How far would you travel to commune with some of the oldest trees on Earth? We traveled via “the loneliest road in America” from The Coastside on the San Francisco Peninsula to Nevada’s highest peak to have a look.
Great Basin National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the nation, drawing only about 90,000 travelers a year. Unless you count the tiny community of Baker, population 68, the park sits an hour from anywhere and just shy of Utah along US Route 50.
Lehman cave, dark night skies and a forest of Great Basin bristlecone pines (pinus longaeva) are the primary attractions. The prospect of walking among trees that emerged as saplings about the same time the druids began construction of Stonehenge hooked us. Lonely drive aside, our only potential concern was the prospect of hiking to the tree line of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak.
On the trail to the bristlecone pines at Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking
Coastside hiking tops out at about 2,200 feet. Our treks in Patagonia earlier this year reached no higher than 5,000 feet. And while we had hiked at close to 8,000 feet at Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks, both of those treks were more than 20 years and one mitral heart valve repair ago.
The afternoon was cool and the clouds a tad ominous the afternoon of our visit. Snow showers were in the forecast but failed to materialize. Altitude was not an issue. The Park Service was kind enough to build a road to the trail head at 10,000 feet, and the 1.5-mile hike to the forest took us just 600 feet higher.We layered up and had no problems hiking the steady but reasonable grade through more standard stands of firs to the forest of the ancients.
The forest once was home to Prometheus, which back in the day held the distinction of being the oldest known living non-clonal organism in the world. Unfortunately, a researcher – with the blessings of the U.S. Forest Service – cut it down in 1964 to determine its age.
Turns out good ol’ Prometheus was 4,862 years old. Alas, it grew no older. Rangers refuse to reveal the location of the stump, but you can count the rings of a cross section at the visitor center. In 2012, a 5,065-year-old bristlecone was identified in the White Mountains of California.
Unique micro ecosystems are common at Great Basin National Park. These tiny environmental islands shaped by variances in altitude, sunlight, temperature and moisture are home to very specific flora and fauna.
There was no mistaking our arrival among the bristlecones, their trunks and branches twisted and gnarled like arthritic fingers with boughs of green needles juxtaposed at crazy angles. Bristlecones like to grow away from other vegetation in virgin soil, thus their preference for rooting near glacial moraines at the tree line. Wheeler Peak is home to one of three groves in the park and the most accessible.
Rather than rot, the dense bristlecone wood erodes, bends and polishes in the alpine environment. A dead bristlecone might stand for centuries, burnishing in the elements. One interpretive sign describes these spectacular trees as “grotesque.” We beg to differ. We thought these rugged survivors had character.
This post is the second in a series about our adventures on a 6,000-mile road trip across the American West in Fall 2019.