Nestled in the Inyo Forest of Central California’s White Mountain Range is the home of one of the oldest living organisms on the planet. To get there you must drive through tall mountain walls dotted with increasingly sparse vegetation. At the end of the journey you will find the hidden treasure that is the Bristlecone Pine Forest. The Bristlecone pine trees, scientific name Pinus longaeva, are each thousands of years old, with the oldest known tree dated to 5,074 years old and dozens of others aged just as old, and likely a few older still. The trees grow only in subalpine landscapes. Therefore, this secluded corner in the California mountains is one of a select few scenes where these trees grow.
Photo: Tim Peterson on Unsplash
It is astounding to simply knowledge one is surrounded by millennia of history and life. The trees themselves are breath taking in their abstract beauty, resembling painted marble sculptures. The structure of the root system––each root supplying nutrients to the sector of the tree located directly above it––leads to the warped and tortured look of the tree, a wraith on the skyline.
As opposed to the massive redwoods and sequoias of California that dominate the landscape with dizzyingly tall canopies and humongous girth, Bristlecone pines are humble in size, often not taller than 15-30 feet despite their formidable age.
However, like the redwoods and sequoias, the trails provide close access to these astounding embodiments of tenacity, perfect for an avowed tree hugger. Even in high tourist seasons during the late summer, the forest remains a quiet and undisturbed place, with few visitors congesting the trails, parking lots, and campsites, leaving one to relish in the majesty of the space in near-complete silence.
As you hike one of two main trails in the area, you will climb hills traversing ranging landscapes and wander through trees both flourishing with life and those long cut or fallen, their skeletons untouched by time or decomposition due to the dry climate and somehow eliciting an excessively emotional response from any viewer. Schulman’s Grove––the main collection of Bristlecone pines––sits, hidden and quiet, demanding no attention for its beauty, yet inspiring the adventures and minds of many.
Photo: Stocksnap on Pixabay
These trees only grow at an altitude of 9,000-11,000 feet, a chief reason they survive so well and for so long in California’s infamous fire-prone climate. This elevation, aside from residing that much closer to the celestial expanse, reduces light pollution to one of the lowest levels in the country. The result is awe-inspiring stargazing experiences. In our current state of near-constant stress, either professional, academic, or pandemic induced, moments of peace such as ones found in the ancient forest become more valuable and restorative for the soul.