Canyon Live Oaks of Southern California

The Transverse Ranges hold some of the largest oaks in North America

I fell in love with this Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) in 2002 while training to prepare myself to hike the Continental Divide Trail. One fateful night I inadvertently camped near it along a stream called Prairie Gulch. The tree has lived in my dreams ever since. In November 2015, the opportunity to return, revisit and measure the oak was offered  while doing a botany project in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

The San Gabriel Oak
The San Gabriel Oak

While I’ve never called myself a Big Tree Hunter, I thoroughly enjoy finding beautiful specimens—where individuals or groves of trees make me slow down and ponder the natural world. There are certain locations where forests hold more prodigious specimens—often fantastically larger than in similar vegetation types elsewhere. Because forests are dynamic systems it is impossible to pinpoint any single factor that may lead to this gigantism. Most likely, a combination of synergistic circumstances come together in these primordial places—including good luck.

Some of these ideal factors include, but are not limited to, optimal light, elevation, aspect, soil conditions, access to water, genetics, healthy competition from others and—as mentioned—luck in the long-term. The luck is the interesting factor because other bad-luck factors that could lead to the toppling of giants include fire, wind storms, and logging—these hide-outs must have been fortunate enough to have avoided the ax.

Holy WOW! What an oak…

The Canyon Oaks of southern California might now be reaching legendary status. The current record holder is also in the Transverse Ranges, just to the east of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the San Bernardino Mountains. I have not seen that tree, but the habitat and growth look very similar to the San Gabriel Oak. The San Gabriel Oak grows at the junction of three feeder streams, at the point where the East Fork of the San Gabriel River actually forms. On a south-facing bench above the convergence of these washes, the tree has found a home for over 1,000 years. During that time it has witnessed the transition from Serrano Indian summer and fall camps as its base, to the gold prospectors of the early 1900’s sitting in its shade, to the occasional Sheep Mountain Wilderness backpacker today. What stories it must have to tell…

What follows is a collection of images and measurements of this special being.

Measurements for the San Gabriel Oak
Measurements for the San Gabriel Oak
Comparing the two record Canyon Live Oaks.
Comparing the two record Canyon Live Oaks (Quercus chrysolepis)
San Bernardino Oak
San Gabriel Oak
499 inches
333 inches
97 feet
93 feet
Crown spread
98 feet
92 feet
DBH Measurements for the 27′ 9” circumference does not include any burls, old branch stems, or roots.
Daniel Hastings tactfully measuring the circumference of the Vincent-Prairie-Mine Gulch Oak
Pondering deep botanical time...
Pondering deep botanical time…


4 Replies to “Canyon Live Oaks of Southern California”

  1. Great Post! I especially like the detailed measurements. I know of similar sized beauty where Kelsey Creek flows into the Scott River just down the road from our cabin. Next time I visit it I will get a photo to send to you.

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