On the afternoon of August 18, after our lunch and a rest in camp, we decided to go on an afternoon hike to the Bristlecone Pine Grove beneath the Wheeler Peak Cirque. The Bristlecones are accessible three miles and six-hundred feet up a winding forest trail that begins at the entrance to Wheeler Peak Campground. The trail continues another mile to the remnant of a glacier. On the question of whether we’d go all the way to the glacier, we decided to see how we felt once we’d seen the Bristlecones, which were our main objective.
We shouldered our day packs and walked out of our campsite to the trailhead. I had an odd moment as we walked up a gentle incline toward the trail parking area. My pulse briefly jumped to 157 according to my Fitbit. It was a touch disconcerting, but I took some deep breaths and it passed. Throughout our time at Great Basin, there wasn’t a day that we didn’t descend from our 10,000-foot campsite to Snake Valley 5,000 feet below. I think the constant up and down worked against our acclimating to the elevation.
We signed the trail register and started out through the same mixed conifer and aspen forest that surrounded the campground.
We crossed Lehman Creek via a low bridge, and continued up a gentle incline.
At a fork, we bore right until we reached the official start of the Bristlecone/Glacier Trail.
The trail continued through a scree-littered forest of Engelmann Spruce.
Just as we were starting out, we ran into a family from Las Vegas who’d been our our cave tour that morning. We chuckled together for a few moments about the talkative old guy from Prescott, Arizona who’d also been on our tour.
At one point as we hiked along, we noticed a young cowboy boots-wearing National Park Ranger coming up the scree slope toward the trail. When he reached us, he introduced himself as Ranger Austin and somewhat bashfully explained that the only reason he’d gone off trail was because he’d thought that he’d spotted some trash. Happily, he’d been mistaken. We continued on while he had a drink from his water bottle.
The trail dropped into a ravine…
…before it turned almost directly east and traversed a steep slope.
From the point at which it turned sharply south, the forest opened to an immense view of Snake Valley and the North Snake Range.
Now we were flirting with timberline, not so much due to sheer elevation (we could see trees high above us), but because of the micro-climate of the cirque, which hosts the only glacier in Nevada, and the exposure of the surrounding slopes.
Engelmann Spruce gave way to Limber Pine and, below us, Bristlecone Pine in grove that swept along the lower reaches of the cirque and the opposite slope.
We crossed another rocky ravine, and now we were among the ancient trees.
Great Basin Bristlecone Pines are the oldest individual trees on earth. (There are clonal trees, such as Quaking Aspen groves comprised of multiple trees from the same roots, that are older.) The oldest known individual is in the White Mountains of California and is over 5,000 years old.
In 1964, a researcher received permission from the US Forest Service, then in charge of the area, to cut down a Bristlecone Pine in this grove. It turned out that the tree, named Prometheus, which was still alive at the time, was over 4,860 years old, and it may have been over 5,000 years old. A cross section of Prometheus is now in the Great Basin National Park Visitor Center.
We wandered along the interpretive trail through a small section of the grove. We saw firsthand something our friend Patrick had described: someone had objected to the adjective “grotesque” to describe the trees and had scratched it out.
Down in the ravine, Ranger Austin was taking a break and chatting with some other hikers.
Bristlecone Pines are able to reach such astonishing ages due to some specific factors. They have very little competition in their favored rocky soils. The lack of understory protects them from intense wildfires.
Their wood is exceptionally resistant to rot, and even dead trees take a very long time to decompose. Their harsh habitat also kills off destructive insects each winter.
The trees are sectioned to parts of their root system, which means that one or more sections of a tree might die while other sections remain alive, healthy, and seed-producing.
Bristlecone Pines experience virtually no senescence with old cells essentially identical to young cells. In this sense the Bristlecones have no built-in genetic expiration date. Presumably, under perfect conditions, a tree might live on and on and on.
Bristlecone Pines are just magnificent.
We had seen Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines at Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument, but the size of this grove and the sweeping drama of its being framed by Wheeler Peak Cirque made it something very special. Who knows? The world’s oldest living tree may be in this grove on the slopes of the Snake Range.
At the end of the interpretive loop, a rustic sign indicated the trail to the glacier. We overheard a couple talking to Ranger Austin, who said that a good view of the glacier wasn’t too far up the trail if they didn’t want to go all the way to the glacier itself. That seemed like a good idea. So off we went.
Some clouds rolling in from the south added drama as the trail curved around into Wheeler Peak Cirque.
We rounded a bend, and there the glacier was. It was mostly covered with rock and scree, so at first it seemed indistinguishable from the surrounding scree field. But once you realized what the shape was, it became obvious that it was a glacier.
We were now very much at or above treeline in the cirque. One tree out in the scree field was warped by cold and wind so that it looked like a shrub row.
The drama of the scenery was suddenly enhanced by the low rumble of thunder. It appeared that a late afternoon storm was rolling in over the Snake Range.
We turned and began our return down the trail.
Ranger Austin was gone from the interpretive loop as we went by. Farther down the trail, we passed a multiracial lesbian couple hiking up the trail. Neat!
The thunder was following us, but we thought we were in the clear after we reached the Engelmann Spruce forest since it was still sunny around us.
But no. Huge raindrops began to fall. First just a few, then suddenly a torrent.
Sean put on his rain jacket, but I hadn’t brought one. Oh well. I stashed the DSLR in my pack and used my phone to take some video.
In all, it was a very solid two-and-a-half hour hike.
As we walked back through the campground, we saw some young people of color setting up camp. Neat, again.
Back in camp, everything was sodden. Sean’s copy of Outside had been sitting on the picnic table, so it was ruined. The rain was intermittent. I changed my shirt, put on my rain jacket, and started a campfire. Once it got going, I built it up so that it was intense and hot enough to dry consume the damp fuel I had to use.
A new neighbor camper said hello and warned us about chipmunks getting into vehicles. He must have been talking to the lesbians who had been having such a time over a chipmunk earlier. They were now loudly chopping wood across the way. I’m not exactly sure why, since campfire wood was available in Baker. Oh well.
Because of the rain, Sean remained in the tent reading and sipping wine. I largely sat in the rain with the campfire until the sky finally cleared. Some Mule Deer and Wild Turkeys passed by while I was sitting there. Once the rain stopped, Sean emerged, and we had dehydrated chicken teriyaki for dinner. Then we sat and watched the campfire until it was time to turn in.
It had been a classic day in a National Park.