MEDFORD -- Unless you are an eagle soaring above the conifer forest or a big-tree hunter with an eagle eye, chances are you wouldn't give the ponderosa pine a second glance.
After all, it is but one of many wooden spires reaching into the green forest canopy high overhead in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
But mammoth-tree hunters Michael Taylor of Trinity County, Calif., and Mario Vaden of Beaverton instantly knew on Jan. 3 they had discovered a new pine king.
"We were walking along, saw the top of the tree sticking up, and we both said, 'Wow!"' Taylor said. "I knew right away it was the tallest."
"We have a new world record," Vaden said. Not only is the ponderosa, at 268.35 feet high, the tallest known of its species, it is also the tallest known pine tree of any pine species on the planet, they say. Consider this: The pine's height is roughly 32 feet shy of a football field turned on end.
What's more, it is among at least four trees in the grove that are taller than the tallest-known pines on the globe, they add. "This is like walking into a cathedral," marveled Frank Callahan, 63, of Central Point, a botanist and Oregon's reigning big-tree finder who joined the duo on a visit to the titanic trees last week.
"Instead of looking at the paintings on the ceiling at something like the great Michelangelo pieces, you are looking up at great architecture high in the trees," Callahan added as he looked straight up.
Welcome to the land of giants.
The site is a heavily treed little basin in the Wild Rivers Ranger District within two-dozen miles west of Grants Pass and south of the Rogue River. The tree hunters asked that the pines' exact location not be identified because of concerns they may be vandalized.
Big-tree hunters such as Callahan use a formula including height, diameter and circumference to come up with a champion tree, which is then placed on the National Register of Big Trees kept by American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. In fact, Callahan has 19 national champion trees in Oregon to his credit, making him the top big-tree hunter in the state, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
But Taylor, 44, an engineer by training, and professional arborist Vaden, 51, focus on height in their search. Taylor, along with Chris Atkins, discovered a redwood tree dubbed "Hyperion," which towers 379.3 feet above the ground, making it the tallest known redwood on Earth.
Their hunt for that redwood, located in Redwood National Park south of Crescent City, Calif., was featured in the book about tall-tree hunters, "Wild Trees," by acclaimed author Richard Preston.
To precisely measure a tree's height, Taylor and Vaden employ a laser range finder. The computerized device, which considers factors such as the angle, determines how tall a tree is by measuring the time it takes the light to reflect back to the receiver.
They say the champion tree is actually a bit taller than measured because the tripod holding the range finder had to be placed slightly uphill from ground level of the tree to allow the top to be seen. They used three different range finders to verify their measurements.
However, they say the tree will need to be physically measured by a climber to confirm its height. They have notified forest officials, who did not know about these particular tall pines.
Wayne Rolle, a forest botanist, called the discovery "exciting." "We're looking forward to learning the exact location of this tree, and taking any necessary steps to keep this tree intact and healthy," Rolle said.
Before hiking out of the pocket of tall pines, Taylor put his laptop on the hood of a nearby pickup truck and pulled up Google Earth.
His computer can allow him to calculate the height by providing the ground-level differential, he noted.
But the computer search revealed no taller trees in the vicinity.
Nor could the big-tree hunters find a spot providing a real-life overlook of the area.
"Too many trees to see anything," one of them observed. All told, a dozen "super tall" pines stand in the grove, said Vaden, a former Applegate Valley resident. The last two were found during a recent visit to the area, he noted.
"Out of that group of 12, four of those ponderosas are new world's tallest pines, each taller than the previously known world's tallest pine among any pine species," he said.
The four tallest pines in the grove are 268.35, 266, 262 and 259.5 feet, he said.
The tallest previously known ponderosa pine is in the aptly named Big Pine Campground southwest of Grants Pass, standing officially at 259 feet. However, Taylor and Vaden measured it at 252.3 feet.
"It may have lost some height since it was last measured," Taylor said. "The top is dome-shaped, so it probably did."
It is not uncommon for tall trees to lose their tops during a storm, he said.
The pine previously labeled as the tallest in the world was a sugar pine measuring 269.2 feet in California's Yosemite National Park, but it died in 2009, Taylor said.
The state's tallest known sugar pine, located in the Umpqua National Forest in the Umpqua River drainage, is 255 feet, according to a measurement taken Jan. 9 by Taylor and Vaden.
However, a sign at the site states that tree was 265 feet tall when previously measured.
"I am confident a taller sugar pine will be found in Southern Oregon by the end of the year," Taylor said, citing the region's history of producing tall conifers.
But the ponderosas in the little basin are unique, he said. "I've done thousands of ponderosas in California," he said.
"The big ones always max out at 225 to 230 feet. It is really rare to see a 240-foot ponderosa. So this is really freakish. There is something really special about this place.
"I never thought a ponderosa would get as tall as sugar pines," he added. "Sugar pines are the king of pines. They have always been thought to be the tallest pines without any competition. But now we have these ponderosas giving them a run for their money."
The grove containing the mammoth pines consists mostly of Douglas firs which, at perhaps 150 feet at the most in the area, are decidedly shorter than their ponderosa pals.
Several fir stumps around the big pine indicate the area was selectively logged two decades or so ago. Blue tags on many of the firs in the immediate area illustrate another selective harvest is planned.
"The ponderosa probably would benefit from a selective logging of the immediate understory, but if the area is clear-cut, the tree will probably either fall over or blow out its top," Taylor said. "Such a tall ponderosa would never grow in an open area."
"Once you cut a tree down, the root system dies and composts," Callahan noted. "The remaining nearby trees enjoy the benefit of that composting. So it is a beneficial thing to these giants to take out the intruders. That allows the big boys to take off again."
Taylor estimates the tallest tree is around 300 years old, which he figures is young for its height. Its diameter at chest height to a human is only 5.7 feet, he noted.
"Sometimes trees like this don't have that enormous girth they just skyrocket," Callahan said. "They are like toothpicks in the sky."
"All the energy and growth is going into the vertical," Taylor said. "That indicates it is a younger tree, a mature ponderosa but still a younger tree."
The intense competition causes the trees to reach skyward for sunlight, he said, adding that the basin contains several small streams, providing ample water to the grove.
"There is very deep topsoil right here," he added.
The trees are also in a small bowl where they have been largely protected from the wind, Vaden observed.
"I appreciate seeing something like this still remaining out here," Vaden said. "So many of the really big trees have been cut down in Oregon.
"When I see a tree of this age and size, it represents a glimpse of an older forest, a peek into history, so to speak," he added. "It represents the smallest of what used to be. We have to look hard to find trees like this now."
The big pines were taking root before our nation was born, he said.
"When we came to this country, we wiped out the passenger pigeon, the great ox, the Carolina parakeet and almost took out the American bison," Callahan said. "We are like the cancer on the planet."
Before leaving the grove of giants, the three talked about what they hope will happen or not happen to the tall pines. "Not to have them cut down," Taylor stressed.
"And have no trail or no sign leading to them," Vaden added. Callahan agreed.
"The tallest one still has a youthful crown," he said. "It's still pushing up. This tree has potential to keep growing."