The Ancient Cottonwood Interpretive Trail winds along the Elk River (P{hoto by Steve Short)

The Ancient Cottonwood Interpretive Trail winds along the Elk River (P{hoto by Steve Short)

Ancient Cottonwood Trail

Ancient cottonwoods, British Columbia (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Ancient cottonwoods, British Columbia (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

A walk back in time…

The Ancient Cottonwood Trail winds through a grove of the world's oldest-known black cottonwood trees, with the most ancient dating back 400 years. With some trees towering as high as an eight-storey building, the old-growth forest is a biological treasure trove, full of an amazing variety of plants and animals. The trees provide homes for many species, including dens for black bears, holes for small cavity-dwelling creatures and nesting places for many other songbirds and insects.

The ecosystem

Cottonwood don’t mind wet feet, sprouting on sand and gravel bars along flood plains. Fast-growing trees, they suck up hundreds of litres of water daily, nourishing an impressive growth rate of two metres per year. In this grove on the banks of the Elk River, the trees tower over strip of vegetation along the river called a riparian forest (from the Latin ripa, meaning bank). Riparian shrubs shade streams and provide browse and cover for deer and moose, cultivating a multilayered ecosystem that overflows with a diversity of life.

Though fast-growing, black cottonwoods are usually short-lived trees, rarely standing for longer than 150 years. Cottonwoods grow on flat, fertile land, exactly where people like to settle, resulting in the loss of cottonwood ecosystems across North America. Many former black cottonwood forests have been completely cleared by human development. The forest surrounding the Ancient Cottonwood Trail has endured remarkably through hundreds of years without being logged, burned or degraded by erosion.

The trail

The one-kilometre trail winds through the lush understory of the forest and over several bridges before reaching the largest trees. Along the way, interpretive signs explain the ecological role of cottonwood trees and highlight some of the resident plants and animals.

How to get there

The Ancient Cottonwood Trail is located 16 kilometres southeast of Fernie on Highway 3. Turn off on Morrissey Road. [see Google map] The trailhead is located east of the bridge on the north side of the road.

Conservation history

In 2003, scientists confirmed the ages of the trees, putting the oldest at more than 400 years old. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) protected the cottonwood forest as part of a larger land acquisition in 2004. The Elk Valley Heritage Conservation Area spans more than 25,000 acres (10,120 hectares) and includes Mt Broadwood and the Ancient Cottonwood Trail. These lands protect an important corridor for wildlife, including bears, deer, elk and other large animals that traverse the valley.

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