The bristlecone pine tree is an amazing species to me. Despite its hardiness there are very few bristlecone pine forests in the world because they grow in a limited range. They only prosper between 9 and 11,000 feet in dolomite, a highly alkaline limestone soil. This condition exists in the White Mountains south of Bishop, California. This forest is up a winding and rather difficult but worthwhile road. The two roads to it are 16 miles south of Bishop at the town of Big Pine.
We turned right on Highway 168 because we were heading north at the time. This highway continues east after the turnoff to the bristlecone pine forest in the Inyo National Forest south of the highest point in Nevada. The left turn to Schulman Grove occurs after driving 13 miles. This stand of bristlecones has an elevation of 10,000 feet, and the turn-off to it is after a one lane section of Highway 168. This bristlecone pine forest is 2 miles past the fantastic Sierra Vista Overlook where I took the photos above.
Bristlecone pine forests are found in only 2 places in California. They exist in 16 spots in Nevada including less-visited Great Basin National Park. There are fewer bristlecone pine forests in Utah but they exist. That’s it!
Bristlecone pines produce a dense resinous wood that resists insects and other pests. They also resist fire. The seasonal Schulman Grove Visitor Center that was not open when Ruth and I were there was completely destroyed by fire in 2008, but the forest is still there. Bristlecones grow where other pine trees can’t because they thrive in nutrient-poor soil. They do not experience much growth each year but have a hard wood that does not decay. They tend to die in better soil and can stay alive with little bark. In fact, they can lose 90% of their bark and still grow. Bristlecone growth rings provide a summary of past history. Scientists can learn about volcanic eruptions, floods, and fires by studying this tree’s rings.
This particular stand of bristlecones was discovered in 1953 when Doctor Edmund Schulman found them. Some of them have been around for more than 4,000 years and are the world’s oldest known specimens. These can be seen on the easy one-mile long Discovery Trail that makes a loop. The other available trail is the 4 1/2 mile Methuselah for serious hikers that offers a glimpse of Death Valley and is described as “moderately strenuous”. If you take it, however, you will see the oldest trees on Planet Earth.