Last May, on a drive home from Palm Springs to Seattle, we took the less-traveled route along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas on Highway 395. Not only did we get to experience a part of the country we hadn’t seen before, but it also gave us an opportunity to take a detour and visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest just east of Bishop, CA. In our earlier travels through Utah and Nevada, we’d seen stands of bristlecone pines that were several thousands of years old, but the trees in the White Mountains of California are much older, closer to five thousand years.
Neither of us had heard of the bristlecone pine before our first visit to Bryce Canyon National Park. It was there that a ranger at the Visitor Center information desk recommended we drive to Rainbow Point at the southern end of the park to see them. “There’s a great trail up there, the Bristlecone Loop, that will take you past trees that are some of the oldest living things on the planet,” he told us. When the ranger said “up there” he was referring to the elevation; Rainbow Point sits at a whopping 9,100 feet. Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) can only live in high altitudes ranging from 9,000 to 11,000 ft.
At Rainbow Point, I wondered if we would know a bristlecone pine when we saw one, but after reading the information sign at the trailhead, they were easy to spot as we meandered along the mile-long loop trail. The trees’ actively growing limbs, with tightly clustered needles, look like large pipe cleaners with purple cones on the ends. The trunks and older branches are twisted and gnarled. We were concerned that many of them seemed to be dead with mostly bare branches and just one or two limbs sprouting green needles. We learned later that this is an adaptation process called “sectored architecture,” which means that the tree roots feed only the part of the tree directly above them. If one root dies, the section of the tree above it dies, but the rest of the tree continues to live.
It’s hard to believe that bristlecone pines can survive so long in such harsh, windy climates, yet they have adapted and thrived longer than any other tree. Growing in rocky, dry, nutrient-poor soil, they’re buried under snow and subjected to frigid temperatures most of the year. Their growing season lasts for only two months in the summer, but because they retain their needles for up to 40 years, they require fewer nutrients for new growth. And their growth comes at a snail’s pace: one-hundredth of an inch in a good year.
On our California trip, we spent the night in the tiny town of Big Pine, situated in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. In the morning we followed Highway 168 east for 13 miles into the mountains until we reached the turnoff for White Mountain Road. From there it was a ten-mile drive on a narrow, winding road with steep drop-offs. As our Ford F150 climbed to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, we gawked at the incredible views, and by the time we parked, light sleet pelted us. That morning, when we checked out of our Big Pine motel, the desk clerk told us White Mountain Road had just reopened the day before. That should have been our first clue that spring probably hadn’t yet made it to the Visitor Center at 9,850 feet above sea level. Being May, we expected to find spring-like weather in the Inyo National Forest, but in the White Mountains, it was still winter.
The reason we were looking forward to visiting this specific ancient forest was because it’s home to the Methuselah tree, one of the oldest trees on Earth. In 1953, a tree scientist named Edmund Schulman, acting on a tip he received from an Inyo National Forest Ranger, climbed to more than 11,000 feet in the wilderness of the White Mountains to examine some unusual trees, which turned out to be bristlecone pines. For several years Schulman took samples from these trees using a tool called an increment borer, which has an augur bit attached to a long, hollow tube. The borer allows researchers to extract a core sample of wood tissue from a living tree while causing relatively minor injury to the tree. By 1957 he had discovered that the oldest of these trees were all clustered in one particular area, and through his ring sampling, he found the granddaddy of them all, which he dubbed Methuselah. His tests showed it to be 4,789 years old, much older (by thousands of years) than anyone had initially suspected bristlecone pines could live.
Methuselah held the title of the oldest known tree until 2013 when another bristlecone pine in the same area was discovered to be over 5,067 years old. Methuselah and the other unnamed pine’s exact locations are now kept a secret to protect them from vandals and souvenir hunters. When the National Geographic published Schulman’s research in the late 1950s, tourists flocked to the area, breaking off parts of Methuselah to take home. Recently the forest was the victim of another tragedy: in 2008 an arsonist burned down the Schulman Grove Visitor Center and several bristlecone pines surrounding it.
When we parked in the empty Visitor Center lot and got out of the car, it was 28 degrees with a few inches of snow covering the ground. Because we’d spent the week in Palm Springs, we didn’t have much in the way of warm clothes with us, so we rifled through our luggage and put on as many layers as we could find. The Visitor Center was closed; a sign on the door said it would reopen in the summer. Despite the winter conditions, it was peaceful having the entire place to ourselves.
From the Visitor Center, we trudged our way through the snow on the one-mile loop Discovery Trail. Bristlecone pines were everywhere, and we frequently stopped to take photos. The Methuselah Tree lives somewhere along the Methuselah Trail, a 4.5-mile loop with 900 feet elevation gain. We decided against hiking it that day; the sleet had turned to snow, and we were concerned the trail and our tracks would be covered by new snow, leaving us unable to find our way back. Matt was also concerned about having limited visibility and poor traction on the drive down the mountain, so we headed back to the truck and left.
We plan to go back one day and spend more time in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. On our next trip, we’ll be sure to add a visit to the Patriarch Grove, home to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine at 41 feet tall. The grove is twelve miles past the Schulman Grove Visitor Center (and another 1,000 feet elevation gain), along a dirt road. And of course we’ll hike the Methuselah Trail, searching for Methuselah, although we’ll never know for sure which tree it is. A Google search of “Methuselah Tree” returns photos of several different trees, and none of them match the images we saw in an old documentary. Hopefully, its exact location will remain a mystery forever. Just walking amongst those ancients, trees older than the Egyptian Pyramids, will be enough for us.
Other public lands with Bristlecone Pine Trees
Great Basin National Park, Nevada. There are three bristlecone pine groves in the park. The Wheeler Peak Grove is the most accessible: a 3-mile round trip hike from the Wheeler Peak campground.
Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah. Spectra Point Overlook is a 2-mile roundtrip hike along the rim of the canyon, and you can continue on the Ramparts Overlook trail for a 4-mile roundtrip hike. Bristlecone pines are found along this trail and at Spectra Point.