Bristlecone Grove Interpretive Loop

Great Basin National Park

The bristlecone pines are the oldest living trees in the world. Some are nearly 5 thousand-years old! Their great age is due to their unusual ability to adapt to their environment. They often live in isolation where trees of other species cannot survive.

The growth of bristlecone pines is extremely slow. Their wood is fine-grained and resinous which makes the tree highly resistant to decay. Instead of rotting, these trees are eroded and polished by the elements. After death, they may remain standing for thousands of years. (plaque at entrance to grove)

The tree below lived for 1500 years, from 100 B.C. until 1400 A.D.

These roots, in the picture below, are entwined along the trail. They remind me of a giant serpent.

We continue our hike around the loop…

The remnant below is 3,000 years-old. Born in 1300 B.C., it died in 1700 A.D.  Part of the tree died in 1100 A.D. and the rest continued growing for 6 more centuries.

Bristlecone pines have a sectored architecture, which means that sections of a tree are supported and fed by their own large roots. That’s why part of a tree can die and the other sector keeps growing. (

So, how do scientists date the age of these ancient trees? There’s a plaque for that!

They use a tool called the increment borer to obtain a core sample of the tree. The core is a cross section of a portion of the tree’s annual growth rings. Use of the increment borer makes it unnecessary to cut down a tree to count its rings. The hole left behind does not harm the tree because within several hours the tree seals itself with its own resin.

 Born: 1150 B.C.

 Born: About 100 B.C.

 Still living since 1230 B.C.

Wheeler Peak overshadows the loop trail.

I learn how to distinguish a bristlecone…

…from a limber pine tree…

The Glacier Trail continues beyond for another steep and rocky mile.

picture from the trailheads information plaque

Nestled beneath the summit of Wheeler Peak is an alpine glacier that is mostly covered in rocks and minerals.

But we head back.

And I take one last picture of these amazing ancient trees sculpted by Mother Nature…

But wait… just one more as we exit the trailhead and drive out of Great Basin National Park…

Bristlecone Trail

Great Basin National Park

The Bristlecone Trail is a moderate, roughly 3 mile rocky hike at an elevation of 10,000-feet. It leads to an ancient grove of pine trees that have lived up to 5,000 years.

Bristlecone pines can live thousands of years in harsh environments. Exposed to extreme conditions, such as high winds, driving snow, ice storms, and freezing temperatures, they often assume fantastic assorted shapes. (plaque at trailhead)

Early on the trail we encounter an example of what can happen to a tree in extreme weather conditions:

I wish you could experience the heavy scent of the pine trees throughout the forest! Hundreds of pine cones, like the ones below, line the beginning of the trail. (As we continue they get smaller.) I pick some up and they leave their fresh, clean fragrance on my hands. Sap oozes from tree trunks and roots we have to step over as we continue.

So many multi-colored rocks!

Higher up, trees that cannot survive the harsh living conditions, litter the ground.

But the bristlecone still stands proudly.

Wheeler Peak peeks out.

And the rocks continue leading us in the right direction.

As we approach the ancient grove, we get a preview of what’s waiting for us.

To be continued…

Great Basin

National Park

Great Basin National Park is just a small portion of the much larger Great Basin region stretching across most of Nevada and parts of Oregon, California, Idaho, and Utah. The Basin lies between the Sierra Nevada and part of the Cascade Range in the West to Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in the East.

Geologically, as the Pacific Plate pulled away from the Continental Plate, the earth’s crust stretched to such an extreme that blocks of crust loosened and dropped off. The deepening valleys created a linear series of elevations running north to south.  So, it’s not just 1 but many basins, separated  by narrow parallel mountain ranges in succession. Over time the valley basins filled with sediment from the eroding mountains, forcing the water from rivers and streams to collect inland, where shallow salt lakes, marshes, and mud flats evaporated.  ( and park brochure)

If this sounds similar to the geology of Death Valley, you are correct, as Death Valley is a part of the Great Basin!

I was good at memorizing facts for tests in school, thanks to my Catholic upbringing of learning to answer Catechism questions verbatim. But I never really understood the “big picture”, until now as I try to remember and share the beauty and goodness around me as we travel across the United States. It becomes more than just a journal of living and traveling full-time in an RV. I have to read, research, and make sense of all I see. And then explain it in a simple way. Visiting the National Parks, taking the back roads, and staying or passing through towns and cities along the way… A priceless way to learn history, geography, and geology! Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

The entrance to Great Basin National Park is in Baker, Nevada. After passing the Great Basin Visitor Center, you turn right toward Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

We stop here to purchase tickets for the Grand Palace Cave Tour. Unfortunately, this tour was completely sold out into next week. We should have made reservations when we left Port Orford, but everything I read didn’t imply there would be such a problem.

Despite the name, Lehman Caves is a single cavern extending a quarter-mile into the limestone and marble base of the Snake Range, an example of a mountain island surrounded by desert. The south-central portion of this range is included within the National Park. (park brochure)

Disappointed, but not defeated, (I find out Jeff gets claustrophobic in caves…) we head up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.

Wheeler Peak, within the Snake Range, is the tallest mountain in the Great Basin with an altitude of 13, 063-feet. From sagebrush at its base, the 12-mile drive proceeds through pinyon-juniper woodland to spruce and fir communities and a sub-alpine forest. The trees highest up on the Snake Range, the bristlecone pines, can live for thousands of years. (park brochure)

So, up we go…

At 10,000 feet we arrive at the end of the drive and go exploring… We cross a babbling brook…

…and take the trail up to the bristlecone grove.