The bristlecone pines loomed out of the mist like ghostly apparitions, their limbs reaching in all directions. These trees in the Ancient...
BIG PINE, Calif. — The bristlecone pines loomed out of the mist like ghostly apparitions, their limbs reaching in all directions.
These trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are among the oldest on earth, some more than 4,000 years old and still growing, albeit very slowly. Even trees that appear dead in this other-worldly landscape are often alive.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sits in the remote White Mountains area between California’s Sierra Nevada range and the Nevada border within California’s Inyo National Forest.
There the hardy bristlecone trees thrive on adversity, living in harsh conditions and high elevation — about 10,000 feet — where little else survives.
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These bristlecones cope with little water by growing their roots laterally. The rocky, alkaline soil limits rival plants and the exposed, windswept landscape keeps insects at bay. Their gnarled shapes reflect this battle with the elements
The ancient forest gets about 30,000 visitors a year, said Patti Wells, lead ranger for the Inyo National Forest Service. That’s less than 1 percent of the number of people who visit Yosemite National Park each year.
Hikers can view the bristlecones on three loop trails that depart from the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail is the hands-down winner as it takes you to the oldest bristlecones. The oldest tree — listed as 4,789 years old — is named after Methuselah, believed in the Bible to be the oldest person.
The Methuselah tree isn’t labeled and its location is kept secret to protect it, said Wells, who works at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Some missing tree rings make it difficult to determine the tree’s exact age, but it probably is more than 5,000 years old, she said.
The Methuselah Trail, which gains about 700 feet of elevation and is narrow at some points, is not strenuous and has plenty of benches for rest. The two other trails at Schulman Grove are the one-mile Discovery Trail, the shortest and easiest with interpretive signs and benches, and the 2.5-mile trail to the Mexican Mine. It passes old mine entrances and cabins and provides magnificent views of the eastern Sierra.
If you’re up for more adventure, drive 12 miles north of Schulman Grove on a dirt road to Patriarch Grove, home to the world’s largest bristlecone, the Patriarch Tree.
Bristlecone pines are found in six western states, but the oldest are in California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Scientists have discovered three types of bristlecones. Those in the White Mountains in California are the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, which also grows in Nevada and Utah.
The Sierra Foxtail Pine also grows in California; the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.