Knobcones, Sugar Pines and a Bear

This bear explored the trap from every angle, trying to get inside.
With a husband starting work as an Interp Ranger, it’s easier than ever to geek out on Yosemite nature trivia. Our latest adventure in obscure (?) Yosemite flora, was a trip out to visit some knobcone pines, combined with a trip to the old sugar pines in the Rockefeller grove.


Bear distraction

On the way through Yosemite Valley to look for them, we stopped to watch a young bear exploring a bear trap. If the door hadn’t been locked closed, I’m sure NPS would have itself a trapped bear, because this bear was trying as hard as it could to find a way in. It sniffed at all the openings, tugged on the door, swiped several times at the padlock in the back, and climbed all around and under that trap. Bears are so cool.

As usual, whenever there is a bear close to the road, a huge crowd gathers, and it was disconcerting how comfortable this bear seemed to be in spite of all the people around. Unfortunately, it’s precisely this bear’s comfort with people that is likely to get it in trouble. A little bit of fear, judiciously placed, can keep bears out of the wrong situations. Hopefully, it won’t end up as a sad bear story over on

It’s always a treat to see an untagged bear – even if it is probably on its way to earning a tag.

Knobcone Pines

Knob Cone Pine sapling
Knob Cone Pine sapling
Still, the highlight of the trip was the visit to the knobcone pines. We learned that there was a bunch of them growing along the road down into Foresta from Hwy 120, and since they’re relatively rare, decided that it was worth a trip to see if we could find them.

There are plenty of great animals that don’t get their proper attention because of how common they are – like robins, which are really great birds – but there is something special about going to a place to see something that you can’t just see anywhere. Plus, these trees have some really cool and interesting biology.

Instead of dangling its cones out on the ends of a branch like most pines, the knobcone pine shelters them in around the stem and trunk in small clusters, and is reluctant to give them up. Sometimes the trees hold onto the pine cones for so long that the tree actually grows around the cones, swallowing the still viable cones into the growing trunk. Did you catch that? So if you cut down one of these trees and found one of these cones embedded in the wood like an insect in amber, you could still extract the seeds, plant them, and watch them grow. Nature is amazing.

If you look carefully, above the open and blackened pine cones, you can see the still unopened cones waiting for the next fire.
Like the giant sequoias, the knobcone pines are dependent on fire to reproduce. The heat from a fire triggers the cones to open up and release the seeds onto the ground where the fire has also prepared the soil to give them the best chance at growing. Because of the Big Meadow Fire in 2009, many of the knobcone pines in the Foresta area released their seeds and the young saplings are off and growing. With the needles gone, it’s easy to spot the previous generation of knobcone pines, with the open, blackened cones still hanging off the trunks like some strange growth. What’s interesting is that you can see how high the fire reached on each tree by looking at which cones opened and which did not. Many of the burnt knobcone pines still have what look like perfectly viable cones high on their branches. Maybe they’re waiting for another fire?

Now that we know what to look for, maybe we’ll start seeing knobcones all over the park. According to Yosemite Naturalist extraordinaire, Pete Devine, there are some in the Rockefeller Grove, and the Sierra Nevada Tree Identifier says there are supposed to be some on Hwy 140 above the Arch Rock Entrance Station. But the ones that we saw were on the Foresta Road, right after the first sharp right turn as you head down from Hwy 120. The burnt out tree skeletons give you the first sign that you should stop the car, climb out and start looking around.

Rockefeller Grove

We also finally got around to exploring the Rockefeller Grove. This area is supposed to be known for the old sugar pines that were saved from logging back in 1939 when the Rockefeller Foundation matched contributions to set it aside as part of the park. We didn’t notice the knobcone pines there, but we didn’t know what to look for yet.

Sugar pines have a special place in our hearts. There are two ~80 year old sugar pines on our small chunk of land in Yosemite West. The fact that they drip pine sap and occasionally pine cone bombs onto everything we own, is offset by the fact that they seem to attract Chickarees to our property, and I love watching those little squirrels. Plus, sugar pines are Pinus lambertiana, aka the Lambert pine, so really, they are like family. Having seen an enormous but unheralded sugar pine on the ski from the transfer station to the Mariposa Grove, I had visions in my mind of similar-sized trees clustered in huge numbers at the Rockefeller Grove. Not so.

There are some good-sized sugar and ponderosa/jeffrey pines along the way. It’s a beautiful walk through the forest, and would be an even better XC ski, with a gentle grade especially good for beginners, but ultimately not much different than the forests closer to our house. I hear there are some amazing sugar pines closer to Hodgdon…