See some trees

When us Westerners leave for vacations/getaways, there’s often some kind of natural feature involved with our destination choice. Much of the time, water is the star, whether we desire to hang out next to an ocean, a lake or a dribbly little creek. Many times, spectacular geological creations of rock and erosion get the nod.

Somewhere down the list of natural attractors are trees. It’s not too often that we take trips to places in order to specifically take in their tree life. There are a few locations, certainly, where trees are the draw; the redwoods of northern California, for example, or the autumnal displays of New England.

But leave us not forget that we have a world-class tree spot in our very own neighborhood (if you allow the boundaries of “our neighborhood” to extend about 200 miles to the south), and it’s an area that is well worth a visit, especially during the scorching weeks ahead, since these trees reside at a perennially cool 10,000 feet above sea level.

In the White Mountains, east of Bishop, grows the spectacular, super-gnarled forest of ancient bristlecone pines. It’s quite the place, as dramatic and scenic in its way as any other great tree realm you can think of. And the word “ancient” is definitely applicable. Many of these trees are more than 3,000 years old, with at least 20 that have been reliably dated to more than 4,000 years old, making them the oldest living individual life forms on Planet Earth. To put that in perspective, these trees were saplings when the Egyptians first began messing around with eyeliner.

It’s easy to get there, with the road to the bristlecones remaining nicely paved once you turn north off highway 168 out of Big Pine. (A highlight of this highway is a vista point of Sierra Nevada 13,000-footers that will have you feeling like Frodo eyeballing Mordor). It’s at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center where you’ll get all the background info as to why these trees are the biological superstars that they are. It’s also the starting point for the three trails that make possible the interfacing of human and bristlecone; the one-mile Discovery Loop, the two-mile Cabin Trail or the four-mile Methuselah Trail. We had the time to take the longer trail and found it to be truly rich with tree-marveling moments. Repeatedly, we found ourselves stopped in our tracks, gawking at a bristlecone that was either extremely beautiful, extremely weird, or both.

Don’t expect to find Methuselah itself. Estimated to be almost 4,700 years old (!), it’s the Oldest of the Ancients—and intentionally unidentified. The Forest Service will tell you the general zone it’s in, so you can have some fun trying to figure out which one could be The Old Coot itself, but there’s no way they’re going to point out the actual M-tree. This is, of course, to protect it from human mischief, which is a wise move. Because a “Dale loves Gina” carved into the Methuselah tree would just be so wrong.