Oregon Trails: Lost Forest

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CHRISTMAS VALLEY, Ore. – The big pine forests of central and south central Oregon have attracted settlers, lumbermen and recreationalists for generations, but there is one Ponderosa pine forest in our area that seems to be out of place in Lake County. It’s called the “lost forest”, and remains something of a mystery.

The “lost forest” is not where the lost boys of Peter Pan came from, but it is a 9,000 acre Ponderosa pine forest that probably should not be here in the arid desert of northern Lake County.

“This region up around the Lost Forest gets an average of about nine inches of rain a year, and a Ponderosa pine needs approximately 14 inches of rain to sustain life, and to grow,” explained Kevin Abel, the BLM Public Affairs Officer.

For thousands of years, these pine trees have been growing out here in the middle of the desert in northern Lake County. Scientists have always wanted to know: what keeps these trees alive?

“The reason that this forest still has maintained it’s growth is because of the soil in the area is so porous from the volcanic activity that it holds the moisture in and allows the trees to grow,” Abel said.

For the most part, they don’t grow very close together. There’s not enough water underground for a dense stand. There are also lots of juniper trees. Old stumps where logging was done in the 40’s and 50’s to take out diseased trees are still visible in the area. A lot of trees also died in the droughts of the 20’s and 30’s.

“The current forest is a relic of a once-extensive pine forest that occupied hilltops in the region in a series of ‘pluval’ lakes,” said Abel. Those are lakes caused by large amounts of rain, of which there has not been much in this area for several thousand years .

“These lakes dried up completely during a hot, dry period 6,000 years ago, and most of the pine forests were replaced with sage brush and desert vegetation,” Abel explained.

It’s the sand that absorbs the moisture instead of running off, holding it underground where tree roots can tap in and keep this forest alive. Scientists have found that pines here have seeds that seem to germinate more rapidly than other Pondersa pines, something that is being studied to strengthen forest nursery stock in other places.

One of the best views of the lost forest is from a rocky bluff, called Sand Rock. From there, you can see the forest all around, and on a clear day, even the Cascade Mountains to the west, and among the rocks, also some very tenacious pine and juniper trees.

Today there’s camping, hiking and other permitted uses, although off-roading is discouraged to protect the fragile eco-system. Some of the junipers in the area are also quite large. One is said to be the largest known western juniper in Oregon, reaching nearly 70 feet in height.

If you want to visit the lost forest, you’ll have to drive to the small farming community of Christmas Valley, then drive north about nine miles, and east another ten miles or so on a gravel road, called Lost Forest Road.