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Trail Trees

April 10th, 2012|Tags: , , |

By Katrina Marland

When I’m driving in a new area, I am one of those people who become entirely reliant on a GPS. I find it hard to imagine how people found their way around before this nifty invention — or worse, before even paper maps were available. But it turns out that trees played quite the part in keeping early American travelers on the right path.

Native American tree marker

Credit: FlipC/Flickr

Across the U.S., you can find trees that are oddly shaped. Their trunks have odd kinks in them, or bend at strange angles. While some of them may indeed be simple quirks of nature, most of these trees are actually landmarks that helped guide indigenous people on their way. Native Americans would bend young trees to create permanent trail markers, designating safe paths through rough country and pointing travelers toward water, food or other important landmarks. Over the years, the trees have grown, keeping their original shape, but with their purpose all but forgotten as modern life sprang up around them. Today, we may not need these “trail trees” to navigate, but their place in history makes them invaluable. Imagine the stories these trees could tell.

Native American trail marker tree

Credit: Janet Powell

Visitors to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument can see examples of this practice in the many bent ponderosa pines to be found at the site. These trail trees point towards Pikes Peak, which the local Ute Indians believed to be a sacred site. But not every marker tree is so easily spotted. And in fact, looking for a strangely shaped tree isn’t quite enough, since each tribe created slightly different markers. Because most people don’t realize what these trees truly are, they are easily overlooked and can fall victim to development, disaster or disease with no one caring for them. Because trail trees are roughly 150 to 200 years old, many of them won’t be with us for very much longer. We may still be able to see this original roadmap of our country, but the window to do so is closing.

Many groups today are working together to make sure that trail trees are identified and protected for the history they represent. The organizations, like the trees, range across the U.S., from the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society to the Georgia-based Mountain Stewards, who have created a database of well more than a thousand of these remarkable trees across 39 different states.

These trees can be hiding out in parks, on mountain trails or in any number of places, so in addition to their research, these groups work off of tips from locals who report strange-looking trees. So next time you see a tree that looks just a little bit odd, check and see if it’s possible for it to be a trail tree — you may just find that you’ve stumbled upon a piece of living history.

April 10th, 2012|Tags: , , |14 Comments


  1. rebecca york April 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    We have a bent tree that bends over our hand built trail. This is Coeur d’alene Indian Tribal land, and I’m on what’s called Indian Mountain. Could have been heavy snow that caused it, but sure could have been NA’s!

  2. Donna April 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    Are there any organizations who are working to stop the destruction of important or endangered tree in PA?

    We have some magnificent trees on the Patterson Farm here in Bucks County, PA, but the publicly-owned farm is in grave danger of being developed, including its beautiful old growth trees.

    If anyone can help document and preserve them, please contact me through the website http://www.PattersonFarmPreservation.com. Your comments supporting preservation are appreciated.

    • Katrina Marland April 11, 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply

      There are several organizations or agencies that might be able to help. One good place to start would be the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, which protects forest resources and provides forest management. You can find them at http://pfa.cas.psu.edu

  3. Guy Sternberg April 10, 2012 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    Many bent old trees have succumbed to their own cantilevered weight, or to parking lots and subdivisions, or to the construction of roads which often followed the routes laid out by our native American predecessors (using trail trees and other landmarks). Some probably were removed as wolf trees to make more room for straight young replacements that had seeded in under them due to fire suppression and would have more timber value. Others obviously were not trail trees at all, having been bent by ice or other forces and often dating back less than 100 years. Some of them even are introduced species not known to have existed in North America during pre-settlement times.

    There is some speculative literature about trail trees. Arguments may be made for or against its accuracy, because no living person truly knows. Authors sometimes become so understandably excited about finding bent trees that they might allow their enthusiasm to trump their facts. A true trail tree needs to pass the following test:

    1. The species must be native and long lived. Oaks and perhaps hickories are about the only trees thought to have been used as trail trees in the eastern and central US that survived well into the 20th Century. Short-lived and exotic trees are not trail trees.

    2. The tree’s age must be sufficient to place it at that location prior to the extirpation of local native Americans. This should be verified with increment coring or other diagnostic techniques because size is not very indicative of age in a bent tree.

    3. The form should be the traditional trail-tree bend, either arching or kinked.

    4. The surrounding vegetation history should be savanna or prairie in composition, as indicated by land survey notes, nearby surviving trees, and soil analysis, so that a bent tree would have survived and not shaded out by competitors. This can fool you because young trees often will reproduce under the shade of old trees when historic natural ground fires are suppressed, creating a forest where there originally was a savanna.

    5. The direction of the bend or kink must be significant to some historical site or way. Evidence of this feature might no longer be present, but it should be recorded or at least plausible.

    6. Oral history, if available, should support the claim of aboriginal anthropogenic origin. One of these factors could be that several trees once could be found in sequence, all leading to the same feature. Such sequences generally are no longer available for study, so we must rely upon historical observations handed down to us.

    Trees that meet these standards can be considered likely candidates for trail-tree status. Few of our remaining bent trees can pass such a rigorous examination, and the rest become legends only in our minds.

    We have propagated one of the last remaining trail trees in Illinois, which fell a couple of years ago. Twigs were taken from the top of the newly fallen white oak tree, which dated back to the 1730s, and they were successfully grafted. It has been given the registered cultivar name ‘Pathfinder’ and it will be available in a few years from our nursery partner Forrest Keeling Nursery and their licensees. A photo of the original tree may be seen on page 28 of my book Native Trees for North American Landscapes.

