DON’T GET IT TWISTED: The Bristlecone Pine is the Gnarliest Tree on Earth

What is the oldest thing in your possession? Could be something like the 130-year-old Winchester rifle you inherited from your great grandfather that you sweet talk and religiously polish with a diaper. Or a set of china that was already antique when your grandma bought it in her twenties, passed down for you to stare at and be afraid to use. Point is, most of us have some kind of inherited memento… something that’s super duper old and the one item you’d dash for if your house went up in flames. When it comes to the Bristlecone Pine, imagine your most precious relic and add a cool four thousand years to that bad boy. Now? Now you’re in the right headspace to talk about just how high of a pedestal you should be putting these stately organisms upon.

Most of these living creatures have been alive 3,000 to 5,000 years. Think about that for a hot little second. If you take longer than a second to just hash these beauties up as “old”… imagine them clinging to limestone when gladiators were battling at the Colosseum. YEAH. Bristlecones were already alive by 1,500 years when that was going down. The reign of Cleopatra and the construction of the pyramids? They’d already been quietly growing for 2,000 years. The completion of the Great Wall of China, during the time the printing press was invented, the Spanish Inquisition, the Black Plague, the time Christopher Columbus showed up in the U.S. (well, sorta close-ish, at least), when the Titanic sank, you name it. The Bristlecones you see before you at Great Basin National Park were already alive, slowly scratching their way up to the heavens.

So when you hear them described as old, think about just HOW old they are… it’s brain scrambling to say the very least. Beyond the fact that they’re some of the oldest living organisms in the world, peruse this lineup of equally compelling stats on these stoic babes in order to fully pay them the respect they’ve unabashedly earned. Because there’s nothing quite like standing at the base of something that’s been in existence a long before the Temples of Malta, I promise you that.

1. It’s True! The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine is the oldest living tree on Planet Earth.

We know the Bristlecone is unimaginably old, but up until a few years ago the Bristlecone Pine was even considered to be the oldest living organism on Earth. Crazy, right? In recent years, there has definitely been some serious scuffle about the oldest living thing on the planet, including some rumblings that the Mojave’s Creosote Bush narrowly surpassed the Bristlecone Pine, but these theories are still up for debate. Regardless, it’s safe to say the Bristlecone Pine is the oldest living tree on planet earth.  

2. TBH, The very oldest Bristlecone was located within Great Basin… That is, up until 2012 when an even older tree was discovered right next door.

‘Tis true, Great Basin National Park once housed the very oldest known Bristlecone in the whole dang world. That IS, up until a guy by the name of Tom Harlan discovered an even older one in the state-straddling White Mountains. While Nevada’s boasted the ripe age of nearly 4,900 years, this new discovery narrowly surpassed it in age coming in at 5,066 years old.

3. Despite being narrowly beaten in age by our friends over the border, Nevada still gets to own the fact that this study—”The Bristlecone Pine is the Oldest Tree in the World”—went down in the Silver State.

And those bragging rights, my friends, will never ever change. Besides, what good is this special species without actually knowing it’s important to begin with. That whole conclusion was made right in the heart of Great Basin National Park, after a scientist spent several months within the park in the 1960s. He came to Great Basin to understand more about ice age glaciology, and BONUS, Great Basin is also home to the only active glacier in the entire state of Nevada.

4. The story of Prometheus

To start, can I just draw some attention to that a sexy, saucy name? Prometheus. As in, the mythical Greek god responsible for creating humanity? It’s already badass and we’ve only just begun. Aside from the story of Prometheus being one of the most ancient legends of all time, the statue of this Greek babe himself clawing toward the sky is looking all too familiar… and hitting the spot in all the right ways.

There are a few different [and relatively controversial] versions about how this study—the one naming the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine the oldest living tree species on Earth—but the version I’m about to tee up seems to be the most common, so we’ll roll with that. In 1964 a scientist named Donald Currey came to Great Basin in hopes to uncover more info on Ice Age glaciology. In order to get some traction in his research, he was granted permission to take core samples from Bristlecone Pines. The reason? They’re considered to be “climatic vaults”… meaning they store thousands and thousands of years of weather data within their rings. So taking a core sample would essentially reveal more about ice age glaciology he came to get his hands on.

Things went south when his increment borer [the tool used to take a core sample] snapped off in a tree he’d zeroed in on, suspecting to be super old and loaded with climatic intel. At the time, Great Basin wasn’t a National Park, but instead United States Forest Service territory, and considering he’d spent so much time in the area trying to understand the world we live in and how we got here, the rangers granted him permission to cut the tree town. It didn’t take long for them to realize the tree was far older than originally anticipated, around 4,862 years old to be exact. But THEN, they realized that the tree didn’t form a ring every single year due to varying weather—sometimes too cold for real growth. As a result, Currey estimated that the tree was right around 4,900 years old, and it was officially dubbed Prometheus. The oldest tree species on the planet. You can still hike up to Prometheus’ stump to check it out if you know where to look for it. It’s kept relatively under wraps, but you may be able to get a Travel Nevada Pro Tip from a ranger; all you gotta do is ask.

