Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Remembering the Thick Pine Forests in our Mountains

The south face of the San Gabriel Mountains that loom over our valley are stark and majestic. In the late afternoon when the slanting sunlight brings out the pinks and oranges of the rock faces, our mountains look very much like desert mountains, bare and rocky like those above Palm Springs or Death Valley.

But that wasn’t always the case. The mountain faces above us used to be interspersed with deep green and boasted thick forests of a conifer unique to Southern California, the Bigcone Douglas Fir. Dense stands of 50 to 100 foot tall trees blanketed each canyon. Cook, Dunsmore, Shields and most spectacularly Pickens Canyon were cool and shaded under the cover of thousands of trees. They would have been thick near the streambeds, diminishing into patches and single trees up the steep canyon walls nearly to the ridgelines and peaks. How far down they crept into the valley floor we don’t know, but since the lower elevation for these trees is 1,000-feet, we can guess that at least a few of them grew in the streambeds that snaked across the alluvial fans that make up our valley floor.

Bigcone Douglas Firs are quite unique. This larger relative to the common Douglas Fir is extremely limited in its range, growing exclusively in the mountain ranges near the coast of Southern California and nowhere else in the world. Their range extends only from San Diego County north as far as Santa Barbara, and as far inland as Tehachapi and Kern County. They’re well suited to our climate, being drought-tolerant and wildfire resistant. The trees have good longevity and within stands of surviving Bigcones, 250 years old and older is commonplace. One tree sampled yielded an age of 622 years, and larger and presumably older trees exist that have not had their ages measured. The largest known Bigcone, dubbed “Old Glory,” grows in San Antonio Canyon near Mt. Baldy, and was measured (before a storm took the top off) at 145-feet tall.

Although now missing from our mountains (a few lone giants can still be spotted high in our canyons), they can easily be viewed on the backside of our range. Take a drive up Big Tujunga Canyon or Angeles Crest Highway and look into the north and east facing canyons along the highway. Those tall dark pines you see clumped in the ravines are likely the Bigcones, and looking at these forested canyons you can envision what our mountains must have looked like.

The Bigcone Douglas Fir has a very distinctive look to it and once one learns its characteristics, they’re instantly recognizable. They have a ragged, sparse appearance and their branches tend to droop downward, rather that turning upward like other pines. This drooping look led to its miscategorization as a spruce tree by pioneers and one often reads in early stories of the “Bigcone Spruce” that was here for only a short time after the white man first arrived.

Sadly, that last sentence will serve as an intro to next week’s subject – What happened to all the trees? Quite simply and as you may already guess: logging.

But why didn’t they grow back? Too many fires? Erosion? Smog? Whatever the reason, there’s hope for the future. We have a group of visionaries here in our valley who want to restore at least one of our canyons back to the dense cool forest it once was. This group of volunteers, organized under the leadership of Glendale Park Department’s Trails and Open Space program, has in the last year planted and watered nearly 100 Bigcone Fir saplings in Deukmejian Park, and more plantings are planned. The City staff and the volunteers have tracked down nurseries that are growing baby Bigcones, and are caring for the seedlings at the park. This Saturday, Nov. 19, from 8 a.m. to noon you can join them for a planting session, and to take a look at their work so far. When you go, envision the park’s trails in 20 years, cool and shady from the big trees.

It’ll be just like looking into the past.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at