Wander Woman: Embark on the tourism of trees

When planning an adventure across southeast Utah last week, my husband and I pinpointed the usual destinations: Three national parks, a pair of state parks and a slot canyon in the Muddy Creek Wilderness. We beheld some of Utah’s natural wonders, including arches, natural bridges and unique rock formations called hoodoos (also known among the locals as goblins).

But we set our sights on one more wonder off the beaten path: Pando the Trembling Giant.

Pando isn’t one of the state’s iconic rock formations, canyons or mountains. Pando is a tree.

More accurately, it’s a grove of 40,000 trees. The massive aspen shares a single root system with thousands of individual but genetically identical trunks across 106 acres in Fishlake National Forest. Science advisers for the Friends of Pando organization say it’s the largest tree in the world, and its root system is one the oldest (estimated between 8,000 and 13,000 years old).

Pando the Trembling Giant is a quaking aspen grove of about 40,000 individual trunks that are part of a single tree through a 106-acre interconnected root system. The clonal grove stands in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.

My travel bucket list is full of trees: Redwood National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Joshua Tree National Park, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the live oaks and Spanish moss of the South. I can’t help but feel reverence toward the giants of nature that have stood for generations and will persist beyond my lifetime. The visit to Pando checked one more tree off my list.

While the sprawling aspen was a nearly 1,500-mile journey, Starved Rock Country has a few tourist-attracting trees closer to home.

One of these trees blipped onto my radar in 2022 thanks to the Bureau County tourism guide. Near the western border of Starved Rock Country is the village of Mineral. About 3.5 miles south of Mineral, near the intersection of County Road 100 E and County Road 1300 N, is a burr oak known as the Witness Tree.

Estimated to be more than 250 years old, the Witness Tree earned its name from being used as a reference point, or a “witness point,” when the railroad was built near Mineral. Before that, it served as a meeting spot for the Potawatomi people, led by Chief Shabbona, and the Sauk and Fox people, according to Illinois River Road. The Merl Heise family donated the Witness Tree’s small parcel of land to the Bureau County Soil and Water Conservation District in 1944 to ensure its preservation.

The Witness Tree is a more than 250-year-old burr oak in rural Bureau County, about 3.5 miles south of Mineral. The Bureau County Soil and Water Conservation District manages the tree's preservation.

For those who seek the sprawling oak, it’s easy to find. In addition to its large size, a white fence circles the base of the tree and a sign designates the spot.

While the Witness Tree can be seen from the road, another tourism tree in Starved Rock Country must be seen on foot. Spring Lake Nature Park in Streator is home to Big Tree Trail, which loops around a more than 200-year-old cottonwood tree. The goliath tree “is arguably one of the largest in the state,” according to Streator Tourism.

Although I haven’t heard anyone officially refer to the cottonwood as Big Tree, it’s the name I adopted for it, in part because of the trail’s name and in part because in grade school, one of my favorite short stories by Mary and Conrad Buff was titled “Big Tree,” in which a giant sequoia recounts its life story.

The first time I stood at the base of Big Tree in 2019, I was reminded of another childhood story – I felt like Jack gazing up a beanstalk that leads to a world of giants.

One of Starved Rock Country’s best-known tourism trees is a ghost in local memory now. The 2017 tornado that struck Naplate and Ottawa damaged the white oak known as the “wedding tree” at Buffalo Rock State Park. The tree was a popular backdrop for couples’ photos, but by 2020 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources had to remove the remainder of the dying tree.

Trees are long-lived, but they’re not immortal. While wandering the Pando grove in Utah, this reality was front and center. Each trunk of Pando lives about 150 years, but deer and elk like to eat young stems and bark, which weakens the interconnected grove. Portions of the grove are now protected by chain-link fence in an effort to keep animals out and regenerate certain areas.

The centuries-long lifespan of trees can lull us into believing they’ll be here forever, but the Buffalo Rock wedding tree and Pando’s threats from animals and disease are a reminder of their impermanence. They are vulnerable to their environment, no matter how many rings count the years in their trunks.

The positive side of trees becoming tourism destinations is the more people stand in their presence, the more likely they are to care about tree preservation. Sometimes seeing truly does mean believing in a tree’s worth.

See them while they stand, and let them draw your eyes and imagination skyward.

Julie Barichello is the editor of Starved Rock Country Magazine and is a graphic designer for Shaw Media’s niche publications. She can be contacted at jbarichello@shawmedia.com.

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