In an obscure mountain range in eastern California the world's oldest living inhabitants, the bristlecone pines, have resided for millenia. Ancient bristlecone pine forests exist in several western mountain ranges but the oldest trees live in California's White Mountains. The oldest living inhabitant of this earth, as far as is known, is a bristlecone pine named "Methuselah", dated by it tree rings to be a fantastic 4,770 years old (in 2004).
Paradoxically, these trees thrive only in the most brutal of environments. The White Mountains, which rise to over 14,000 feet, sit east of the great Sierra Nevada range. They are in the Sierra's rain shadow and are a virtual desert, one of the driest places on earth during the summer. The trees live in an area of rolling hills at the 10,000-11,000 foot level. This area is exposed, and always bitter, cold, and windy.
The most ancient of bristlecone pines live at the 11,000 foot level and only on the most exposed and rocky hillsides. Their limbs are for the most part dead and carved into the most fantastic shapes by eons of exposure to the elements. They require only a tiny amount of foliage and life sustaining bark for continued survival. Their height rarely exceeds twenty-five feet. Incredibly the seeds from these ancient trees have been shown to be viable.
The tree shown at the top of the page is typical of the most ancient specimens. It is likely in excess of 3,000 years old and could even be the Methuselah tree. The Forest Service won't identify the actual Methuselah due to fear of vandalism. Note how the tree is composed mainly of exquisitely carved dead wood with only a very small amount of living foliage.
The White Mountain area is lightly visited due to its remoteness, cold and windy weather, and absence of drinking water. In addition to the trees, it offers fantastic views of the snow-covered Sierras.
(Left), A typical vista in the White Mountains almost resembles a lunar landscape.
Note how the younger bristlecone pine trees in the background appear visually
as just normal and average trees. They assume their unusual shapes only
upon attaining great age.
In this elevated and hostile environment, some of the winter snowpack (which is usually not that much to begin with) remains even in mid-summer. This photo was taken on July 4, 1980.
A fine web site, The Ancient Bristlecone Pine, offers additional information on this subject.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is generally open from mid-May through the end of November, weather permitting. Winter storms close the White Mountain Road during winter months and into the spring. Please check with the Inyo National Forest's recorded information line at 760-873-2500 for current road closures, conditions and opening/closing dates for the visitor center or visit their website, Inyo National Forest's Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, for more information.