There are a few of reasons why certain trees are special to me for climbing. Sometimes it is for the connection I feel to the tree, a particular challenge it may present for climbers, or because it provides an experience unique for those who head into the treetops.
I am often asked if I have a favorite tree to climb. It's hard to narrow it down to a single tree, but here are four of them and what I enjoy about them. Each year I select a number of these favorite trees for our Treetop climbs (Open, Open-Advanced, Adult, and Girl Scout Open Climbs). Here's why they are special to me and may help you decide if you'd like to climb it with us.
Pearl is one of my favorite trees. Growing at the base of a ridgeline formed during the last glacial period, this white oak is one of the older trees in the stand of oak & hickory overlooking the restored prairie. While understory plants have filled in the oak savanna that stretches the length of the ridge, park management is returning the area to the splendor of the natural savanna and prairies common to southeast Wisconsin in it's pre-settlement days. (Pearl is our climbing tree in Mukwonago Park)
Having grown in open sun in its younger years, Pearl has developed a broad spreading crown with numerous large branches, an eye-catching form, and a broad trunk that is firmly rooted in the fertile soil. The number and span of the branches are part of what make this tree an enjoyable one to climb. There are several branches to explore and plenty of comfy spots to lay your head back and enjoy the hours pass by.
Taking time to look at the other mature trees along the hillside surrounding you, you can still make out the structure of the savanna before the understory and invasive plants crept in. Climbing late in the day may provide the opportunity to enjoy the rays of the setting sun. Winter climbs are a treat when the sun casts shadows of the weaving branches on the ground below.
After taking time to play in the branches, you can head to a special place at the top. A fork in the branches at the very top form a small cradle that you can stand in, placing your head within feet of the uppermost leaves. Looking south, an opening in the branches provides a window where you can take in the view of the horizon. That is one of my favorite places to be in Waukesha County.
The Woodfield Oak
Since first meeting this tree in Woodfield Park after moving to Waukesha over 20 years ago, I have returned regularly to sit in its shade. It has often served as a place to quiet my mind and enjoy my lunch break.
The form reminds me of the live oaks that grow in the Southeastern U.S. with their sprawling branches. It is about 55 feet tall and the branches reach out about 85 feet from tip to tip! Two large lower branches scoop down to the ground, ready to embrace you like outstretched arms. It is a special tree…and why I have not found the right name for it yet!
The tree is upwards of 200-225 years old. Having sprouted from an acorn in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s, this tree was already a modest sized tree by the time Wisconsin became a state in 1848.
With broad spreading horizontal branches, this tree is a favorite amongst climbers as they allow for long limb-walks and great for taking big swings on your rope. Since peoples’ comfort with heights varies, I love introducing students and public climb participants to the tree as there are great branches to practice skills or play from 7 to 40 feet above the ground.
As the crown spreads and trunk heads towards the sky, two main stems form to provide a pair of high points in this tree. Reaching the top of either one, you will find yourself standing with your head near the uppermost leaves of this amazing tree.
Fox Brook Park features a number of beautiful bur oaks & our particular climbing tree grows near the bank of the lake. Captain Tony is a great tree, providing shady branches to get out of the summer heat and enjoy refreshing views of the swimmers and kayakers on the lake below.
With an upright trunk that forks into a few limbs, there are some great spots where you can pause and explore. Some of the branches allow for swinging and a taste of moving about the branches.
Captain Tony has a nice trunk route, which is when your climbing rope hangs down alongside the trunk. I enjoy trunk routes because I can touch the large limbs, feel the bark, and form a closer connection to the tree. For many climbers the challenge presented by being against Captain Tony's trunk may prevent them from making it past a particularly tight spot on the way up.
Those who are able to adjust their ascent technique, use the trunk to their advantage, or able to persevere with determination are able to get past this point. Once above it, you are rewarded with a chance to stand at the point where the large limbs begin to form the crown.
Standing there, energized and beaming with satisfaction, you will look up to find a clear route to the top. Watching others successfully make it past that difficult spot and seeing them beam with pride for the accomplishment is a highlight of the day for me.
A Boost Up
It is not always about finding the tallest tree to climb. Most of the time I am looking for an experience or something unique a tree may provide.
The swamp white oak in Horeb Spring Park is a pretty tall tree for our area, but where it is growing provides something that all climbers can experience regardless of how high we like to or are able to climb. The tree grows on a hillside that makes for a popular sledding spot in winter. From spring through fall, this slope presents a unique experience for our climbers.
As soon as your feet leave the ground & you are hanging on rope, the slope is no longer a concern for you. What it does do for a climber is change your perspective of height depending on the direction you are facing.
Facing up-slope you can see the ground and may not feel anything different than when climbing trees on level ground. As you rotate and the view down the hill comes into your field of vision, you feel an interesting sensation of being higher than you actually are.
With trees growing at the bottom of the hill, when you look directly across to them you will be peering into higher points of those trees. Your senses will make you feel that you are just as high in your own tree. That sensation paired with the fact that you can still climb high in this tall tree will you give a boost of energy and allow you to check your comfort with heights.
The sensation of feeling higher than you are is due to your orientation relative to the surrounding trees and landscape. This is something I look for when heading out to climb trees in the forest. Walking a ridgetop, I don’t necessarily need a tall tree, I just need a tree that can provide a view over or between the tops of the trees downhill. We often drive or hike to cliff tops to enjoy the view. With rope and saddle in hand, I just need to find a good tree on top of a ridge, cliff, or hill to get that extra boost above most people's perspective..
(Note: some of the experiences and climbing techniques described above may not be available at all Treetop climbs. Advanced techniques like limb-walking or multi-pitch climbing to get to the very top are covered in our Learn-to-Climb classes and introduced with modifications in our Open-Advanced climbs. Open Climbs feature a hammock.)
As a G.O.T.C. Recognized Facilitator & Master Instructor, I.S.A. Board Certified Master Arborist, and T.C.I.A. Certified Treecare Safety Professional, Curt has spent over 30 years dedicated to the study and care of trees.