Bristlecone pines stand through the ages

Bristlecone pines, the world's oldest living things, stand high atop isolated mountains in six Western states, surviving millennia in harsh environments.

In Nevada, we find them in several ranges, including the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas and near Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, where age dating proves some of the trees were young when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction.

Visitors to the Spring Mountains see bristlecones intermingled with several other kinds of evergreens as they drive up into the mountain canyons. Their boughs bear drooping ends covered all the way around with clusters of fairly short needles resembling the bushy tail of a fox. They keep their needles for decades. Their cones are recognizable by their sharp spines or bristles.

Often called foxtail pines, the bristlecones stand tall, erect and quite lush at the lower elevations of their range. Hikers on the high mountain trails often mistake them for completely different trees. At high elevations near timberline, they will be the only trees growing. They endure high winds, cold temperatures and little precipitation. They become twisted and warped out of tree shape, naked of most bark and greenery and often clinging to life by means of narrow strips of bark. Some grow in tight spirals close to the ground forming trunks that are bigger around than the tree is tall. It is at these extremes that the oldest among them are found. Their dense, resinous wood resists pests and even fires.

In Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, the National Park Service extols their unique stands of ancient bristlecones, dated among the oldest by tree-ring counting, or dendrochronology. Several trails in the park take hikers among the twisted patriarchs, which have stood there upward of 4,000 years.

In 1964, before the area became a national park, a student drilling tree-core samples asked to cut down a tree to analyze the rings after his drill broke. With permission granted, he destroyed one of the most ancient living things on Earth, for the tree ring count indicated the tree called "Prometheus" was 4,862 years old.

In Cedar Breaks National Monument in Southern Utah, the park service situated its lone campground near bristlecone groves . The oldest trees growing there are youngsters in comparison to Great Basin at around 1,500 years of age. Bristlecones also live in Bryce Canyon National Park, picturesquely posing at the highest points along the rim drive.

Nowhere are the bristlecones more examined than in the White Mountains of California near the Nevada state line, part of Inyo National Forest. Through study of living and dead standing bristlecones, as well as their downed branches, scientists have correlated tree ring evidence back 8,500 years, nearly to the last ice age. Set aside as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the trees attract visitors from snowmelt in mid-May through November when winter snows usually arrive.

The shortest route to the White Mountains for Southern Nevadans is 233 miles using U.S. Highway 95 to Lida Junction, Nevada Route 266 to Oasis Ranch and California Route 168 to the White Mountain Road. Because of three 7,000-foot passes and a couple of slow, twisting sections, some drivers prefer to go the long way. They follow U.S. 95, U.S. Highway 6 and U.S. Highway 395 through Bishop, Calif., to Big Pine and then up into the White Mountains preserve. Entrance costs $5 per vehicle.

The paved White Mountain Road climbs seven miles to 10,000 feet elevation at Schulman Grove, named for the man who discovered the longevity of the pines. A graded road runs 13 miles farther to Patriarch Grove, where some of the oldest trees stand at 11,200 feet. The oldest pine in the preserve is "Methuselah," now 4,844 years old.

A temporary visitor center houses information and exhibits, displaced by an arson fire in 2008. A new, state-of-the-art facility opens Sept. 1, with ceremonies and special events. Call 760-873-2500 for details. You can picnic in the preserve. The nearest camping area is five miles away at Grandview Campground with 26 free sites available without reservations. To help prevent altitude sickness, drink lots of water, sip coffee and eat chocolate.

Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.