The story behind The Boy Scout Tree, a 2,000-plus-year-old redwood

I admit it: I’m a sucker for historical references to Scouting.

When I come across an old black-and-white photo of Scouts, I usually enter into a rabbit hole from which it might take me hours to escape.

(Sorry, boss! It’s part of my job!)

Take this one, for example, sent to me by an old friend.

Thousands of years ago, in an area nearly 300 miles north of what would eventually become San Francisco, two saplings simultaneously sprung up from the damp ground.

Instead of fighting each other for resources like water, light and food from the soil, the saplings seemingly decided there were enough nutrients to share.

So, the two tiny trees grew together, side by side. Over the years, they became fused together to become one tree, becoming even stronger in the process.

Now, this tree is more than 238 feet tall and more than 23 feet wide at its base. It’s considered a double-trunk redwood, since it’s basically two trunks fused into one.

If your arm span was 90 feet, you could literally give this tree a hug.

It lives in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near Crescent City, California, a park that was established in 1929 to preserve redwoods just like this one.

But out of all that, it was the name of the tree that caught my eye.

This mighty specimen is known as Boy Scout Tree.

A photo of Boy Scout Tree
Photo by daveynin/Flickr

An unlikely story behind the Boy Scout Tree

Lots of ancient redwood trees have names. There’s El Viejo del Norte, the one with the widest branch. There’s Juggernaut, the world’s ninth-largest tree by volume, and Hail Storm, the world’s fourth-largest tree by volume and the largest in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

The tallest tree in the park is named New Hope. It’s more than 356 feet tall (!) but relatively skinny with a width of only 16 feet.

And the tree that started off as two trees that eventually merged into one?

It’s called Boy Scout Tree.

Many of the stories on the internet about this tree (and, trust me, I read a LOT of them) claim that it got its name from the idea that the two trunks look like the Scout salute.

Now, let the record show: I am not a Scouting historian. However, astute observers will note that while the Cub Scout salute uses two fingers, members of Scouts BSA, Venturing and Sea Scouting use a three-fingered salute.

The two-finger salute originates from The Wolf Cub’s Handbook, originally written by Lord Baden-Powell in 1916, because two fingers resemble the ears of a wolf.

Likewise, the three-finger salute has been around from the beginning. In Scouting for Boys, Baden-Powell wrote that the salute represents three things: honoring God and country, helping others and obeying the Scout Law.

Would a tree with two trunks be named after the Boy Scout salute, when that salute uses three fingers? It seems possible, but unlikely.

A group of Scouts gather at the base of Boy Scout Tree in this photo from the 1930s. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

The much more likely story

The more likely story is the one that can be pieced together from this PDF from 2017 from the National Park Service History Electronic Library & Archive. (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is part of the Redwood National and State Parks system.)

According to NPS historians, Boy Scout Tree — and the trail that leads to it, called Boy Scout Tree Trail — are named in honor of Jack Breen, the sheriff of Del Norte County from 1919 to 1935. Breen, it turns out, was famous for being the first to locate the double-trunk specimen redwood tree.

It is not known exactly when Breen found the tree, but this much is known: In 1922, Breen and a few of his friends founded Troop 10 in Crescent City, a Scouts BSA unit that’s still alive and well to this day as part of the Crater Lake Council.

At some point around this same time, a bridge was built over Mill Creek on what is now known as Howland Hill Road. In 1950, a group of local Scouts formally dedicated the bridge to Breen. It’s now known as the Jack Breen Bridge.

Over the years, Boy Scout Trail has become one of the more popular hikes in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

It’s 5.3 miles and relatively flat — it climbs only 750 feet.

“With abundant huge trees in an interesting progression of different environments, the extraordinary Boy Scout Tree Trail isn’t so much a hike as a showcase of the world’s best redwood scenery,” writes Dave Baselt, owner of the Redwood Hikes website.

On the trail, there’s a sign that reads “B.S. Tree.” No, not THAT kind of “B.S.” The sign points hikers to Boy Scout Tree, which itself has an aged sign attached to it.

Baselt, way more of a historian than I am, notes that the Boy Scout Trail wasn’t even mentioned in a popular guidebook dedicated to the area that was published in 1975. He guesses that the trail has become popular in recent years mostly due to positive reviews on social media.

Special thanks to Baselt, the National Park Service, the Crater Lake Council, and all the other folks I pestered for information for this story.

Boy Scout Trail photos courtesy of Dave Baselt / Redwood Hikes Press

About Aaron Derr 468 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.