5. The good news? You can experience a bit of Prometheus for yourself.

The fact that the soon-to-be-determined oldest tree on Earth was chopped down for the sake of science? Yeah, you can bet your booty that this was crazy-controversial. Still is, depending on who you chat with. Destroy something older than the Great Wall of China? Undoubtedly sad. But what is it worth if we didn’t understand just how old it was in the first place? Without it, we may have never truly gained an understanding and newfound appreciation for trees that otherwise appeared to be straight up dead. After Prometheus was taken down and hauled off the mountain, she was partitioned up to be studied. A slice can be found in nearby Ely, as well as inside the Great Basin National Park Visitor center. Go the extra mile and check this thing out… you won’t be bummed you did.

6. So what’s their secret—how have these ancient beauties survived all this time?

To me, the most face-melting fact about Bristlecones isn’t the fact that they’re super duper old. The fact that they live and THRIVE in crazy-harsh conditions is what gets me, through and through. So not only are the archaic living beings, but they flourish in conditions most other living creatures wouldn’t. I’m talking unbearably cold temperatures, dry soils, unforgiving winds, and short growing seasons. It’s hard to wrap your mind around how this is even possible, but the Bristlecone has certainly mastered adaptation all these years, not only living in unbearable conditions, but thriving, too.

7. Sky-high elevation!

Five thousand, two hundred eighty feet? Child’s play. The Bristlecone Pine is exclusively found in high altitude conditions, paired of course with all those frightful conditions mentioned up above in #6. Most Bristlecone groves can be found flourishing just below the treeline, starting at about 5,600 feet, all the way up to 11,200. Mile, schmile… we goin’ allllll the way up.

8. Mighty Wheeler Peak sets the perfect environmental stage.

If you make it into Great Basin National Park during summertime or fall, there will be no mistaking the mighty Wheeler Peak. Towering over a slew of alpine lakes and some of the most amazing campgrounds in the state, Wheeler rings in at just over 13k feet… the tallest peak in one of the most prominent mountain ranges in the most mountainous state in the lower 48. And this my friends, is the perfect stomping ground for some next-level survival… a euphoric high altitude oasis that dials in a lifetime—or several—of happy living.

9. The higher the altitude? The gnarlier the tree.

Unlike many other living organisms, maybe one of the most insanely impressive qualities about the Bristlecone is the crazier the conditions, the more impressive the tree. Where many other [who am I kidding, MOST] species grow and thrive in tamer conditions… say, lower altitudes in specific seasons, the Bristlecone clings to life in the nuttiest environmental conditions. I mean, have you ever heard of such fascinating species? We already know they love crappy soil and really miserable winters, but the higher in elevation they grow,  the more the branches take on those wickedly gnarled shapes, scratching into the sky. Whether they’re still living or have died, they continue to erode in a way unlike any other species. When Bristlecones finally bite the big one, instead of rotting away, the exposed wood slowly erodes, creating unusual forms and shapes. The exact shapes the Bristlecone has become known for… usually a dead giveaway [all the puns!] from these ancient beauts.

10. The fact that it’s super-duper dark helps, too.

If you’ve ventured out to Great Basin, I don’t doubt that you already get it. I wouldn’t exactly describe the place as easy to get to, you’re probably in for a solid #NVRoadTrip. But once you’re there the payoff is BIG. You don’t come anywhere near scratching the surface of fighting crowds like you do in just about every other National Park. That, and it’s incredibly dark… as in, you can’t see your hand in front of your face without your headlamp on kind of dark. In fact, the skies at Great Basin are so black, they’re considered to be the darkest skies in the lower 48, and one of the last true “dark sky environments” in America. This classification of darkness is clearly special, something you maybe don’t realize you’re missing out on until you’re there in the midst of it, and is something scientists are actually chocking up to be an endangered resource. It’s not only dark, but it’s one of the quietest places too, drawing a gargantuan amount of wildlife who depend on a true nocturnal environment to thrive. I can’t help but imagine the same dang thing goes for the Bristlecone and other living species, too.

11. So if these trees appear totally lifeless, how do you spot one worth checking out?

The fact that the Bristlecone appears to be dead (but isn’t) seems amazing in itself, right? Some type of defense mechanism that not many creatures bear, and I’m diggin it. Many of these trees will have some seriously sleek trunks that are bare to an uncanny amount—as in they look like they’ve been struck by lightening or lived a hollow, lifeless existence for decades. Don’t be fooled—keep an eye out for tiny sprigs of bottle brush-looking plumes. Even if there’s one tiny cluster at the very top, this thing is very much alive, and a dead ringer for the legendary Great Basin Bristlecone.

12. Where does the name Bristlecone even come from?

Like most trees of the pine variety, the Bristlecone Pine produces actual pine cones. The name? The name comes from extra prickly, scaly spikes on the tippy end of female cones only. They’re tipped with claw-like BRISTLES… hence the name Bristlecone. Trivia night fact for the win!

