Dominating the high altitude forests of the Rocky Mountains, the Lodgepole Pine is the tree you're most likely to see covering the landscape there. Vast, dense forests of Lodgepole are a classic feature of the Rockies, and they are generally found from the upper montane zone to the subalpine zone.
Their trunks tend to grow straight and narrow, making them excellent for shelter construction. This made them a favorite of the Plains Indians, who used them to build their "lodges" or "tipis", hence the name "Lodgepole Pine." In fact, they would make journeys from the plains into the mountains each year just to harvest fresh Lodgepole Pines for their tipis.
Born of Fire
Lodgepole Pines are unique in that they use hot, stand-replacing forest fires to reproduce. Lodgepoles keep their seeds tightly enclosed in resin-packed cones until a forest fire moves through. When the heat of the fire reaches the cones, it melts the resin and releases the seeds which then grow into new, solid stands of pine.
Crown fire moving through a Lodgepole Pine forest (Photo credit: Canadian National Park Service)
Green cone showing resin-encased seeds (photo credit: University of Idaho)
Lodgepole pine cone opened by the heat of a fire (photo credits: Jim Peaco, US Park Service)
The forest floor repopulated with young Lodgepole trees after a fire (photo credit: Jim Peaco, US Park Service)
These new stands eventually result in forests that are so dense they are referred to as "Dog Hair" stands. Here are a couple of examples of Dog Hair stands that are local to our area:
Mountain Pine Beetle/Blue Stain Fungus Destruction
Due to their thin bark, Lodgepole Pines are an easy target for the infamous Mountain Pine Beetle. Large tracts of western Lodgepole Pine have been devasted by these attacks, leaving many areas within the National Parks and Forests dead or dying. These areas have been a frequent source of fuel for the volcanicly destructive "Super Fires" that have erupted throughout the West in recent years.
Photo of a pine beetle damaged Lodgepole Forest (photo credit: Wikipedia.org)
The Pine Beetle destroys Lodgepoles (as well as Ponderosa and Limber Pines) by infecting the tree with a disease it carries called Blue Stain Fungus. It burrows underneath the bark to lay its eggs, and in the process, infects the sapwood with the fungus. This fungus then kills the tree from within by blocking water and nutrient transport.
Example of a tree killed by blue stain fungus (photo credit: Wikipedia.org)
This is what you'll typically see when a tree has been infected but is still alive. There will be lots of "pitch tubes" on the outside where the beetles burrowed into the bark (photo credit: Wikipedia.org)
Lodgepole Pine FACTS:
Bushcraft Uses: Lodgepole Pine is an excellent source for poles to build shelters. These poles are also good for making spears should the need arise. The green boughs can be used for bedding or shelter insulation. The needles make for a tasty, Vitamin A & C rich tea, which can prevent scurvy during the winter (Note: drinking too much pine tea is toxic. Pregnant women should NEVER drink this tea). The seeds are high in fat and protein, but have a bitter, resinous flavor to them.
Lodgepole is my favorite firewood in the backcountry. It burns with the least amount of popping and sparking, has a pleasant smell, burns fairly hot, and is easy to process due the straight-grained nature of the wood. Since it grows so straight, it also makes good long-fires in cold weather. Though it doesn't produce as much pitch as Ponderosa Pine, Lodepole is still a good source of pitchwood (fatwood) and pitch for glue.
Lodgepole Pines are easy to identify from their boughs, cones and overall appearance. The only time you'll run into a problem is at lower elevations, where they mix in with Ponderosa Pines and sometimes grow large, outward branches like Ponderosa (I've included comparison shots of the Ponderosa and Lodgepole further down in this post to aid in positive identification).
I find that the easiest way to identify a Lodgpole is by looking at the overall appearance. For the most part, Lodgpoles have a very distinct look, with very straight, slender trunks and thin bark. Most will look like the ones in the photo below:
The cones are also a good identifier, since they are distinctly different in appearance from the cones on Ponderosa or Limber Pines.
Green, resin-filled cone on tree:
How to tell the difference between Lodgepole Pine and Ponderosa Pine
At lower elevations, Lodgepoles are often mixed in with Ponderosa Pines. Since the two compete directly for sunlight, Lodgepoles will often fan out their branches like Ponderosa Pines, giving both a similar appearance.
When looking at the two trees side-by-side, Lodgepole Pines will have shorter, lighter needles, as well as a finer, darker bark when compared to the courser, orange-brown colored bark on a Ponderosa Pine.
(click to enlarge)
How to Find Pitchwood in Lodgepole Pines
Lodgpole Pines provide a significant source of quality pitchwood for fire-making. Check out our "Wilderness Survival: An easy way to find Fatwood in the Rockies and Beyond...." post for more info.
About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, and the author of Edible & Medicinal Survival Plants of the Rocky Mountains Pocket Guides. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)