For a look at some of the oldest trees in the world, we headed up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains. The visitor center is in the Inyo National Forest, about 24 miles east of Big Pine. Take U.S. 395 to SR 168 east and continue to White Mountain Road. Don’t expect to arrive in 25 minutes. The hairpin turns and S-curves make for slow going, and you may want to stop along the way.
Along the way is Sierra View Overlook, about 20 miles from Big Pine, where a short hike from the parking lot took us to spectacular views that spanned almost 360-degrees. With smoke engulfing the lower altitudes, we weren’t able to see Mt. Whitney or Mt. Dana in Yosemite National Park or Mono Lake. Only a silhouette of the Sierra Nevada Range was visible.
The park had already prepared for winter by boarding up the visitor center. There were plenty of information panels along the boardwalk that detailed the trees and shrubs in Schulman Grove. The visitor center is new construction, having been built after a fire on September 4, 2008, destroyed the original.
There are two trails at the visitor center: The 1.0-mile loop Discovery Trail and the 4.2-mile loop Methuselah Trail. Both are advertised as easy-moderate and start at the visitor center. We only had time for the Discovery Trail, where along the way, additional information signs told us about the trees and Schulman Grove.
The park named the grove after Dr. Edmund Schulman who in 1953 discovered that the bristlecone trees were over 4,000 years old. His discovery led to a calibration of the carbon-14 dating technique and changed the estimate of when ancient man first possessed certain technologies.
Younger bristlecone pines and those growing in nourishing soil stand tall with plenty of branches and needles. The ancient trees are my favorite, with their gnarly growth forms that twist this way and that way. They may have spikey dead tops, limbs and trunks with bare wood, or polished limbs, strips of bark growing up the tree, and exposed roots.
Steep, exposed slopes and the alkaline dolomite soil is the perfect growing medium for the long-lived trees. The white soil formed at the bottom of an ocean when deposits of small particles of dead organisms, sand, and silt formed sediment deposits 650 million years ago. Bristlecone pines that grow in better soils and receive more moisture grow faster and taller, but they die sooner.
Short and dry growing seasons make for slow growth, allowing pines to produce only tiny amounts of extremely dense and resinous wood each year. Insects, animal pests, infection, heart rot, and even fire are not a danger to the bristlecone pines. The hard wood and resin protect the tree.
Bristlecones can lose 90% of their bark and keep growing with just a narrow bark strip connecting live limbs and roots. The trees spread out in their environment instead of crowding close together. This leaves a natural firebreak that can limit the spread of wildfires.
I would have thought some of these ancient trees were ready to topple over when I saw their exposed roots. Not so. Scientists estimate the average rate of erosion in the Discovery Grove is one foot of soil loss per one thousand years. The exposed roots do make the trees susceptible to disease and insect infestation, so that is a factor in the trees’ lifespan.
This is another place where the Pacific and North American plates created mountains that tower above the valley floors. Through the folding, faulting, and uplifting action of the plates, the bottom of an ocean rose over 10,000 feet to create the White Mountains. Standing at 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s hard to believe the ground on which we stood was once below sea level. Of course, this took hundreds of thousands of years, but the forces needed to achieve such a feat are hard to comprehend.
Extreme heat and pressure from the platonic movements altered sandstone grains, melting and fusing them together and creating the red quartzite in the photo below. Forces from wind and rain exposed the red rock. Rain seeped into cracks in the red rock where it froze, expanded, and broke the slabs apart. The pieces then fell, rolled, or slid down the mountain and collected in a talus slope.
Unfortunately, we missed seeing the largest bristlecone pine, the Patriarch Tree. A 12-mile dirt road with a 15 mph speed limit leads to Patriarch Grove, where the tree is located. It was too late in the day for us to travel farther than Schulman Grove.
It was a humbling experience to learn these trees were already 1,000 years old during Shakespeare’s time. Nothing like a 4,000-year-old tree to make me feel like my lifetime was but a microscopic speck in this great universe.
Other locations where the Great Basin bristlecone pines grow are Utah and Nevada. The Foxtail bristlecone pine grows in the Klamath Mountains of California and in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The Rocky Mountains claim their own species of bristlecone pines, which have gray-brown bark instead of the orange-yellow to light brown of those found in The Ancient Bristlecone Forest.
Scientists are not sure what fate awaits the trees because of climate change and global warming. Although they have noted that new generations of trees are taking root at higher elevations. Will the older generations survive? Time will tell as competing plants, insects, fire, and higher temperatures encroach on their ideal location. Only our descendants will discover the answer, if humans endure long enough.
Up next will be the last post detailing our October 2020 adventure during the pandemic.
Until then, stay safe.