13. Surely the oldest living tree has some seriously crazy-cool root systems, right?

So here I was, imagining a 5,000-year-old tree to have a root system tunneling to the center of the earth. Imagine the look on my face when I figured out that Bristlecones have incredibly shallow root systems, barely clinging to the limestone or dolomite they usually grow on. Mind-blower, right?! But here’s the most nutso root-related fact of all: even after quietly surviving for thousands upon thousands of years they not only erode in super unique ways, but continue to stand on their uncomplicated, surface-level root system for CENTURIES MORE. It ain’t just an entire lifetime of endurance, Bristlecones even master that posthumously too. Showoffs!

14. Growing inch-by-inch, century-by-century.

Guess what? Yet another part of their secret to successful longevity is the Bristlecone’s ridiculously slow growth rate. Chock it up to the combo of difficult conditions—the freezing temps, dry soils, high winds and short growing seasons, these babes grow very, very slowly. Even the Bristlecone’s cluster of needles can remain on the tree for an outlandish 40 years. The good news is this: the slow growth almost acts as an uncanny defense mechanism of sorts. As these things gradually grow, their slow growth rate means that the wood is unbelievably dense. As a result, it acts as this extraordinary barrier, warding off insects, fungi, rot and even erosion.

Slow growth means that the wood is super dense and wards off insects, fungi, rot and erosion.

15. Climate Impacts

It’s obvious that Bristlecones are complete masters at hunkering down and wholeheartedly embracing survival, and for incomprehensibly long stretches of time to boot. Amazing how they use this as a defense mechanism of sorts, but there’s a bit of bad news here. Scientists are starting to figure out that this could be a bad thing for the Bristlecone, thanks to the nature of current environmental conditions. This means that their growth rate may be too slow, meaning they’re growing too slowly to sustain their population before being wiped out by other environmental factors. A crazy thought, right? Something that’s absolutely worked to their advantage for eons and eons now actually poses a threat. Luckily, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is keeping close tabs on the Bristlecone. For now, it’s classified as a low-level risk because no existing clusters or groves of Great Basin Bristlecones are decreasing… but might be something to watch in the future.

16. So where can you actually scope these ancient beauties out?

Great Basin National Park is not only the perfect stomping grounds to lock eyes with these magnificent beings, but there are several groves to boot: Wheeler Peak, Mount Washington and Eagle Peak Groves. Each are found within park boundaries, but divvy up different levels of commitment and adventure to access. The easiest—and probably the one you should settle on? Most definitely Wheeler Peak Grove. Try to snag a spot at the Wheeler Peak Campground [I mean what isn’t to like about a campsite positioned at 10k feet?!] and jump onto the Wheeler Peak Grove trail—which is most easily accessed by the WP Campground—and only 1.5 miles total. During the summer months, the park offers ranger-led interpretive walks, and all other months you can dive into an equally enjoyable interpretive cruise through the grove.

As for Mount Washington and Eagle Peak Grove situation—these take wayyyyyy more of a commitment, but the payoff is that much grander. Both feature large clusters of these weathered beauties and are only accessible via steep, tricky terrain on undeveloped trails. The Mount Washington Grove is in the West Central portion of the park, featuring trees up to 40 feet tall that grow on limestone exclusively. The Eagle Peak Grove is positioned in the Snake Range between Eagle Peak and Snake Creek, teeing up tough access conditions, but offer spectacular vegetation in turn. No matter how you cut it (unless it’s literally), spotting any Bristlecones in the wild is worth the trek; you just to ask yourself how much you want to work for it.

17. They’re one of the main attractions at Great Basin, but the hugest grove in the entire Intermountain West lies above Sin City.

Hard to believe? Well, believe it. LIke we talked about earlier, the actual oldest known living Bristlecone in the world is found in the state-straddling Whites, near Dyer. A handful are found here and there throughout Utah as well, and of course Great Basin NP is known for this legendary living species. But it’s true, the largest grove in the entire intermountain west—as in the entire geography spanning from the Rockies to the Sierra—is found just outside the international travel destination of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountains. While bagging Nevada’s five tallest peaks you may come across these magnificent trees throughout Moriah and Wheeler, but you’ll have to sort of pay attention to spot them. At Charlie, Nevada’s most ultra-prominent peak, I assure you these gnarled darlings will be everywhere in sight as the wilderness area boasts a baffling 18,000 acres of Bristlecone Pines.

18. The best time of year to buckle down and check out the Bristlecones? Fall, definitely Fall. Two words: ASTRO FEST

At none other than the legendary Great Basin Astronomy Fest, of course. Conditions during this time of year are so totally perfect, you won’t want to come back during any other season from that moment forward. Fall foliage is exploding with face-melting, kaleidoscopic vibrancy, and temperatures are in that magical sweet spot. That gives you a pretty soft spot to land, considering your chance to bag Nevada’s second AND third tallest peaks are totally within reach… both of which come with the most stellar Bristlecones out there. Oh, and if you time it during September, there will be a Great Basin Astronomy Festival. Here, astronomers really show you the other half of the park after dark with their giant, 20-foot telescopes dialed into all the galaxies, nebulas and constellations you can wrap your mind around. That, and the Milky Way will be so bright, you might just mistake it as a cloudy, overcast night. Untouched nature experience? Take all my money Great Basin, because here. We. Come.