Ever been on a trail and seen a crooked tree that almost seems like it is marking the trail? If you have, you might have noted they seem unnatural and out of place. The tree is bent at sharp angles and often take on an unusual shape. The sharp angles and unique shape characterize a human design rather than the gentle curves that one would expect from natural forces like wind and weather.
I first learned about trail trees in the book How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley. He briefly mentioned trail trees in the book. I then recalled seeing one at Shenandoah National Park. Not really looking for them, I again saw one marking a trail at Allegany State Park. I became interested and began to research the phenomena more fully.
Native Americans used these trees to mark a network of trails. The trees were also thought to mark sacred areas, locations of water and food, warn travelers of danger or mark culturally significant landmarks. The trees are known by several names such as trail tree, trail marker tree, signal trees, thong tree or prayer tree.
To be a trail tree, first of all, it must be old enough to have been alive when Native American tribes still lived in the area. The bend is about four or five feet off the ground. The bend bend is a sharp right angle. The tree then runs parallel the earth for a measure, and turns sharply up again, towards the sky. They will indicate some sort of feature of the land, whether it’s a trail, a spring, or a place to ford a river.
Unsure if you are looking at a trail tree? The Trail Tree Project has a page with typical and atypical trees.
The first record of trail marker trees appeared in a document called “Map of Ouilmette Reservation with its Indian Reminders dated 1828–1844”. This map shows actual drawings and locations of existing trail marker trees. The first known research on trail trees is found in the February 1940 edition of Natural History Magazine, where Raymond E. Janssen mentions their distribution in the Great Lakes region. Jenssen wrote “The casual observer views them merely as deformed freaks; but careful observation and comparison of the nature of the deformities indicate that these trees did not acquire their strange shapes simply by accident.”
Since then, a researcher Dennis Downes and president of President and Founder of the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society, has taken a deep dive into the phenomena of bent trees. He has spent more than 30 years researching and educating people on bent trees. Downes has compiled 100’s of photographs of the trees and has visited many trail tree sites.
Think you have found a trail tree? Send it to the Trail Tree Project. This registry, part of the MountainStewards.org, is attempting to document all known trail trees before time, disease and urbanization destroy them. They will use this registry to better under the significance of trail trees.