Our guided Yellowstone backpacking tours are in the wild back-country of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. Big Wild Adventures has been leading Yellowstone hiking tours for about 37 years, and most of our treks are in forested wilderness punctuated by mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers and large beautiful meadows. Often, the first question we hear from our clients is “what kind of trees are these?” Because Yellowstone is mostly a high elevation plateau with dry, cold climate and potential year-round frost in most areas of the park, tree diversity is low, simply because few species can withstand such climatic rigors. And if you read Backpacker Magazine, you might think that much of Yellowstone is covered with ponderosa pine, the most widespread pine tree in the western U.S. In fact, a few years ago I was quite surprised to read about a Backpacker Magazine writer’s joy in sleeping under Yellowstone’s ponderosas. Trouble is, there are no ponderosa pines in Yellowstone National Park. Really. None at all.
On the other hand, lodge-pole pine is ubiquitous over most of Yellowstone except for portions of the north-central part of the park, which are lower elevation and therefore encompass warmer, drier country than elsewhere. In this drier realm, Douglas-fir is the major tree species, with limber pine and Rocky Mountain Juniper scattered about, especially on dry rocky slopes and ridges. Quaking aspen is the only common deciduous tree in Yellowstone, and it is making a comeback, partly due to wolf-predation on elk, creatures that love to munch aspen seedlings. Aside from a smattering of cottonwood trees along the Lamar River and a few other park waterways, all of the other trees you’re going to encounter while backpacking in Yellowstone, like the lodge-pole pines and Douglas-firs, are conifers. Those trees are Engelmann Spruce, subalpine fir and whitebark pine, a high-elevation cousin of the limber pine. These are the three species that, along with lodge-pole, dominate the high country. And that’s it! By my count, that makes 9 tree species, although there may be some Colorado blue spruce along the Snake River near the southern boundary. Compare that with the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, an area less than a quarter the size of Yellowstone but with over 130 tree species growing in a wet, mild southern Appalachian climate with a long frost-free season. In Yellowstone, by contrast, learning to identify trees is simple; if you can count to nine or ten, you can learn to identify all of the trees you could possibly encounter while backpacking in Yellowstone with Big Wild Adventures!