They stand tall and majestic, inspiring wonder and awe. And every December, they even let us decorate and sing songs about them. These 9 national parks will deepen your love for those special sentinels of nature: trees.
1. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
The weathered, curiously twisted bristlecone pines at Great Basin are some of the oldest living organisms in the world, surviving in isolated groves through centuries of harsh weather. When scientists felled one of these ancient pines, named Promethius, for research in 1964, they discovered it was about 4,900 years old, the oldest known tree at the time. Though none of the park’s current trees are known to be as old as Promethius, some have stood in high-elevation groves for thousands of years. Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah are also home to these long-lived, fascinatingly shaped pines.
2. Congaree National Preserve, South Carolina
This preserve protects one of the oldest-growth forests on the East Coast, with bald cypress, water tupelo, cedar, and pine trees so ancient, hiking and canoeing among them feels like stepping back into another century. These spectacular trees escaped clear-cutting largely due to their location. Though a logging company had purchased much of the land by the early 1900s, the area was so difficult to access with heavy machinery, the company suspended its operations after only a decade, leaving most of the trees intact. As a result, even the “knees” of the park’s majestic cypress—the knobs that rise up from the trees’ extensive root systems—can sometimes grow taller than a man.
3. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
The ʻōhiʻa tree is a type of myrtle native to the Hawaiian Islands with striking lehua flowers made up of many colorful stamens. The tree is highly adaptable, growing directly on the park’s volcanic rock—though it grows taller in more favorable conditions, including in the island’s cloud forests. According to Hawaiian mythology, ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were lovers. The volcano goddess Pele fell in love with ʻŌhiʻa, and when he rejected her advances, she turned him into a tree. The other gods took pity on Lehua and transformed her into a flower so she could be joined forever with ʻŌhiʻa. As the legend goes, when someone picks a lehua flower, it will rain on the same day, from the tears of the lovers being separated.
4. Mojave National Preserve, California
If you want to immerse yourself in the otherworldly beauty of the giant yucca plants known as Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park is, of course, a classic choice. Just don’t overlook nearby Mojave National Preserve. This underappreciated desert park is home to the largest and densest Joshua tree forest in the world—with fewer crowds to share the views with. Take a stroll on the Teutonia Peak Trail in the Cima Dome region of the park to wander among the twisting branches and spiked leaves of these magnificent trees, which look like friendly characters from a Dr. Seuss book.
5. Olympic National Park, Washington
This Northwest park is home to lush, moss-covered forests with remarkably large primeval trees, including several “champion” trees—the largest known examples of particular species found anywhere on the planet. It’s no wonder that some call this region the Valley of the Rain Forest Giants. These towering trees include the world’s largest Sitka spruce, which measures an impressive 191 feet tall and nearly 17.7 feet in diameter, as well as the largest western red cedar and the largest hemlock, among other record-breaking behemoths.
6. Everglades National Park, Florida
Mangroves thrive in marine environments where few trees can survive, having adapted over years to filter salt water and withstand waves with their complex roots. Not only are mangroves hardy survivors, they also protect coastal areas from erosion and offer habitat to a variety of species, from oysters to birds to algae. The trees’ dense root systems even play an important role providing shelter for juvenile fish and other small aquatic animals. The Everglades feature the most abundant groves of these trees in the Western Hemisphere.
7. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Though the peak fall foliage season has passed in most of the country, the trees in Petrified Forest have featured a rainbow of brilliant colors year-round for centuries. More than 200 million years ago, these logs were buried so deeply in sediment that little oxygen could reach them, slowing their process of decay. The wood gradually absorbed minerals and crystallized over hundreds of thousands of years into almost pure quartz. Bits of iron, manganese, and other minerals created the dazzling spectrum of color in this ancient wood.
8. Redwood National and State Parks, California
The world’s tallest known tree, dubbed Hyperion, is a redwood growing in this jointly managed network of federal and state-owned parks protecting some of the country’s most spectacular old-growth forests. Even among groves of the world’s tallest trees, Hyperion towers above them at a staggering 379 feet, four inches tall. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty! Though the location is kept secret to protect the tree, this video shows scientist Jim Spickler climbing Hyperion to measure its record-setting height.
9. President’s Park, Washington, D.C.
In a national tradition dating back to 1923, the president himself lights this elaborately decorated tree in front of a cheering crowd at the White House. This year, the oldest park ranger in the National Park System, the celebrated Betty Soskin, will be joining the president as part of the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Surrounding this enormous spruce is a walkway known as the Pathway of Peace, featuring 56 smaller trees representing each U.S. state and territory and the District of Columbia. The event will kick off on December 3 with weeks of free events to follow, including musical performances and a special workshop where children can visit with Santa.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.