Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

37°23’09.2″N 118°10’44.0″W

Nestled high in the White Mountain Range in California, elevation 9,800-11,000ft, lies the oldest known living non-clonal organisms in the world. The Bristlecone Pines are trees that have a unique ability to survive in harsh conditions and in less than ideal soil. The oldest of these trees does not have a name but it is estimated that it germinated in 3051 BC, 5,068 years ago, around the time that Ancient Egypt was first being formed. These trees have stood the test of time with many of them being older than Babylon, Rome, Macedonia, the Mongol Empire or the First Dynasty of China. Back when only Native Americans roamed these lands, thousands of years before Columbus or even Leif Eriksson “discovered” North America.

As impressive as the age of these trees is, they are not the oldest living trees. Non-clonal refers to a single tree per root system or individual tree, there are many clonal trees in the world that are much older including a grove of aspens in Fish Lake National Forest in Utah, known as Pando, that is estimated to be 80,000 years old. It is considered one of the oldest and largest organisms in the world covering 106 acres of land with over 47,000 trees from the same root system.

There are three species of bristlecone all of which grow in scattered sub-alpine groves at high altitude in arid regions of the Western United States.

  • Great Basin species (Pinus longaeva) can be found in Utah, Nevada and eastern California. The trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are from this species.
  • Rocky Mountain species (Pinus aristata) can be found in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. These are the most populous and unlike the other two these can form a closed canopy.
  • Foxtail Pine species (Pinus balfouriana) can be found in the southern Sierra Nevada and in northern California in the Klamath Mountains
bc-map
Photo taken from an informational plaque at the visitors center.

Their secret to long life doesn’t come from being coddled; it comes from their ability to adapt to harsh environments of the sub-alpine and their ability to tolerate soil that other plants cannot. Growing in this harsh soil helps keep other plants or trees from competing for resources but it also keeps wild fires from spreading rapidly. They grow slowly in response to drought and a short growing season producing a dense, resinous wood that resists mold, fungus, rodents and bark beetles. They can also survive with only 10% of their bark intact. As you hike through this forest you see the trees more densely populated in the areas more sheltered from the elements and the trees in these areas look healthier. They are taller, fuller and more upright but these trees are coddled. Their wood isn’t as hard, they aren’t as resistant, they aren’t as strong. When you look out to the wind swept ridges and steep hillsides you see the gnarled, almost dead looking trees with hardly any needles or bark, these are the majestic elders of the forest, these are the oldest single trees in the world. They keep the exact location of the oldest trees a secrete to protect them from vandalism, but this kind of adds to the allure, it could be any one of those trees.

All of the research I’ve done so far refers to the oldest tree as the oldest known tree and for good reason. Not all of the trees have been cored to detect their age and the oldest known tree has changed a few times over the years. Before 1964 the oldest known tree was called Prometheus and it was located in the Great Basin National Park on Wheeler Peak. It is unclear what the exact reasoning for it was but it was cut down, with permission from the forest service (it wasn’t a national park at the time), and that is when it’s true age was determined to be around 4,900 years old (read more about it here https://www.nps.gov/grba/learn/historyculture/the-prometheus-story.htm). With the death of Prometheus, Methuselah, 4,862 years old, in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest took the title until the new unnamed tree claimed it in 2013.

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On Nov 7th 2016, I finally made the drive up to this forest. I had known about this place for years and though I had been to the Owen’s Valley many times on climbing and hiking trips I had never been here. I didn’t do any research before going, it was a whim to do on the last day of a four day weekend in Lone Pine with a failed attempt on Mount Whitney. I had seen pictures of bristlecones and knew the oldest was here but other than that I knew nothing of the area. As such I only gave myself a couple of hours to visit so that I could do some more research and come back and see more. I hiked one trail and it was the perfect length to break up the lactic acid and soreness from my Whitney attept, I hiked out to the Mexican Mine then continued past it to do a 4 mile loop back to the visitor’s center.

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The mine was interesting, there was no hole to explore but the old housing and some other ruins were still there. You hike past a patch of newly germinated bristlecones, beautiful views of the High Sierra to the west and possibly a view of Death Valley in the far off distance to the South. If you have more than a couple of hours to explore I recommend picking up the trifold brochure and doing the Methuselah Trail, I will be doing that on my next visit for sure.

This place and these trees have captured my imagination and I look forward to more trips to this majestic place. I had already planned on visiting the Great Basin National Park during my up coming travels, now I look forward to seeing more of these trees while I’m there as well.

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