After visiting the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, we adventured to see the oldest living trees in the world – the amazing bristlecone pines. They are 4,000 or even 5,000 years old and still standing. They live deep in the mountains and survive in the most unlikely environment: above 10,000 feet, cold winter, short growing season, and poor soil. How did bristlecone pines attain their longevity? We were to find out.
We left our campground which at about 7,500 feet in the morning and drove down the winding mountain road to Big Pine with an elevation of 4,000 feet. After passing the “big pine”- a giant sequoia at the intersection of Highway 395 and road 168, we were on our way to meet the ancient bristlecone pines. From the distance, we saw lines of the road zigzag climbing up the mountains and then it disappeared at the pass. Yellow flowering rabbitbrushes brightened up the desert landscape. We came to a section of wavy road that tossed us up and down like riding the wave. Then the narrow road cut deep through giant rocks. The road wound its way through siltstones and sandstones, and then blue limestones. Westgard Pass divides the range into White Mountains in the north and Inyo Mountains in the south. More bluish short Pinyon pines appeared along the road. In this dry and harsh environment, it might be better to stay short. Pinyon pines were laden with small pine cones. Pine nuts of Pinyon pines are said to be delicious.
We passed the Grandview Campground at an elevation of 8,600 feet and the road started to become steep and winding. Our GMC Canyon made numerous scary switchbacks and took us to Sierra View where the panoramic view of Sierras awaits. Only at this high elevation did we feel how deep Owens Valley is. Amid the chilly morning wind, I walked to the tip of the Sierra View point at an elevation of about 9,298 feet. I was almost as high as those majestic Sierra Mountains. It was a breathtaking view of high Sierras all the way from Mt. Dana in Yosemite to Mt. Whitney (not visible). The recent snow made the peaks more beautiful. Soaring above Big Pine, the Palisades stood out with their gleaming glaciers wrapping around their steep peaks. The contrast scene of Owens Valley was obvious with the dry Owens Lake at the south and trees and farmlands at Big Pine. A dark lizard peaked its head out from the dark boulders looking at me. Pinon pines still survive at this elevation. A dwarf juniper laid on the ground was still exuberant.
We kept on going higher on the narrow steep mountain road and finally arrived at Shulman Grove Visitor Center. Yeah!!! How excited we were! At an elevation of 10,000 feet, it opens from May through October. After listening to the lecture given by the ranger and watching a short movie about bristlecone pines, we had our lunch and decided which trail to go. I was going to take the strenuous Methuselah Walk to find the oldest living tree but it would take 2 to 4 hours. So I had to give up my desire to meet “Methuselah,” 4,849 years old granddaddy, and took a hike on discovery trail.
The one-mile Discovery Trail was a moderate challenging hilly trail with interpretive signs along the way. Dr. Shulman used dendrochronology, the study of tree-rings by taking core samples of trees, to identify the oldest bristlecone pine in the world. Ancient bristlecone pines with age over 4,000 years old live on this dry, sunny southern slope. One would think good environment such as water and good soil contributes to longevity of trees. But bristlecone pines are the ancient dwarfs that live in an adverse environment with few competitors. With an only 45 days growing season, bristlecone pines grow only one inch over 100 years. In dry years, they grow even slower. The slow growth creates very hard, dense and resinous wood that ward off disease and insects. Aha! This might be the secret of longevity.
The southern slope was hilly with white dolomite soil and scattered dolomites. There are two types of pines here: limber pines and bristlecone pines. Bristlecone pines prefer less nutrient but higher moist dolomite soil. Bristlecone pines have twisted, long, narrow branches. One ancient bristlecone pine had exposed roots with severe soil erosion underneath. A 3 feet soil erosion from the original soil level. Big white dolomite rocks are under its main root system. However, this ancient bristlecone pine took a stronghold of the upper eroding soil with its strong and twisted roots and still alive after thousands of years. Its twisted, gnarled, bark exposed main body – the grandad and dad have given up, but its side body – the junior still lives strong. The exposed roots might be vulnerable to disease and insects. A Clark’s Nutcracker twitted on top of a pine, wishing this ancient tree live for another thousand years.
The returning trail was a slope filled with red quartzite rocks. Two ancient bristlecone pines stood on the slope where a patch of dolomites was. From the size of the multi-trunk, it seemed to be at least 4,000 years. Could this be the oldest in this grove? I couldn’t decide which bristlecone pine I saw was the oldest in this grove because the ages of trees were not identified in order to protect these ancients. I guess the one with the thickest multi-trunks might be the oldest. But they all deserve my respect. And I love each of them because each one is unique and has a strong soul in it.