For patrons of the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City who want to explore the state a little between performances, be sure to visit Utah’s unique Pando Forest in September while the aspens are displaying fall colors. I’ve enjoyed the beautiful aspen groves throughout the Inter-mountain West for years, not realizing what singular organisms they are. This, because an aspen grove is connected through the root system in such a way that the DNA of each tree is identical to the next, hence a clone.
The name Pando comes from Latin “to spread,” or “spread out.” The word is tantalizingly close to the Greek mythological Pandora who received gifts from all the gods at her birth, making her name synonymous with “all-endowed.” As the story goes, when she opened her jar of gifts, good and evil disseminated throughout the earth. Definitely a “spread out” kind of action.
The aspen grove in Fish Lake National Forest is distinctive because of its massive size, 106 acres. Whereas we tend to think of aspens as having slender trunks, many of these trees have huge trunks suggesting an old forest. Scientists claim it is the largest living organism on earth that has been DNA tested. They also estimate that the original tree, sprouted from seed, could have originated 80,000 years ago.
The Aspen Regeneration Project
Unfortunately, the Pando Forest appears to be failing. New shoots are not replacing the aging trees that are dying. In order to prevent the loss of this ages-old clone, approximately 90 acres have been enclosed in a high wire fence in the attempt to prevent deer and cattle from eating the new shoots as they come up. Other possibilities for why the Pando clone seems to be imperiled include insect invasion and an aspen stand’s need to be disturbed by such external forces as fire in order to stimulate root growth.
Largest fresh water mountain lake in Utah
The road summits at 9, 036 feet and then drops gradually downward toward Fish Lake, which includes a recreational area with cabins and boating access. As you can see from the photos, the clouds were large, low, and moving quickly on the day we visited. Sometimes a few drops of rain would fall and we’d silently cheer, since drought conditions currently imperil the whole state. Then the heavy cloud would pass and the sun would shine like a spotlight on the Pando clone.
When accessing the fishing section on the U.S. Forest Service site for the area, you might be tempted to think Fish Lake was named for its native stock of lake trout. Not so. I visited the lake with a member of the Fish family who was born and raised in Southern Utah. According to her family heritage, her grandfather was Joseph Fish (1840-1926), a pioneer explorer and surveyor of the area. He is thought to be one of the first white men to see the beautiful lake, and the earliest maps of the area identify the lake by his name, “Fish Lake.” So now you know.
Directions from Cedar City to the Pando forest
Take I-15 north. About 20 miles north of Beaver, take the exit onto I-70 east toward Richfield. In Richfield, turn left on Main Street then right on 300 North. Follow Hwy 119 straight out of town, past Glenwood on your right. Merge south (right) onto Hwy 24 toward Loa and follow the signs to Fish Lake.
When driving through the Hwy 24 ravines north of the turn off, you will see miles of blackened forest burn. Some areas have new grass growing nearby, suggesting the burn happened last year. But some of it remains stark, suggesting a more recent scouring by forest fire. But keep going. The scenery heals and opens up as you rise in elevation.
Once you’ve turned off Hwy 24 onto the access road to Fish Lake, the aspens of the Pando Forest will begin at mile marker 6, which is about a mile before reaching the lake. Note that the Pando clone exists on both sides of the highway.
Directions not to take:
I don’t quite understand how our GPS got the directions so totally wrong on our first attempt to reach the “Pando Aspen Colony.” If it tells you to get off I-70 at Joseph and cross under the highway to a road that leads into Fish Lake National Forest, that will NOT take you to the Pando clone. You will see this sign amongst the sage brush about the time the pavement ends in a rough dirt road. Turn around, get back on I-70, and continue driving toward Richfield.