Friday, January 3, 2014

Day hike past 4,000-year-old trees in ancient bristlecone forest

The new Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center
at Inyo National Forest. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service. 

Loop trail heads above
10,000 feet elevation

Families can day hike through a grove of some of the planet’s oldest trees on the Discovery Trail at Inyo National Forest in California.

Most of the 1-mile loop trail runs above 9,900 feet elevation, high up in the White Mountains. It’s located southeast of Yosemite National Park.

Due to snowfall at the high elevation, the trail generally is closed from mid-May to mid-November. June through August marks the most hospitable time to visit, but it’s also the busiest. In addition, the area is only open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

To reach the trail, from Big Pine, Calif., take Calif. Hwy. 168 northeast into the national forest. In about 13 miles, turn left/northwest onto White Mountain Road. After another 10 miles, go right/east to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center and park in the lot.

Aged trees
The trail begins on the lot’s northcentral side, at about 9860 feet above sea level. Interpretive signs and benches can be found along the trail.

The first half of the trail is in the open with only scattered bristlecone trees and climbs to almost 10,160 feet in elevation.

This section is the lower- to mid-range elevations for the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Despite its preference for xeric alpine conditions, these gnarled, stunted trees are extremely long-lived.

One tree in the grove (It’s on another trail.) is believed to be more than 5,060 years old, making it the oldest known living non-clonal organism on Earth. The identity of the tree is kept secret, though, or we’d have you walk that trail! Even dead bristlecone pines are persistent with some as old as 7,000 years still erect next to living ones.

Born circa 2000 B.C.
Most of the trees along this trail are about 4,000 years old. With reddish-brown bark and dark green needles, they stand out well against the white, rocky ground and blue skies. The needles may not look much different than those of any other conifer, but those on the bristlecone pine can stay green for up to 45 years.

The last half of the trail descends as heading through the Schulman Grove and ends at the visitor center. The recently built center definitely is worth a stop for its various interpretive programs.

Given the trail’s high elevation, altitude sickness is a distinct possibility. You’ll want to be aware of how to avoid and treat for the ailment before hiking the trail. Also, always wear sunscreen at high elevations.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.