Walking with the ancients

Fog swirls around a bristlecone pine in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California's Inyo...
Fog swirls around a bristlecone pine in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California's Inyo National Forest. Photo: MCT
The bristlecone pines loomed out of the mist like ghostly apparitions, their limbs reaching in all directions.

Walking among these ancients - the trees are the oldest living things on Earth - after an early autumn snowstorm made their twisted and gnarled shapes appear even more otherworldly.

This is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where many trees are more than 4000 years old and still growing, albeit very slowly.

Even trees that appear dead are often alive.

Found high in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sits in a remote area between California's Sierra Nevada range and the Nevada border.

These hardy trees thrive on adversity, living in harsh conditions and high elevation (about 3000m) where little else survives.

The ancient forest has about 30,000 visitors a year, said Patti Wells, lead ranger for the Inyo National Forest Service.

That's less than 1% of the number of people who visit Yosemite National Park each year. Walkers can view the bristlecones on three loop trails that depart from the Schulman Grove Visitor Centre.

The 7km Methuselah Trail is the hands-down winner.

It was spectacular even on a cold, grey day because it takes you to the oldest trees.

The trail is a treasure trove of bristlecone pines, including the world's oldest living tree, named Methuselah for biblical character believed to be the oldest person.

The Methuselah is

Layers and textures swirl on the bark of an ancient, gnarled bristlecone pine.
Layers and textures swirl on the bark of an ancient, gnarled bristlecone pine.
not labelled, though it is officially listed at 4789 years old, and its location is kept secret to protect it, said Wells, who works at the visitor centre.

Some missing tree rings make it difficult to determine the tree's exact age, but in reality it probably is more than 5000 years old, she said.

The Methuselah Trail, which gains about 213m of elevation and is narrow at some points, is not strenuous and has plenty of benches for rest.

My walking partner and I tried to guess which tree might be Methuselah.

Was it the tallest one? The one with the oddest shape? We also had fun spotting shapes in the trees and calling out fanciful names, such as Medusa and Donald Duck.

The two other trails at Schulman Grove are the 1.6km Discovery Trail, which is the shortest and easiest and has interpretive signs and benches, and the 4km trail to the Mexican Mine.

The latter passes old mine entrances and cabins and provides magnificent views of the eastern Sierra.

If you are ready for more adventure, drive 19km north of Schulman Grove on a dirt road to Patriarch Grove, home to the world's largest bristlecone, the Patriarch Tree.

Finding the ancients:

• Bristlecone pines are found in six western US states, but the oldest are in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

• Scientists have discovered three types of bristlecones. Those in the White Mountains are the Great Basin bristlecone pine, which also grows in Nevada and Utah. The Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine is in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The Sierra foxtail pine grows in California.

• In the White Mountains, bristlecones thrive in a type of limestone called dolomite and with little water by growing their roots laterally. The rocky, alkaline soil limits rival plants and the exposed, windswept landscape keeps insects at bay. High resin content prevents rot. The needles live up to 40 years, which helps in years of stress. Their gnarled shapes reflect this battle with the elements.

• Bristlecones have survived harsh conditions for centuries, but they have a new challenge: white pine blister rust. It's an Asian fungus that arrived in the United States via Europe more than 100 years ago.

If you go:

Getting there: Fly to Los Angeles or Las Vegas and then drive about 480km to the Schulman Grove Visitor Centre.

Contact: National Park Service, www.nps.gov; Inyo National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/inyo.

Hours, fees: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is generally open from mid-May through to the end of November. Schulman Grove is open 10am to 10pm as a day-use area. The temporary Schulman Grove Visitor Centre is open 10am to 5pm daily. The day-use fee is $US3 per person or up to $US6 per vehicle. Children younger than 18 are free.

What to take: Be prepared for any weather conditions.

Where to stay: Grandview Campground (no water) 8km south of Schulman Grove is free, but a donation is suggested. Motels can be found in Bishop, Lone Pine and Big Pine.



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