View of Old-Growth Fir at Candle Creek

Old-Growth Douglas Firs at Candle Creek

When Central Oregonians think of Douglas firs, we usually envision the majestic coastal firs. But Central Oregon has a distinct inland variety, the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir, which is morphologically and genetically different from its coastal cousin. Occurring from British Columbia south to New Mexico, these cold-hardy trees can grow up to 150’ in height, 6’-8’ in width and can live more than 500 years. A 30-acre grove of these old-growth firs is found on a short, easily-accessible hike at Candle Creek in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.

Evolution of Rocky Mountain Douglas Firs
Prior to the formation
Map of Douglas Fir Distribution
of the Cascade and Sierra mountain ranges 5-7 million years ago, there was apparently just one species of Douglas fir throughout western North America. But as volcanic activity increased and these ranges rose up to their current height, the inland variety became geographically separated from the coastal variety. With the coming of the Ice Age about 2.6 million years ago, both varieties retreated to isolated refuges protected from the glacial ice, further concentrating their genetic differences.

The modern Douglas fir trees that we see today, both coastal and inland varieties, are descendants of these isolated, post-glacial founder populations, which have migrated to their present locations from their Ice Age enclaves over the past 10-15,000 years. With global warming in the 21st century, these Douglas fir populations can be expected to be on the move once again.

History of the Candle Creek Old-Growth Firs
The Candle Creek area tells a classic story of fire and ice. Gouged out some 20,000 years ago by advancing glacial ice, the Cabot and Jefferson Creek canyons converge together at the site of today’s old-growth fir grove.
View of Tall Douglas Fir
In fact, if one looks closely at the hillsides surrounding Candle Creek, these are the terminal moraines of the two Ice Age valley glaciers.

Most striking today though are the basaltic lava flows that subsequently oozed down the Cabot and Jefferson Creek canyons some 7,000 years ago and converged at Candle Creek. Many of the old-growth firs now found in this area have colonized these lava flows, with their massive roots winding around and into the lava rocks. The combination of the merging stream flows here and water runoff from the lava no doubt contributes to the enormous tree growth here.

The recent history of the Candle Creek old-growth firs is one of fortuitous survival. In 2003, a stand replacement fire (the B&B Complex) burned over 90,000 acres along the east side of the Cascades, stripping the forest down to bare soil in many places. Though this fire came within yards of the old-growth fir grove, somehow it miraculously escaped. More recently, in late January 2019, a tremendous windstorm surged over the Cascade crest, knocking down many old trees throughout Central Oregon. Though one old giant, nearly 8’ thick, was blown over in the Candle Creek grove and several big trees lost their tops, the grove on the whole still remains intact.

Visiting the Candle Creek Old-Growth Firs
Located about an hour’s drive north of Sisters, the route to Candle Creek takes one on a scenic tour of the Upper Metolius River canyon (see Road Map download below). Following Road 14 north from Hwy 20, past Camp Sherman, the drive is on a pavement for about 13 miles to the Lower Bridge Campground. From the bridge here over the Metolius River, the route goes another 4 miles on fairly good cinder roads, which when dry should be navigable by almost any passenger car.

The short hike through the fir grove starts at the Jefferson Lake Trailhead, where one can obtain a self-service Wilderness Permit (see Trail Map download below). The trail then descends 50 yards to a footbridge over Candle Creek, before climbing up into the old-growth fir grove.

View of 7'-diameter Saw Cut in Giant Fir
Within 150 yards, one comes to the nearly 8’-thick giant fir blown down in January 2019. The Forest Service has made a remarkable saw cut through this tree, allowing the trail and hikers to pass through it. Counting the tree rings, this tree is estimated to be over 400 years old — that is, just a small sapling in 1620 when the ship Mayflower landed at Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts.

For the next half mile, the trail winds through the grove of big trees along Candle Creek, in soft light filtering through the understory of maple, thimbleberry and ferns. A better place for quiet reflection can hardly be found in Central Oregon. At 0.6 miles, the trail leaves the forest and makes a short climb up onto the Jefferson Creek lava flow. Here one has wide vistas of the surrounding landscape recovering from the 2003 wildfire, plus long views west of Mt. Jefferson. Be sure to wear sturdy footwear if planning to walk up on the lava trail, as it's rough and rocky underfoot. The trail continues northwest for miles, but it soon becomes quite brushy.

Download (PDF, 735 KB): Photos of the Candle Creek Firs
Download (PDF, 651 KB): Road Map for Candle Creek Firs
Download (PDF, 679 KB): Trail Map for Candle Creek Firs

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to exercise all due caution while recreating.

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