4,000 year old Trees and Hail Storms...
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
The Bristlecone Pine forest in the Inyo National forest is one of my favorite places to explore. Come on, 4,000 year old trees? Trees that were around when Egypt was a power house, trees that were already tall when the events of the Iliad are said to have taken place? Trees that were already 2,000 years old when Jesus walked around? That alone as an ancient historian is deeply humbling, to walk amongst trees that were alive when the civilizations I study thrived. Bonus points for it also being an hour drive away from the nearest town, and so not stuffed full with tourists.
I went there the first time in 2009, and was mesmerized. Even though my dog back then was not impressed that I asked her to take a pic with me on that tiny bench.
Different dog (Star has long since passed), but benches with a view and a mesmerizing drive up the valley. You turn off the 395 on Big Pine, and you just keep going into the White Mountain Range, towards Death Valley. The drive alone is worth the adventure, if you like scenic, winding, lonely mountain roads. And there are lovely viewpoints along the way.
Made it! Now, where to go first? Oh, I know, the local ranger station! I always make it a point to stop by the local ranger station. After all, who knows this area better than the guys who work there? So many times I have walked away with hiking tips and tricks for under explored areas, and a lovely array of stories. And I am one of those people who always has to grab some sort of tiny souvenir as a memento. And - super safety tip - especially for people hiking solo - it is a great idea to let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. So in this case, I also let the rangers know which route I planned to take. The area is remote, and often not well-traveled, with cell phone service non existent. So good thing to let local rangers know about your plans. Spoiler alert - this trip was more than I had bargained for, so when things started looking bad, it was mentally helpful to know that people knew I was out there.
These trees take forever to grow! This little fellow is two years old! How big is your regular fruit tree at two? Yes, bristlecone pines are extremely hardy, long-lived, and grow in sandy crap soil that no other plant can handle. But they like to take things slow - slow - slow. As in seedlings only grow an inch or so for the first few years.
This was also a memorial hike in honor of my late husband. He was the one who first introduced me to this magical place, and I have made it a point to continue to visit regularly after his passing.
Now, which trail to pick? Of course, the cabin trail along with the methuselah trail, to get the longest experience possible. I have to compliment this place for how wonderful the signage is. The self guided tour leaflet is also wonderful, and you get to keep an eye out for way markers on the trail, and then look them up on the leaflet to learn more about these remarkable trees and their environment. Once again, here is my pitch for you to go and visit the the ranger station, aka the visitor center.
Get those maps! I am telling you, they are free, and they are so worth it!
At this point, Fenrir has had it with me talking to rangers and looking at souvenirs, and would to pretty please like to start this hike he was promised. Cue dragging me onwards onto the trail.
Fenrir commentary: Oh hey mom, can I pee on this thing? What do you mean I can't because its almost ten times as old as I am? What ever, there's a forest ahead, I'll find other trees to mark....
What a mesmerizing view... oh look, some cumulus clouds. Nice, we are going to hike in the shade! It only rains here like 8 inches a year, and I mean, I am Austrian, I know rain when I see it. These are pretty little baby clouds.... I was very, very wrong about these clouds....
Ahhhhhh, trees, clouds, a tiny trail into history... so much happiness!
Fenrir commentary: Mom read the sign, said that of course she knew all that, she was a historian after all! Yeah, stay tuned.....
I am so glad that my obsession of taking pictures of signs is finally coming in handy for this blog.
Oh, look, the old log cabin! How cool is that!
Fenrir commentary: Yeah, what did I tell you about her reading that sign? She said since we are not going inside, and I am just posing outside for a pretty pic, that is totally okay, that we are respectful of history and leave items as is. Whatever, can we get back on the trail now? I have things to smell, and bunnies to stalk - safely on my leash, since I want to eat them all, I don't get to go off leash - mom does not appreciate me wanting to hunt for food, unless prompted.
Fenrir commentary: Thank goodness we are finally walking again.
Fenrir commentary: Mom got super excited about these rock hills. I mean, they are neat to pee on, but seriously? She kept saying something about former mine and mine debris, but... wait,..... buuuuuuuunny!
And here is a lovely gnarled Bristlecone Pine. I was at the point where I was a bit sad about the clouds, in that it made taking pictures more difficult.
And another Bristle Cone. Entering into the grove part of the trail now. Keep an eye on the clouds, because I wish I had done a better job.
Oh, clouds are looking big now. At this point I was contemplating turning around, but we were close to halfway point, and I only get to come here every so often. And had a rain jacket in case it was going to drizzle a bit. Because, remember, only eight inches of a rain in a whole year? This area is right next to Death Valley, so rain is not a thing. Normally.
Fun fact: The White Mountains, in which this particular grove of trees is located, is considered a desert mountain range. Most of the moisture comes (80%) comes in the winter in the form of snow. Yes, it gets quite cold up there.
