Central Pennsylvanians go about daily life surrounded by trees — an all-encompassing surrounding that drapes the region in rich green.
Many of those trees escape daily notice. They simply exist, faded into the background. Now and then a particularly large or beautiful specimen will catch the eye, soon to be forgotten.
But scattered throughout the area are champion trees — among the largest and oldest trees in the state. In fact, two of them were state champions as of their last measurement, although one is suspected to have perished.
Most of the region’s recorded champions are on private property, but are visible from the roadside. A notable exception is the state champion swamp white oak, which is easily accessible in Bald Eagle State Park. Neighboring counties have a much higher number of trees on public lands.
The trees are ranked and recorded by the PA Champion Trees program, available online at pabigtrees.com.
PA Champion Trees is a volunteer program that is an offshoot of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.
The program is run by its State Coordinator, Aaron Greenberg, a Master Arborist and arboretum manager by trade, according to the organization’s website. The website also notes that they have a “team of trained volunteers” who help by “finding, measuring, and re-measuring the trees.”
Here are the region’s champions:
Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
Probably the most well-known tree on the list is this state champion, located near the farm pond at Bald Eagle State Park in Center County, right next to the Sycamore Loop camping area.
First nominated in 1987, this oak has been re-measured several times, most recently in 2021. As of that measurement, the trunk circumference was 222 inches. The website lags a bit behind the plaque’s measurements, and the plaque only provides trunk circumference. As of the website’s 2008 measurement, however, the tree reached 88 feet in height and 118 feet in spread.
A comparable swamp white oak exists in Delaware County, at the Grange Estate in Havertown. In the comments on the website, it is noted that the tree “was planted around 1850.” While imprecise, this would suggest that the Bald Eagle State Park’s tree would also be approximately 175 years old.
Located a short ways up a farmhouse driveway a scant five minutes from the state Route 220 exit at Salona, this massive tree is readily visible from the road, across a field, next to the farmhouse. Nominated and last measured in 2020, this oak’s spread (119 feet) is nearly three times its height (41 feet), with a stately trunk of 175 inch circumference. The trunk’s expected diameter would then be almost five feet thick.
These measurements, while they make for an impressive sight, fall quite a bit short of the state champion white oaks. According to the ranking list, there are a pair of specimens in Berks County which have the same spread but over twice the height, as well as roughly another 100 inches of trunk circumference.
Located in a grassy yard near the old Woolrich mill, this champion butternut — perhaps more commonly known as white walnut — misses the state champion mark by about 30 feet of height, with the Woolrich tree measuring in at 58 feet tall in 2004. However, it is comparable in every other metric, including an identical trunk circumference (183 inches) and spread (92 feet vs 100 feet) as of both trees’ last measurements.
Plus, unlike the state champion which is located at Hendricks Island in the Delaware River, this one doesn’t need a boat to access, and is easily visible from the roadside.
Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
This tree may have been removed or have fallen, unfortunately. At the very least, it isn’t publicly viewable. No towering foliage exists at the location indicated by the listing, although one potentially notable tree visible on Google’s Streetview images does appear to be missing when the address is driven by in real life.
Regardless of the tree’s current status, as of its last measurement in 2004, it was 86 feet tall, with a spread of 55 feet and a trunk circumference of 115 inches.
That’s a good bit short of the state champion, which is located in Gettysburg National Cemetery, and has a height of 97 feet, a spread of 65 feet, and a trunk circumference of 168 inches.
American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
The website lists this tree as the “Knotts/Engleman Tree,” although little further information is available. Lin Greenaway, a DCNR Forester in Sproul State Forest, the region where the tree is located, graciously took some time to try to find the tree but ultimately failed.
The area the tree is allegedly located in is near a privately-owned pipeline, which makes being certain about its status very challenging.
Greenaway did ask around about it, and “one of (my supervisors) said he thought he might have died,” she said.
If true, it would be a great loss, but not entirely unexpected. American chestnuts have been under tremendous pressure from chestnut blight, a fungal disease. Efforts have been underway to breed resistance into the species, but a mature, full-bred specimen would be unlikely to find in the wilds — let alone one of this tree’s size.
When it was last measured, it had a trunk circumference of 57 inches, with a height of 105 feet and a spread of 35 feet. These measurements were sufficient to deem it the Pennsylvania state champion.
While it is likely this tree is deceased, it is not impossible that it could still be standing. Perhaps more information about it will come to light in time.
The Missing Titan
Finally, a note on the biggest tree on the list — a scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) supposedly located at 216 Platt Road. Only measured once, in 1996, it supposedly boasts a height of 105 feet, a spread of 73 feet, and a trunk circumference of 151 inches, all of which would surely have grown in size in the intervening 26 years.
Unfortunately, Platt Road, according to Google Maps and other tools, does not exist.
On a call with Ian Loewen, an Environmental Education Specialist at Little Pine State Park, Loewen mentioned that it could be an informal name for a rarely-used forestry road. However, he added that he did not know anything further on the subject.
Likewise, an email to noted county historian Lou Bernard proved to be a dead end.
Depending on how much this oak could have grown over the years since its last measurement, it is not outside the realm of possibility that it could challenge the only scarlet oak currently above it on the ranking list — although it would have some catching up to do , as the current state champion, located in Westmoreland County, has a spread of 107 feet and a trunk circumference of 188 inches. It is, however, much shorter, at just 86 feet tall.
The further afield one goes, the more champion trees are available within day-trip range. For example, State College features 10 on the Penn State campus, including an Ohio Buckeye that is the reigning state champion for its species. Northward, in Potter County, there are multiple champion trees noted to be on public land, as well, and four of Cameron County’s five trees are on public land.
Fall makes for a perfect time to see some of these trees in their full, colorful glory.
Just remember to be respectful of those on private property, and view those trees at a distance.