    Guy Sternberg
    Starhill Forest Arboretum

    • Katrina Marland April 11, 2012 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing more about these trees with us. They really are remarkable, and it’s great that they’re being remembered, maintained and protected.

  4. Steve Houser April 13, 2012 at 8:49 am - Reply

    Guy accurately lists many of the criteria that are used by the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition (in Texas) to help quantify a trees potential to be an Indian Marker Tree. The coalition has been researching these trees for almost 20 years and we found that not all trees mark a trail. As a result we use the term Indian Marker Tree. Some mark a campsite, low water crossing for a river, a painted rock quarry or a medicinal plant location. We know the trees we recognize are real Indian Markers because we worked very closely with the Comanche Tribal Elder Council, the Comanche Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and the Comanche Language & Cultural Preservation Committee, for many years. We have a proclamation for each tree we call an Indian Marker Tree. Other trees that are submitted are considered to be only POTENTIAL Marker Trees until they are officially recognized by the Comanche officials, out of a deep and profound respect for their way of life. They are the authorities and all we can do is collect oral history, read the landscape to try and determine the natural feature that a tree is pointing out and determine a potential age. We also map tree locations and compare to early trail maps as well as recorded archeological information regarding past Indian occupations.

    As Guy accurately points out, nature can create trees with a similar shape and not all bent trees are old enough nor are they species that are long lived or that existed over 150 years ago. Due diligence is required in researching all the facts before we present the trees to Comanche officials.

    As an arborist for over 30 years, I do not core bore the trees because if they are indeed Indian Marker Trees, it would be very disrespectful to drill into it. I prefer another less invasive method that provides a ball park estimate of its age.

    It is important to recognize the wise advice by Guy but also note that our way of recognizing these trees is scientific, accurate and very respectful of those who may have created them.

    Respectfully submitted

    Steve Houser
    Founding Member
    Past President
    Dallas Historic Tree Coalition

  5. John adkins September 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    I have one on my property that has never been documented. I would love for someone to help me verify the tree. I am almost positive it is I can send a pic if you would like to see it

    • Michelle Werts September 24, 2012 at 6:07 pm - Reply

      Hi, John,

      Depending on where you’re based, I would recommend reaching out to either Illinois’ Starhill Forest Arboretum (http://www.starhillforest.com/enter.htm) or the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition (http://www.dhtc.org/), as both commentators here from those organizations seem to have a wealth of knowledge on the topic and might be able to provide you with further direction.


  6. Denny Elrod April 6, 2013 at 10:43 am - Reply

    We have several trees here in Izard County. A trail of them leads along a known route taken by Cherokee during the removal. Since the linked video was produced, we’ve located several more very interesting trees – two which are grafted white-oaks. We call theis our “Trail of Trees”.


  7. Ken Harding November 12, 2016 at 1:08 am - Reply

    Is it possible that this tree is a trail tree? https://www.flickr.com/photos/14633192@N00/24719632449

  8. Wendy Draper September 11, 2017 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    I have a tree in my back yard that have a bend in it exactly as you described. It is a fruit bearing tree (a sugar plum I believe). We have just recently purchased the property however I do know there is a stream in the direction of the bend. I am not certain of the age but it is an old tree. I live in Bassett Forks, Virginia

  9. Brandon September 18, 2017 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    I just found this article and have one of these trees on my property. My property is family land passed down my grandfather never knew the meaning of why the tree had grown that way. I am located in Delaware and less than two miles from our property is an Indian burial ground which was once a museum but since closed. Feel free to contact by email to verify this tree so it can be documented

  10. Teresa September 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    There is absoultely no historic documentation for trail marker trees.
    Think about it- the natives led a lifestyle that required them to learn and know their surrounding lands. They had established trails. Well established trails. They traveled using the sun and stars. And rivers.
    Not trees bent by other trees falling on them…
    native Americans abandoned a lifestyle requiring knowledge of the landscape over 200 years ago. How did they bend young trees that are just barely a hundred- if that – now?
    You’d be surprised how young some large trees are… Just about every bit of land in America has been logged. No virgin forests except maybe oldest national parks-

  11. Jill Melody Haston September 19, 2017 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    Wow, I Wish I’d Have Known About This Interesting & Informative Info Years Ago! Does Anyone Know If This Was Done To Trees in California Too … Because I Grew Up in Fort Dick, Ca – Now Incorporated Into Crescent City, CA – & We Had a Bent Alder Tree With 5 Limbs That Grew Out Of It To LOOK LIKE Trees. A Remarkable Thing I Just Realized is That it Pointed To a HUGE Very DEEP Gully that Was So Odd & Out Of Place For The Area. There Were No Other Gullys Or Anything Close To It. There Was a Trail That Wound Along the Edge & Spiraled Down Into It – No One Wouldve Ever Known it Was There Until We Cleared The Brush In & Around It. We Found Many Native American Artifacts – Arrow Heads – Broken Pottery & Even an OLD Horse Blanket Pin that My Parents Believed Was From Whatever Military Was at The Fort. Since Our Property is so Close To Lake Earl & The Mouth Of The Smith River & Just a Few Miles From Kellogg Beach With The Tollowa Reservation Close By & After Finding Out Abt This Practice Of Using Bent Trees For Land Marks It Makes Me Wonder About That Alder Tree & How It Was Pointed Toward The Hidden Huge Gully!

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