I never get tired of these trees. You are looking of hundreds, if not thousands of years of stubborn growth, clinging to live in nearly unlivable conditions. Gnarled, twisted, and so beautiful in their own way. This is a good example to showcase the unique root system of these trees. They rapidly grow lateral roots, but no deep tap roots. Some roots can grow as far as 50 feet away from the main trunk!
But, as mentioned earlier, the trees grow very slowly. The soil is harsh, rainfall limited - these are harsh growth conditions. Besides limited resources, the growing season is also short. So a one inch thickness of growth (a tree growth ring) might take a century or more! Portions of a tree may also die, in order to keep the rest of the tree alive. That is why some trees have multiple trunks, and why they have this unique gnarled appearance. They are truly sculpted by the elements - wind and ice.
View into Death Valley.
Fenrir commentary: Why are there birds circling in something called Death Valley? Are they prepping for a storm?
He's so handsome that I once again chose to ignore the clouds.
Fenrir commentary: I kept telling her I am hearing things, would she listen? No, this was trail marker eight, so of course we had to stop and read the map...
Oh, looks like it might rain a bit. Better get my rain jacket out.
Fun fact: as a historian, I appreciate these trees for more than their aesthetic. As in they have provided vial information for historians. How? Via tree core samples. Yearly growth rings record climate events, and Bristeclones, with their extreme environment, are especially sensitive to environmental changes. So drought, volcanic eruptions, frost, fires, and other events can all be recorded in these tree, providing helpful puzzle pieces in analyzing the past.
Fenrir commentary: I was trying to tell her that I heard thunder. Did she listen to me? No, she told me to stop being antsy about bunnies...
And this was the "oh crap" moment. When the thunder clapped and the sky opened up.
Well, they are still pretty in the rain too, right? Fun fact: the exposed wood of these trees have their own color palette - with yellows, browns, and even russets. This is partially due to fungi, which feed on the exposed wood. But also wind, ice, sunshine and aging in general leave their marks on those trees. Remember, some of these trees are thousands of years old, so they have experienced many seasons.
But dont' write off the old trees. They are still an important space for insets and its to live in, even if dead. And while the old ones might look gnarled and barely alive, they have as much cell growth as their younger counterparts, and even equal them in pollen and seeds, and bud and needle growth. So don't let their look fool you - even at thousands of years old, these old guys can keep up with the younger ones.
Sleek and shiny, freshly washed. Note the precarious ground. This is not a path you want to hike during what was essentially a flash flood.
Ehm.... you got to be kidding me. Not only a thunderstorm, which is abnormal enough, but a freaking hail storm? It started out with tiny little pellets, and Fen was amused by them. He actually tried to eat them, he thought the sky was throwing toys at him.
And then those suckers grew. And started hurting. Fen went from playfully snapping at them to screaming at them in fury for hurting him. All hell broke loose, and I grabbed Fen and shoved him into a rock ridge and shielded him with my body. Thank goodness I had my big pack on me, so my back was protected. I had bruises on my arms the next day - but, after getting knocked in the head by some heavy ones, I decided I'd sacrifice my arms rather than get a concussion. I've been in plenty of hail storms. This was by far the most severe one.
Hail turned into a downpour, and we were still over an hour away from the ranger station. Fen and I power walked up that mountain as fast as uneasy ground and floods allowed us. Always being mindful that we were in the middle of trees on a mountain side during a thunderstorm. With no safe shelter to wait this out.
Okay, minutes away from the ranger station, of course it stopped!!!!!
When the thunderstorm moved into the next valley....
Hail, hail, hail.
Oh haaaaaaaaail no! Yes, that was the drive back down the mountain.
Remember what I told you about phone service? Got this gem when I was back in Big Pine. Thanks.....
So important take aways: tell the rangers where you are going. Pay attention to the weather, and your dog telling you about the weather. I had a once of a life time adventure, with the rangers telling me, that I had walked into a storm that only happens every hundred years or so. Well, I was so soaking wet that I bought a blanket for a souvenir to wear that instead of my soaked pants when driving back. But that is a tale for another day....
Yes, I also grabbed that amazing fridge magnet from the visitor center. Yes, that is the same tree that starts this article. Except for that this is obviously a way cooler pic than what I took.
The public does not know where Methuselah, the oldest tree is located, that is a tightly kept secret. But the Methuselah grove on the hike has some thousand year old giants for you to wonder at.
Some much better picture of the trees than me and my iPhone are capable of taking - you might recognize the very tree that started this article - everyone loves to take a picture of that behemoth.
The official park sites:
To read more about the Bristlecone Pine trees in the Inyo Mountains
In loving memory of Aaron and Star - who both loved this special place.
Pictures personally taken, August 2018