This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Old Growth In The East

From Florida to Maine, rare photo opportunities can be found among forests with tree stands dating back to the 18th century and earlier

Alaska AdventureThere are few of us who have stood among the ancient colossal old trees of the West without a feeling of awe and reverence. If you have ever visited the enormous redwood forests of California’s coast, or perhaps seen the giant Douglas fir and Sitka spruce found in Washington’s Olympic National Park, you have some sense of the quietude and feelings of serenity that permeate these forests.

Fortunately, the West Coast isn’t the only place to visit and photograph such magnificent places. There are areas from Florida to Maine where giant old-growth trees still exist. And although they’re not nearly as large or tall as some of the western behemoths, these relict woodlands are still giant by any standard and serve as a remarkable link to our country’s natural ancient heritage.

So What Exactly Is Old Growth?
In the East, any forest stands with a large number of trees more than 120-150 years in age are considered to be attaining characteristics one would consider “old growth.” These include large bole (trunk) size, distinctive bark found only on older individuals, buttressed or flared bases, and boles with few lower branches. Because the average size of eastern old growth doesn’t come close to the size of western trees, generally any tree over 30 inches in diameter is ascribed old-growth status.

The presence of large standing snags and many large logs on the forest floor is indicative of older unlogged forests. You’ll often find a unique pit and mound topography that’s been created by the huge root masses of toppled trees. There’s also just a different “feel” to these forests—in many cases, the understory is more open, with less brush and saplings, giving a sense of spaciousness not found in younger forest stands.

Among the oldest eastern trees you’ll find are white cedars. White cedars older than 300 years are common, and many exceed 450 years. Some have reached the age of nearly 1,600 years.

In Longwood, Fla., a massive bald cypress resides in Big Tree Park and is estimated to be 3,500 years old, while another bald cypress in Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, La., is estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 years old. But these are rare exceptions. Most eastern species never reach such antiquity even under the best circumstances. Trees of 300 to 500 years in age are about the limit for most eastern species and are considered to be old growth.

Photographing Old-Growth Forests
Because of the dominance of deciduous species, many of these eastern forest tracts are quite colorful in autumn. Indeed, the fall may be thOld Growth In The Easte best time of year to visit any of these sites since biting bugs are no longer an issue, and the colorful foliage brings an added dimension to the composition.

Don’t neglect photography after the fall leaf drop. Many of the sites dominated by hardwood trees become easier to photograph because of the lack of distracting leaves on smaller trees and shrubs. In northern areas, visiting such sites on skis or snowshoes in the winter can be easier than access in the non-snow months when wet or rough terrain may make hiking difficult. In the spring, prior to leaf-out, many of these forest stands have major blooms of wildflowers that spring from the forest floor.

Although not significantly different from other landscape photography, photographing in a forest takes a bit more skill than generating awesome grand-scale landscapes. Keep in mind general elements of composition. As a rule, simplification makes a better photo. There are often many distracting elements in a forest, so search for new angles or positions to place your camera so you can avoid clutter in your final composition.

Don’t forget some close-ups of the forest floor detail, such as flowers or perhaps fungi on a rotten log. Keep in mind things like form, shape, color and patterns. The repetition of tree trunks like columns or the way color contrasts with a background can make for a nice composition. Be sure to study the edges of your image to make sure there are no out-of-focus elements that “invade” the photo.

I tend to shoot with natural light, but a minor amount of fill-flash might be useful to bring out the shadows in what might otherwise be dark recesses of the forest. Use such flash judiciously. Many images I’ve seen taken with artificial flash look just that—artificial.

Since old-growth trees are so rare in the East, there’s always a need for images that portray the size of trees, especially when lobbying to garner some protection for them. Placing a person in the photo often helps to define the tree’s dimensions for viewers. If I have no one around to model for me, I frequently set the self-timer on the camera and then jump quickly next to the tree to capture “someone” beside the trunk. Such shots may be “record” shots, but they can still be artfully done.


Ecological Value And Conservation
Perhaps because of their rarity, there’s a growing interest in locating, documenting and protecting these relict old-growth stands. Large boles (trunks), particularly those with cavities, are used by everything from nesting birds, flying squirrels, bats and even black bear. Large trees also take longer to rot, which means snags and downed logs remain intact longer, providing home and food for insects, mammals and birds. When they fall into streams, large trees provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life. And the rotting logs often act as nurse logs for new trees, providing nutrients and moisture to young seedlings.

