Week 7, Day 3: Ponderosa Pines

Ponderosa pines are one of the most common trees found along the trails of Los Alamos and are an iconic tree of the West. (Photo by Craig Martin)

In this week of Take It Outside, we are exploring the forests of the Pajarito Plateau, from riverbank to mountaintop! Today, learn about the ponderosa pine, one of the most recognizable tree species in Western North America.

Blog Post:

PEEC volunteer Terry Foxx explores the beauty and resilience of ponderosa pine trees in today’s blog post. Read her post here.


Ponderosa pine cones are in ample supply on the Pajarito Plateau. Go on a walk to collect pine cones, and then paint them. You can arrange or connect your painted pine cones to make animals or art! Here is how to turn your pine cone collection into a snake!

If you don’t have pine cones where you live, painted dried sticks make great snakes too. Find one whose shape reminds you of a snake, peel off the bark, and paint patterns on it! Snakes often have patterns that help them camouflage into their environment or display bright colors to signal danger.

Pro Tip: Dried tree roots from dead plants make for extra squiggly-looking snakes.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Ponderosa pines are adapted to frequent fire. See if you can find some ponderosa pines, and look for the following fire adaptations:

  • Thick, fire-resistant bark
  • Puzzle-shaped bark flakes that easily exfoliate, carrying heat away from the tree
  • Tall trunks with few branches close to the ground, reducing the chance that heat reaches the needles at the top of the tree
  • New buds protected by thick scales and long needles

Can you find a tree with signs that it has survived a fire?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

The ponderosa pine grows in community with several other species. Go outside and see if you can spot any signs of the following communities:

A female Acorn Woodpecker perched on a snag in Los Alamos. Do you see the small holes on the tree? Acorn Woodpeckers likely made them to store acorns! (Photo by Bob Walker)
  • Abert’s squirrels eat the seeds and inner bark of the ponderosa. You might find stripped pine cones that look a bit like chicken drumsticks lying on the ground. The squirrels also eat and distribute the spores of ectomycorrhizal fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with ponderosas: the fungus grows around the root tips of the tree, helping it to access nutrients in the soil. In exchange, the fungus gets sugars from the tree. The symbiosis between fungus and pine trees has been going on for 150 million years!
  • An Acorn Woodpecker’s favorite food is … acorns. Acorn-bearing gambel oaks tend to grow in the same areas as ponderosa pines, and the woodpeckers harvest acorns from the oaks in late summer and store the acorns for the rest of the year in standing dead ponderosa pines. These trees are called granaries, and can contain up to 50,000 acorns! You’ll see dead trees pocked with acorn-sized holes, and guarded by family groups of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about the trees and forested areas near you! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore aspen-mixed conifer forests!

The Rugged Ponderosa Pine

The history grove at Valles Caldera National Preserve serves as a reminder of how our forests looked before fire suppression. (Photo by Terry Foxx)

By Terry Foxx

One of my favorite tree species is the lofty ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) with its straight trunk, vanilla and butterscotch scented bark, and branches with needle-like leaves that hover above my head. The trees appear to me to be like a person, standing tall and stately, with a straight trunk and branches reaching out like arms beckoning a hug.

Standing beneath a tree, I tip my head back to see what is living or foraging in the treetop. To my delight, I may observe an Abert’s squirrel chattering, a woodpecker searching for insects, or nuthatches hopping down the tree headfirst.

One of my favorite places in the Jemez Mountains is the history grove in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The widely spaced ponderosas with the grassy understory are a reminder of how our forests looked before fire suppression. They were a mosaic of open stands, interspersed with meadows.

In the history grove, the ponderosa pines stand as witnesses to the past. The oval wounds in the bark are bark-peel trees from when Native Americans exfoliated sections of bark in the spring to obtain the sweet inner cambium for food. The trees marked with crosses remind us of sheepherders and their lonely existence. And the triangular wounds at the base of the tree, called “cat faces,” tell the story of fire and survival. Many of the large trees in the history grove are 200 to 300 years old. Within their growth rings are stories of fire, injuries, and people.

A Pygmy Nuthatch perched on the side of a ponderosa. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

Loggers and ranchers called older and larger trees “yellow pine” because of the yellowish-orange puzzle-like bark and the young, darker trees “blackjacks.” It takes a tree about 40 years for the bark to change from black to yellow. The bark patterns also become furrowed and more puzzle-like as the tree ages. The thick bark protects the tree from low-intensity or surface forest fires. However, years of fire suppression have created conditions for hot-burning crown fires that kill the trees. 

Each natural growing tree is a miracle of nature. It takes many years before a ponderosa pine begins to produce cones that hold the seeds. Every three to five years the tree produces numerous cones. But from the countless seeds produced, only a few seeds sprout and grow. That tiny germinated tree must survive fires, insects, and competition for resources. I am amazed at the ruggedness of the species when I see a tree growing in harsh environments like rocky cliffs, dry canyons, and steep slopes. A mature tree represents resilience and survival!

In the past 20 years, the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires have burned over 200,000 acres of forest. The first two weeks of May is the twentieth anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, an event that changed the physical and emotional landscape of the community.

My upcoming book, Resilience and Renewal, a Landscape and Community Twenty Years After, will soon be published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire and its impacts on our community. When the museum opens, they will have a display entitled “Resilience and Recovery.” In the meantime, you can explore this exhibit online.