If bristlecone pines could talk they would have stories to tell. Perhaps they would recall a time when much of Nevada was still covered with water. Or speak of the prehistoric people who wrote on rocks.
As the oldest living things—they can grow for more than 5,000 years — bristlecone pines have outlived most civilizations. Some still growing today were already a few thousand years old before the time of Christ.
It’s not surprising that the centuries-old bristlecone pine tree, which is one of Nevada’s two official state trees, has fascinated people since its existence was announced to the world in National Geographic magazine in 1958.
There is a quiet majesty and grace to these ancient trees, which have seemingly defied the affects of time and the harsh elements.
Bristlecones thrive in the most inhospitable of climates and conditions. The trees, which are named after their compact, bristle brush-like needles, grow in rocky soil between 9,000 and 11,500 feet above sea level.
Additionally, they seek out unprotected turf, meaning they flourish in areas exposed to the full fury of the winds, rains and snows found on mountaintops. In the best conditions, they can grow to heights of more than sixty feet and five feet in diameter, although most are about half that size.
Despite their desolate surroundings, the trees are beautiful. The older bristlecones become gnarled and twisted, and acquire a special texture and character shared by no other tree.
The bristlecone is an unusual tree in that as it ages it allows part of its trunk and roots to die, yet manages to hold on to life. It’s not uncommon to find a bristlecone tenuously hanging on to life by only a thin strip of bark that stretches from a single root to a handful of needle-covered limbs.
In his book, “Trees of the Great Basin,” dendrologist Ronald M. Lanner notes that while some writers have wondered why the bristlecone can live so long, the better question is why does it take so long for one to die?
He suggests the adverse conditions actually allow the trees to live so long because the environment eliminates competition from other vegetation.
Even in death, the trees are remarkable. Because a bristlecone’s wood is so dense and resinous, it takes a long time to decay and is unusually hard. A dead bristlecone can stand for decades.
In Nevada, we’re fortunate to have a handful of groves of these unique trees, including stands in the Snake Range, the White Mountains, the Rubies, the Grant Range and a few other sites.
The most accessible groves can be found in Great Basin National Park, which incorporates part of the Snake Range, in eastern Nevada. There, on Wheeler Peak, you can find an estimated 8,500 individual Bristlecone plants, although most are seedlings.
To reach the Wheeler Peak grove, drive from the visitor center at the park to the Wheeler Peak Campground. The trail, which is at an elevation of 9,960 feet, begins from the parking area near the campground.
The walk is about four miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of about 500 feet (dress warmly and carry water). The trail passes picturesque Teresa Lake, then continues uphill via a series of switchbacks to the trees.
The stand, which is well described by interpretive signs, is magnificent. As you wander about, you can find trees that are more than 1,500 years old and one said to be more than 3,000 years old.
The world’s oldest known living bristlecone pine was discovered on Wheeler Peak in the early 1960s. Sadly, the tree, which was about 5,000 years old, was cut down in August 1964 to, ironically, determine its age.
Another good place to see bristlecones is in the Schulman Grove (in the White Mountains), located south of Bishop. To reach the stand, head to Big Pine, then travel east on California Route 168 to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
The Schulman grove is home of Methusaleh, which is now the oldest known living bristlecone pine. It is believed to be more than 4,600 years old. A four-mile interpretive trail winds through the trees.
Once in the cluster of these ancients, it’s difficult not to be awed—and just a little bit humbled to be standing in their presence.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.