An ancient bristlecone pine grove gives a lesson in patience

  • Aspen in beautiful orange and gold along the Alpine Lake Loop Trail.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, Tom has become a true tree freak.

On hikes, he frequently stops to gaze upward at branch arrays, set his hand on a trunk’s bark, count the number of leaflets in a bunch and test the spikiness of needles against his fingers.

He takes photos of the whole tree, the leaves and the bark, and then compares them to photos and descriptions in his tree book when he returns to The Epic Van.

He’s so thorough that I’m beginning to know the difference between an Engelmann spruce and a limber pine.

And so, when we were at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada this week, we headed for the ancient Bristlecone Pine Grove on Wheeler Peak.

If only we hadn’t parked at the wrong trailhead (we both swear the map was unclear; it couldn’t be operator error), or left said map in The Epic Van, or hiked in wrong direction, taking the Wheeler Peak Trail then the Alpine Lake Loop Trail instead of the Bristlecone Trail, only finding the right trail several miles later, or exited into a trailhead, where The Epic Van was NOT parked and had to hike another mile up the road to retrieve it.

Still, after turning what should have been a 3.5-mile hike into more than 7, I have to admit it was worth it. First, the trail, through sub-alpine forest, including limber pine, quaking aspen, Englemann spruce and Douglas fir, was beautiful. We passed Stella Lake and Teresa Lake, both small sub-alpine lakes, fed by snow melt, that freeze nearly to the bottom in winter.

And the Bristlecone Pine Grove, just below the tree line on Wheeler Peak, was stunning. We saw ancient, gnarled, twisted trees that are up to 5,000 years old. In fact, they live longer in harsher conditions.

The bristlecone is named for its cones, which have scales with claw-like bristle. The cones are purple, which helps absorb heat, and turn brown when mature, after two years. The trees have inch-long needles that grow in packets of five (Tom counted), and tightly grouped for a foot or more along the branch, resembling a bottle brush or foxtail.

They are often found with and confused with limber pines, which we saw mixed in at the Wheeler Peak grove. Limber pines have longer needles that are a darker, grayer color. According to the signs, “The bottlebrush of the limber pine looks tufted and well-worn. … The bristlecone bottlebrush looks new.”

The age of a bristlecone is established through core samples, which don’t damage the trees. But because of their gnarled, twisted nature, it often takes several different core samples to piece together its true age.

The Wheeler Peak grove survives high winds, driving snows, ice storms and freezing weather. It also grows on a glacial moraine of quartzite boulders, rather than limestone or dolomite, like other groves.

Because of the harsh conditions, the bristlecone grow extremely slowly, sometimes not adding any girth, or growth rings in a year. Their wood is, therefore, dense and resinous, resistant to insects and decay. Instead of rotting, they are polished by the elements, their bark often missing in spots, their twisted, exposed wood turned deep golden shades. Bone-white dead trees may stand for thousands of years.

Standing next to a tree that has lived about 3,500 years, it seems silly to fret about a few extra miles hiked to see it.

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