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A hike through the world's oldest forest | Bartell's Backroads

An ancient forest, older than the Egyptian pyramids, survives in one of California's most harsh and unforgiving environments.

BISHOP, Calif. — The oldest living trees in the world don’t grow in the rain forest or along a misty coast. They also don’t tower over the landscape or branch out in a dense jungle. The oldest living trees actually grow on top of an almost barren mountain in some of the harshest conditions California has to offer.

“It's made up of that awful dolomite, alkaline and limestone and it is not good for growing most things,” said Mary Matlick, an interpreter with the Inyo National Forest.

Growing at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet in the White Mountain Range sits a small forest of almost dead, gnarled looking trees called Bristlecone Pines.

“The oldest known living, confirmed tree is the Methuselah at 4,855 years,” said Matlick.

Credit: ABC10 / Tyler Horst
The tightly packed rings seen of this bristlecone pine shows just how slowly the trees grow.

The Methuselah Matlick is talking about, the world’s oldest recorded tree, is hidden to protect it from vandals. However, if you count the tightly packed rings within the trunks of these trees, many are just as old and date back to before construction of the Egyptian pyramids.

“Yes, that is how they survive -- slow growth,” said Matlick.

That slow growth is due to the harsh climate and poor soil. Very few plants or animals can live up here and that’s the way the bristlecone pine likes it.

“That keeps out the competition because they have to grow slowly. They need their time and they need their space,” said Matlick.

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Professor Edmund Schulman was the first to count the rings on bristlecone pines and discovered the world’s oldest tree in 1957. That said, there are older tree species in the world like the 9,500-year-old Spruce tree in Sweden, but that tree is a clone, meaning the original tree fell over and grew a genetic duplicate from the roots. Bristlecone pines can’t regrow from genes in their roots.

“In a way they don’t really die of old age, they die because something happens to them and in most cases that is root exposure,” said Matlick.

The seemingly immortal bristlecone pine attracts people from all over the world. Ervydas Buinauskas is an art collector and traveler from Lithuania, and for the past 20 years he’s been admiring and trying to capture the beauty of the bristlecone pines. 

“Bristlecones only grow in six states in the United States and nowhere else in the world," said Ervydas Buinauskas.

Even if the bristlecone pine is killed by an outside force, its twisted wind-beaten wood will not decay or fall apart for hundreds of years. The harsh, dry climate of the White Mountains can preserve the tree's wood for visitors to see for hundreds of years.

“I love it and it's difficult to describe, but here I am in heaven. It is my passion. You become like a part of the universe that is much bigger than you are,” said Buinauskas.

The Ancient Bristlecone Forest is part of the Inyo National Forest and open to the public year-round but closed to traffic during winter months. Visit the National Forest website for detailed travel information. 

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