Finding Bonsai Inspiration in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

Finding Bonsai Inspiration in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

California natives Hiking Sierra Nevada Whitebark Pine Yamadori

John Muir is quoted as saying of the Sierra Nevada, "Nature's landscape garden, at once beautiful and sublime." For bonsai enthusiasts and practitioners like me, the central Sierra Nevada Mountains offer picturesque, interesting, and inspiring tree specimens. I sadly don't know of any books or large published sources for this type of information, but I think they should exist. In lieu of that, here's a bit of background information and a list of a few of my favorite inspirational spots from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Among the interesting species that occur in the Sierra Nevada are:

  • Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis var. australis or Juniperus grandis)
  • Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana)
  • Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
  • Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
  • Western White Pine (Pinus monticola)
  • Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta)

Many of the best trees are hard to reach and located in or adjacent to wilderness areas; here are some tips for where to find them.


Sierra Junipers are high elevation trees - they grow predominantly in granite areas and not in open soil or where there is a lot of volcanic soil. 

Range maps that are published by various sources online are not generally precise enough to tell whether a particular hiking trail or area will contain interesting junipers. One of the best-known spots to visit picturesque Sierra Junipers is near Meiss Meadows and the Carson Pass visitors' area on highway 88 south of South Lake Tahoe and east of the Kirkwood ski resort area. 

  • At Carson pass start at the parking lot on the north side of hwy 88. Hike up the side of the hill, or walk along the Pacific Crest Trail for about 200 meters and then head up to your right. Do not continue further on the trail into the wilderness as the junipers are largely just near the road area where there is granite. Hike along the contours and you'll find some very old and picturesque trees. 
  • Below Carson pass, look for Woods lake. Walk through the campground heading west up to a small ridge. There are both upright examples and windswept battered examples in different part of this area.

Giant Sequoias

"The king of all the conifers in the world, the noblest of the noble race." - John Muir

Not to be confused with the coastal giant redwoods, Sequoia’s are mid - elevation trees and grow in groves that are located in areas with underground water. All groves are mapped, you can find a list of them on Wikipedia.

  • The most famous examples are inside Sequoia National Park which has an entry fee. Try going in winter or early spring to avoid crowds.
  • McKinley Grove is a nice grove that is isolated and peaceful, located east of Shaver Lake. It's small but contains interesting trees.

 McKinley Grove Giant Sequoia

Interesting top growth on an old giant sequoia.

Foxtail Pines

Whitebark and Foxtail Pines are very high elevation trees - they occur at or near the timberline, above even the elevation of many of the highway mountain passes. My favorite examples of Foxtail Pines are in Sequoia National Park, near the top of Alta Peak and Near Pear Lake. 

  • Stop at the Lodgepole Visitors Center in Sequoia National Forest.
  • Hike from the “Lakes Trail” Trailhead turning onto the Alta Peak trail. 
  • Many great Foxtails on the ascent from the junction, up the slope to Alta Peak.
  • If you have the energy on your return, take a side trip up to Pear Lake. 
Foxtail Pines Near Alta Peak in Sequoia National Park.

Mountain Hemlock

Although Mountain Hemlock are widely distributed at higher elevations in the sierra, the vast majority of specimens that I have found are upright or a non-picturesque mat of branching confined by snow loading of winter. If you have examples of beautiful bonsai-shaped mountain hemlocks in the wild, share them with up by tagging @bonsaifyonline on Instagram.

Lodgepole Pine

Lodgepole Pine are so ubiquitous in the Sierra that it's hard to choose a tree that's worth highlighting. Yet, many of the trees are relatively straight or mundane in form. Some larger examples are along highway 108 near Sonora pass. Smaller examples are abundant. 
Lodgepole Pine appearing like a windswept bonsai

Western White Pine 

Western White Pine don't generally leap out at you while hiking, but they do form single trunks more often than Whitebark Pines at higher elevation. The below examples were photographed near Granite Lake, in the Emigrant Wilderness. From the Crabtree trailhead, hike to Bear Lake, then up the granite ravine above the inlet. After a couple miles of cross country, trend to the south toward granite lake. The area also has beautiful Sierra Junipers. 
Western White (or maybe Whitebark) Pines near Granite Lake, Emigrant wilderness
Where do you look for inspiration as you work on your bonsai trees? If you're interested in amazing trees along the California coast, read this article I wrote.

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