Think you’re getting old? Take a trip to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, on the Nevada-California border near Bishop, Calif., where the oldest tree is nearly 5,000 years old. Makes you feel like a youngster, doesn’t it?
Driving up the White Mountains to the Ancient Bristlecone forest is a treat in itself. The road is slow, but the sights are fantastic. Viewpoints give eye-level views of the Sierra Nevadas, and down below is Bishop, at about 4,000 feet elevation. Its green fields provide a startling contrast to the high desert surrounding the town.
Whether you’re coming from the Nevada or California side, the road is steep and curvy, so use caution. The route to the Interpretive Center begins in Utah juniper and singeleaf pinyon pine. The Utah juniper is common throughout the West and is called "scrub cedar" in some areas. The pinyon provides those delicious pine nuts. Soon, you will pass the Pinyon Picnic Area, a good place to stretch your legs along the Nature Trail. Remember, the air is thinner up here, and you might tire more quickly.
Great expanses of sagebrush stretch across the high desert. This plant grows to about 3 feet high in lower elevations but shrinks in size as the elevation increases. At 11,500 feet, it struggles to about 3 to 4 inches tall. If you are lucky enough to be here after a rainstorm, you’ll be treated to a wonderful sage aroma that identifies the West. Plants dispersed among the sage are bitterbrush, ephedra (Indian tea) and native grasses, including needle-and-thread grass.
Another couple of miles and you’re at Grand View Campground. Even if you aren’t interested in staying for a few days, stop to enjoy the grand view. Look straight across at the Sierra Nevadas, home to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States.
As we slowly climb to the Interpretive Center, bristlecone pines start to appear at about 9,500 feet. I’m surprised these trees at this elevation are quite tall, some as high as 65 feet. I was expecting twisted, stunted trees. At the higher elevation, though, the trees are shorter and more gnarled. A clue to identifying a bristlecone pine is its needles. They are arranged along the branches like a cat or fox’s tail. They remind me of a bottlebrush
The bristlecone pine’s name comes from the long, prickly bristle on the end of the immature cones. Great Basin Bristlecone Pines are found among the high mountain regions of California and Nevada, while the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine grows in smaller groves in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The bristlecone pines of the White Mountain area are the oldest on Earth.
Mixed in among the bristlecone pines are limber pines, easily identified by their light-colored trunks. They earned their name because the branches are very limber and will bend without breaking — a definite advantage when strong winds blow across the White Mountains.
Harsh conditions such as cold temperatures, high winds, poor soil and short growing seasons cause bristlecone pines to grow very slowly, only an inch per century. Their wood is dense and resinous, making it very resistant to insects and fungi. The tree chooses to grow in the poorest soil conditions, here in the alkaline dolomite soil of the White Mountains, for instance. You’ll recognize this dirt by its white color. Few plants can grow in this soil, so the pines don’t have much competition for nutrients and water.
A bristlecone pine tree is adaptable. In times of drought, any available water is diverted to the main part of the tree. This causes the bark and tissue to die, but the tree lives on. Its needles last for 12 to 20 years, so the tree doesn’t expend extra energy growing new needles. In wet years, the trees grow as fast as they can.
When the road forks, go right, into the Interpretive Center, which is at 10,000 feet. Right now, it is in a trailer, but a new center is under construction and will be ready by next summer. The previous center was burned by an arsonist.
There is wildlife at this high altitude. Bighorn sheep, deer, marmots, golden eagles and prairie falcons can be seen, but the bighorn sheep are very shy. There is one horse living in the region. He belonged to a pack station but kept getting loose. Tired of searching for him, they just let him live on this high mountain. He is free to go anywhere he wants but for some strange reason prefers this high country.
Several trails into Schulman Grove start at the Interpretive Center. The 1-mile Discovery Walk is a good introduction to the forest. The first tree more than 4,000 years old, Pine Alpha, was discovered here. All that remains on some trees is a strip of bark and a single living branch. Notice the dead wood on the ground. It doesn’t decay. Ice crystals, dirt and wind have polished the wood to a beautiful cream, red and brown coloring.
The Schulman Grove honors Dr. Edmund Schulman, who determined the age of these trees in the 1950s. He discovered the Methuselah Tree, the world’s oldest living tree. It is 4,777 years old and still producing cones.
Schulman later said, "The capacity of these trees to live so fantastically long may, when we come to understand it fully, perhaps serve as a guidepost on the road to understanding longevity in general."
The Methuselah Walk is 4½ miles long and rated easy. The Methuselah Tree is not identified in the grove because visitors were "loving it to death." People were trampling the ground around the tree base to have their picture taken with the tree and taking needles and pieces of wood for souvenirs. But Methuselah isn’t the only old tree along the walk. At least nine of the trees are more than 4,000 years old.
Dr. Schulman wrote, "There is something a little fantastic in the persistent ability of a 4,000-year-old tree to shut up shop almost everywhere throughout its stem in a very dry year and faithfully to reawaken to add many new cells in a favorable year."
I take my lunch to a picnic table at the Interpretive Center and enjoy the scenery and the smell of the mountain air. A young couple shows their wedding rings to the rangers. They have come all the way from Tennessee to be married in a grove of bristlecone pines.
After lunch, I continue on to Patriarch Grove, 12 miles of dirt road past Schulman Grove. The road can be rough. We make it easily in our car by going slowly, but check for road conditions at the Interpretive Center before you start. The drive provides beautiful views and many photo opportunities. It is only 12 miles but takes 45 minutes to drive. A twisted dead tree with the snow-covered Sierras in the background is my favorite photo stop. I enjoy the standing dead trees, all gnarly and weather-beaten with their tangled roots showing above ground. Summer flowers, not far off the ground, bloom in shades of red, blue, white and purple. With such a short growing season, they must rush to mature.
The Patriarch Grove is home to the Patriarch, not the oldest living tree but the largest. It is only 41 feet tall, but its fluted tree trunk is a massive 36 feet in circumference. Notice that the ground between the trees is barren and, since this is the tree line, the mountain slopes are bare, too. Here, the wind blows almost constantly, there is less than a foot of rain, and winter temperatures fall below zero. Most of the trees tilt toward the southeast from the constant pressure of the wind.
Scientists use the bristlecone pines to tell what the weather was like in the past. Each year that a tree grows, it adds a ring. Wet years produce a wider ring than dry years. Bristlecone pines grow so slowly that there can be as many as 100 tree rings in one inch. A coring, a sample taken from the tree that does not cause any harm, reveals these rings. Sometime microscopes have to be used to count the rings. The coring from the Methuselah Tree shows it was growing before the pyramids of Egypt were built.
Interestingly, recent corings have found that the high-altitude trees are growing faster than at any time in the previous 3,700 years. University of Arizona scientists have suggested that this might be caused by environmental change, because regional temperatures have increased at these higher altitudes in the past fifty years.
Leaving the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, I feel like a kid. Those little seedlings might be only a couple of feet high, but they are several hundred years old.