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The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

By George Stocking - August 2nd, 2000

My truck whines up the steep grade in second gear, straining to gain altitude in the thin mountain air. To the west, the fabulous snow-shredded Sierras tower over the flat expanse of the Owens Valley. I've anticipated this California sojourn for years: a face-to-face rendezvous with the oldest living thing on the planet -- the bristlecone pine.

At last I see the sign telling me I'm entering the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. I continue past the Grandview Campground in Inyo National Forest, where a sign indicates the elevation is 8,500 feet.

Knowing that the lowest elevation at which bristlecones will grow in these mountains is about 9,000 feet, I begin scanning the hillsides for the ancient pines. High on a steep, windswept ridge I spot a lone bristlecone.

I park my truck and begin to walk toward the tree to get up close and personal with the ancient organism.The slope is covered with loose white shale, and I slip and slide as I scramble up the hill to the base of the bristlecone.

Upon closer inspection, the gnarled pine appears to be dead. The smooth, tan wood of the thick trunk is creased with dark lines, creating wonderful and abstract patterns. The slender branches extend upward for 20 feet, contrasting against the pure blue sky. Even in death the tree has a remarkable beauty.

But as I walk around the ancient pine, I spy pine needles on a solitary branch at the top. Examining the trunk more closely, I see a thin strip of bark and trace its circuitous path up the trunk and along the branch to the needles.

This old guy is still alive and kicking -- probably has another four or five centuries.

Soon I arrive at Schulman Grove and the visitor center for the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. Two rangers are inside, and they courteously inform me about the bristlecones here -- the oldest grove on the planet. The grove is named after Dr. Edmund Schulman, who was a scientist in the dendrochronology (tree ring dating) lab at the University of Arizona.

The rangers tell me that in 1953, Schulman ventured into the area after hearing rumors of old trees growing at high elevations. It was in this grove that he discovered a multiple-stem bristlecone dubbed "Patriarch" by a local rancher, which measured an amazing 36 feet in diameter. However, after taking core samples, the age was determined to be a mere 1,500 years.

Later investigations into Inyo National Forest's White Mountains found bristlecones more than 4,000 years old -- the oldest known living organisms on Earth. (Slightly less ancient bristlecones exist in Nevada's Humboldt National Forest, Arizona's San Francisco Peaks and the Rockies in Colorado and northern New Mexico.)

Bristlecones generally grow above 9,000 feet (essentially above tree line) in alpine outcroppings of dolomite -- a magnesia-rich sedimentary rock that resembles limestone. The dolomite reflects more sunlight and contains greater moisture than surrounding rocks, which allows cooler root zones.

While nearby sandstone often hosts other hearty species such as limber pine and sagebrush, pure stands of bristlecone pines can only be found in dolomite soils.

And interestingly, the bristlecones that reside in moister soil with greater nutrients grow fat and tall but have a life expectancy of only 1,000 years or so. These trees (such as the Patriarch mentioned earlier) can reach a height of 60 feet with a girth in excess of 30 feet.

The oldest bristlecones live in the least nutritious soils and reside in the most exposed locations on mountain peaks, and are deceptively small. The first bristlecone that was found to be more than 4,000 years old (called "Pine Alpha") has a girth of only 4 feet.

It seems soil with a high dolomite content produces a denser, resinous wood that is resistant to bacteria, fungus and insects. The wood of these bristlecones is also incredibly resistant to rot. Trunks can remain standing for more than 1,000 years after the tree has died. And when they do finally fall, it's usually due to the erosion of the soil around the roots rather than from decay.

The dry climate and high altitude in the White Mountains and in other Southwest alpine areas make for a very short growing season for the bristlecone -- usually about 45 days in midsummer. During this window the tree forms new needles and cones and stores reserves for the winter. A typical bristlecone will add only a hundredth of an inch to its girth every year. And bristlecone pine needles live somewhere between 20 and 30 years.

Discovery Walk: 1 mile. Pine Alpha is located on this loop but it is unmarked -- as are all the ancients in the park to avoid extra attention from visitors and the possibility of vandalism.

Methuselah Trail: 4 1/4 miles. This trail has the oldest known living organism in the world -- the bristlecone "Methuselah." This tree turned 4,751 years old this year.

Patriarch Grove: This grove sits at an elevation of 11,200 feet in a natural amphitheater with awesome views of the surrounding mountains. Dead wood is scattered on the ground and it is as interesting as the trees themselves. Dendrochronology has shown some of the dead wood is 9,000 years old.

Looking a lot like driftwood, these bleached and weathered bristlecone remnants are extremely important to scientists researching the planet's history. Since the ice age ended some 10,000 years ago, it's possible that an ancient piece of dead wood dating back that far could hold vital clues to the Earth's evolution. Consequently, the seemingly innocent act of picking up a small souvenir piece of dead bristlecone wood is forbidden in the Inyo National Forest.

Trip Planner

Getting there: Turn east onto U.S. 168 one-half mile north of Big Pine. It is a 13-mile drive on paved road to the summit of Westgard Pass where you will see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sign. Here, at Cedar Flat, turn left on White Mountain Road. In the 10 miles to Schulman Grove, you will first drive through forests of pinyon and juniper and, then, as you climb higher, limber pine and bristlecone pine. After visiting Schulman Grove you may continue on White Mountain Road for 12 miles to visit Patriarch Grove. The Ancient Bristlecone Forest is about 278 miles from Los Angeles and 258 miles from San Bernadino.

Season: June to late October.

Fees, permits: None.

Camping: Permitted only at the Grandview Campground on a first come, first served basis. Camping is free, but there is no water available.

Notes: The closest gas stations, phones and stores are in Big Pine. Bring drinking water with you -- it is not available in the forest.


the dive and fee

There is a fee of $3 per person with a maximum of $6 per car that you pay at either Westgard Pass or Schulman Grove. We were just up there yesterday (11/15/09); and there were no rangers, so the fee was on the honor system in a drop box by the temporary structure they have, as the visitor center burned last year, taking three or four bristlecone trees with it.

It was a very clear day; and a beautiful drive. But the drive is not for the faint of heart. I suffer from a fear of heights, so there were more than a few panicky moments for me; but I powered through (not having much of a choice, backing up to turn around would have been harder and more dangerous). However, it is very much well worth the trip; the drive is beautiful (save the panicky times I suffered through). As it was a spur of the moment trip for us, we didn't have much time to walk the trails very far; and our two year old was a bit fussy wanting to be carried most of the way. We will be making the same panicky drive next year during the summer months for a much longer and better prepared adventure. (Which will start in Bishop at Schat's Bakery for our breakfast and pick up our picnic lunch for the summit). :-)

Posted on November 16, 2009 - 2:32pm
by Bradley Martin

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