Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Walking in the World's Oldest Known Living Forest

We had never known that literally the world's oldest creatures were waiting for us just over the rather bleak mountains to the East along the familiar route to Mammoth on Highway 395.  It's easy to overlook these mountains - usually, all eyes are on the grand, snow-capped Sierra Nevada, rising majestically to the West.  We would always catch a glimpse of the modest wooden sign for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest out of the corners of our eyes, but it's not one of those places that is talked about much, and no one ever seemed to be driving in the direction away from the Sierra Nevada anyhow.  We didn't really make it a point to figure out what was there until more recently.  I don't think that either of us were expecting to be so blown away when we finally visited the bristlecone forest this past Labor Day weekend.  We ended up returning a second time a few weeks later, in November, with my parents.

Looking like they came straight out of a Tim Burton movie, the dramatic ancient bristlecone pines high in the mountains of eastern California capture in their twisted, knotted, striated appearance what it's like to be alive for thousands of years on Planet Earth.  They have struggled through ice, wind, and who knows what else, and continue to live and breathe even now.  These trees are the oldest known living organisms in the world -- some of them are over 4,000 years old, and the oldest one is measured to be nearly 5,000 years old (date seeded = 2833 BC!).  It would have been awesome to know which one it was...but its identity is kept a secret for its protection.  To say the least, it was an incredibly humbling experience to walk amongst all of these powerful trees, and crazy to think about what the world might have been like at the time of their birth.

The bristlecone pine trees grow in a very windy and harsh climate up in the White Mountains, a desert mountain range across from the Sierra Nevada.  Given a choice between the two mountain ranges, I'd be hard pressed to find someone who would choose to live in the White Mountains over the Sierra Nevada.  While the Sierra Nevada mountains are characterized by lakes, cascades, granite cliffs, and leafy aspen trees, the White Mountains are a rocky, shrubby, and barren land.  It is hard to believe that things could manage to survive up there, but that is exactly why the Ancient Bristlecones are so amazing.  When we got up close to them, we were astounded to see that every tree is a unique work of art, gradually carved and painted by the forces of nature.  You can imagine how long it took for us to walk through these groves with our cameras.

We pulled up to the Visitor's Center at 10,000 ft. in elevation after about an hour of driving from our campground in Big Pine (we camped at Baker Creek Campground - would recommend!).  It was about 100 degrees down at our campsite, so the weather up here was super comfortable and a pleasant getaway in September.  I could totally feel my ears popping during the drive up, as we climbed thousands of feet (thankfully, in a car and not on foot).  Things here were noticeably different here - the air was thin and the atmosphere was dry.  I hear that it gets extremely windy at night.

On this first visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, it was just Wes and I so we decided to do the longer Methuselah Trail, a 3.7-mile loop through some super ancient groves.  Let me tell you, there was like... a mindblowingly-cool tree every few feet.  We had a little Methuselah Walk guidebook that we got from the Visitor's Center that gave us a lot of cool facts.  It even clued us in to where the secret Methuselah Tree would be.

So the trail starts off behind the Visitors' Center.  This area is a little more wooded and green compared to other parts of the trail since the trees growing here are North-facing.  The snow sticks around a little longer here than the South-facing areas.  The trees are also much taller and thinner than the shorter, stumpy ones that we saw later.

Then, the trail veers around the mountain and suddenly we're facing South, with a view of the desert mountain landscape.

From this point, we could see tons and tons of bristlecones dotting the mountain with not much else filling in the blank spaces between them.  These trees dominate the landscape, and the ecosystem.  Few species can tolerate the nutrient-poor and highly alkaline dolomite soil (it's pretty much rocks, not soil), so there's practically no other types of plants here.

Now the trees look a lot more rugged and seem to sprout right out of the rocks.

I don't really know what Wes is up to in the next picture...

The wood grain is just unreal on all of these trees, right??  Smooth to the touch from being warped by the wind, chiseled by ice, and intricately colored by the sun over thousands of years.

Then, at about 2 miles (halfway point), the trail begins to drop in elevation.  In this new zone, a few different plant communities can coexist, like the Mountain Sagebrush and Mountain Mahogany.

At 2.3 miles, we arrive to an area aptly named the Sculpture Garden.  We spent a decent amount of time here looking for the elusive Methuselah Tree!  We'll never know if we found it, but we feel that we have a few good contenders.  Basically, we tried to find the biggest, gnarliest one.

After we got home and tried to use the Internet to figure out whether we had found Methuselah or not, even Google's best sources led us to nothing.  The tree's identity really is the park's best-kept secret.  I guess that's one of the captivating features of this place - it keeps you guessing.

...buuuut we think it's this one??

After this, the trail starts going back up and we end back at the beginning, forming a loop.  I sped through the last mile because I needed to pee so badly.  We hadn't anticipated taking so much time to see the trees.

I don't understand why this place isn't more busy - it's like a total hidden gem high up in these unassuming, unsung, and unforgiving White Mountains.  During the whole Methuselah Trail, we ran into maybe six or seven other hikers.

There were more people on the Discovery Trail, though.  Two weekends ago, we came back to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest with my parents.  I really wanted them to see and experience these awesome trees too.  By this time of year, it was much colder and we were wearing triple layers and gloves.  We took them on the Discovery Trail, which is only a 1-mile loop but with views that are just as astounding and a little bit different too.

The trail starts off at a steady incline.  Then, it winds around and the view completely changes.  We could see the winding road that took us up here, cutting plainly through the mountains.  There were also tons of red, jagged rocks, in piles, all around us.  My dad and Wes had a good time stacking them (or maybe they were just killing time while my mom was catching up).

Then we suddenly see along the horizon, the shapes of what looks to me like big flames.  It's insane how these trees look, silhouetted against the sky.  Wes edited the photos like this to really bring out the shapes:

Terrifying, wouldn't you say?

These are so cool!

I think that my parents loved seeing the Ancient Bristlecone Pines.  I was so glad that we could be up here all together, even though it was so cold!  It was awesome to witness this natural wonder - they've been here forever, but we still can't take their existence for granted.  Things might not be good for them right now... a just-published LA Times article from October 2017 states that they are being overwhelmed by climate change.  But the changes are all a part of nature's plan - new species of trees are starting to germinate, causing competition for resources.

We may never live to see whatever happens to these trees, but what's definite is that they've lived very, very long and difficult lives.  Really glad that we stopped by to pay our respects.


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