Monday, November 19, 2012

Rocky Mountain Tree Identification: Ponderosa Pine Tree

Ponderosa Pines are the most common tree found in the foothills and montane zones of the Rocky Mountains. They can be found as far north as southern British Columbia, and as far south as New Mexico. Ponderosa Pines are also found scattered throughout the West, to include the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades, the Maritime Coast Range and the Blackhills of South Dakota.

So named because of their large size, the Ponderosa Pine holds the distinction of being the world's tallest pine tree, with the tallest recorded example coming in at an incredible 268.5 feet tall.

Named "Phalanx" by its discoverer Michael Taylor, this enormous Ponderosa was found last year in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon:

Phalanx, the world's tallest pine tree (photo credit:

Ponderosa Pine FACTS:

Bushcraft Uses: The green boughs can be used for bedding or for shelter insulation. Ponderosa Pine is a rich source of pine pitch to make glue, as well as pitchwood (fatwood) for fire-making. The needles make for a tasty, Vitamin A & C rich tea (Note: drinking too much pine tea is toxic. Pregnant women should NEVER drink this tea). The sweet, inner bark can be boiled or fried and eaten for survival food, or, it can be dried and pounded into flour. As firewood, Ponderosa Pine burns with significantly less popping and sparks than either Spruce, Aspen or Douglas Fir, making it a better choice for a survival fire that you have to lay close to at night. Young, unopened male cones can be boiled for an emergency food.


Of all the trees in the Rockies, I've found the Ponderosa the easiest to identify. The only time you might have difficulty is at higher elevations, where Ponderosa Pines start to mix with Lodepole Pines (I've included comparison shots of the Ponderosa and Lodgepole further down in this post to aid in positive identification).

The easiest way to identify Ponderosa is by the needles and cones. The needles are long and fan-like, and the cones usually litter the ground under the trees.

(click to enlarge)

There is usually an abundance of dead cones underneath Ponderosa Pines. They also make great kindling for your camp fire.

The third way to identify Ponderosa is by looking at the bark of adolescent and mature trees. As Ponderosa Pines mature, their bark gradually becomes more of a burnt-orange color. The bark also a very distinctive vanilla or butterscotch smell. When the summer sun heats up the bark, this odor can be so strong that a walk through the forest can smell like a walk through a candy factory!

Adolescent tree showing the beginnings of this orange color:

Adult tree showing increasing orange color:

The bark on a large, fully mature Ponderosa showing the solid burnt-orange color:


Young Tree

Mature tree

How to tell the difference between a Ponderosa Pine and a Lodgepole Pine

When looking at the two trees side-by-side, Ponderosa Pines will have longer, darker needles, as well as a courser, orange-brown colored bark when compared to the finer, darker bark of the Lodgepole.

(click to enlarge)

How to Find Pitchwood in Ponderosa Pines

Ponderosa Pines provide an excellent source of high 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 @ (without spaces)


  1. Good post. Personally, I'm psyched to see this kind of educational content. Too many 'bushcraft' blogs seem to focus far too much on just gear. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Smithhammer, appreciate that. These are the kind of articles I most enjoy writing. Our long list of gear review obligations is finally starting to wind down, so I hope to be able to post a lot more of this kind of material in the coming months.