Of the remaining tracts of old growth, many are relatively inaccessible, which is one reason why they escaped the ax in the first place. The greatest concentration of eastern old-growth forest is ironically found in one of the most populous states—New York. The majority of this acreage—as much as 500,000 acres—is located in the Adirondack State Park and the Catskill State Park. An estimated 40 percent, or 208,648 acres, of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina is considered to be virgin forest.

From there, the remnants get considerably smaller. Baxter State Park in Maine contains nearly 24,000 acres of never-logged high-elevation balsam fir forest. Most of the remaining old growth is found in parcels of 5,000 acres or less. Indeed, many of the remaining tracts are smaller than 100 acres and so scattered that anyone could potentially “discover” previously unknown stands of ancient trees along the East Coast.

If you find some large old-growth trees while exploring the woods on your own, be sure to note the location and to photograph the trees. Contact your state and/or federal forestry agencies, as well as local environmental groups to ensure they have record of the site. In addition to getting some great photos, you might just help identify and protect another rare stand of these valuable trees.


old growth in the eastSome Old-Growth Sites To Visit
The Hermitage, Appalachian Trail, West Branch of the Pleasant River, Maine. The Hermitage, with some of the tallest white pine in Maine, is a registered National Natural Landmark. The trees average 130 feet tall and up to three feet in diameter. The site is reached along the Appalachian Trail near Gulf Hagas, which features five waterfalls and more old growth. Access is via a logging road seven miles beyond Katahdin Iron Works.

Gifford Woods State Park, Vermont. Though only seven acres in size, the park was designated a National Natural Landmark by Congress because of its large sugar maple up to 300 years old and more than 48 inches in diameter. One hemlock is documented to be 419 years old, and an American beech was found to be 240 years old. Other large trees found here include some impressive American elm and basswood.

Five Ponds Wilderness, Adirondack State Park, New York. The Five Ponds Wilderness in the western Adirondacks hosts the largest tracts of virgin forest on the East Coast. The trail to High Falls from Inlet provides access to some of the trees, including yellow birch, white pine and sugar maple, some of which are up to 4.5 feet in diameter and 400 years of age.

Jockey Hollow, Morristown National Historic Park, New Jersey. The Garden State has converted so much of its forests to farmland, and now suburbia, that less than a thousand acres of old-growth forest is thought to exist in New Jersey. Nevertheless, there are some trees that are thought to be at least 200 or more years old in Jockey Hollow, where George Washington and his revolutionary army spent the winter in 1777 and again in 1779-1780.

Cook Forest State Park, Pennsylvania. Known as the Black Forest for its towering pine and hemlock that form sprawling canopies, the park is a registered National Natural Landmark. The park contains the tallest pines in the Northeast, many of them more than 150 feet tall and as much as 400 years old. Longfellow pines have reached 180 feet in height, while seneca pines have measured nearly five feet in diameter.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains the second-largest known tracts of virgin forest in the East—estimated at more than 200,000 acres. The four-mile-long Ramsey Cascades Trail is one of the better places to find large old-growth deciduous trees in the park. The Appalachian Trail traverses the spine of the park for 69 miles and passes through numerous tracts of virgin high-elevation spruce forest.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina. This park boasts approximately 11,000 acres of old-growth bottomland hardwoods and cypress-tupelo systems on the floodplain of the Congaree River. While the large bald cypresses are the major attraction of this park, there are 90 species of trees in the park and many state or national record holders. The largest loblolly pine in the nation is found here, standing 167 feet tall and more than 15 feet in circumference.

The Loxahatchee “Wild and Scenic” River, Florida. The Loxahatchee was the first designated “Wild and Scenic” River in Florida. The gentle river flows into Jonathan Dickinson State Park near Juniper, Fla. Along its banks, in the upper reaches accessible by canoe, you’ll find some large 500-year-old bald cypress. Canoes can be rented from several outfitters, so you don’t have to bring your own.


Eastern Old-Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery, edited by Mary Byrd Davis; foreword by John Davis
(Island Press, 1996)

The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast by Bruce Kershner and Robert T. Leverett (Sierra Club Books, 2004)
The Nature Conservancy, (703) 841-5300,
Primal Nature, (859) 373-0824,
TERRA: The Earth Renewal and Restoration Alliance,