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I Hiked 6 Miles Up a Mountain to See the World's Oldest Trees!

Great Basin National Park is located near the Utah border in Baker, Nevada. It's a very rural part of the country: 3 hours from Elko, Nevada, 3.5 hours from Salt Lake City, and 4 hours to Vegas. On my drive from South Lake Tahoe to Denver, I decided to opt for Route 50 over Interstate 80 so I could go see the park.

Great Basin National Park is best known for an awesome cave system called Lehman Caves as well as nighttime stargazing programs. The absolute ruralness of this area makes it perfect for seeing the night sky, and it was a wonder to behold. However, I decided to skip the cave and instead opt for some trees. Not just any trees: the oldest trees in the entire world.

What are the oldest trees in the world?

I had recently seen the world's tallest trees (Coast Redwoods) in Redwood National Park, so naturally I wanted to follow that up by seeing the oldest. These trees are estimated to be up to 5,000 years old! The Bristlecone Pine is a relatively unassuming, albeit beautiful, tree. You probably wouldn't think much of it though if you didn't know how incredibly old they really are.

How do these Bristlecone Pine trees manage to get so old?

It's remarkable how these trees manage to survive in the harsh environments in which they live. Because of high winds, below-freezing temperatures, and short growing seasons, Bristlecone Pines grow very slowly. Their rings are close together, showing little growth per year, and some years, they don't manage a ring at all.

However, this limited growth is also an incredible advantage for them. Because the trees end up being so dense, they are much more protected from rot, erosion, and invasive pests or fungi. This helps them avoid many of the ailments that kill other tree species. Another big one, forest fires, is also not a problem here. These trees grow at high elevations and out of rocky, seemingly infertile ground. A lack of other vegetation means the risk of forest fire is very low.

Where can you find the world's oldest trees?

Bristlecone Pines, the oldest trees on Earth, are extremely rare. They are only found in California, Nevada, and Utah. In Great Basin National Park, you can drive to the "summit area" at Wheeler Peak, park at the trailhead, and hike into Bristlecone Pine Grove. The trail is 2.8 miles round trip with 500 feet of elevation gain, and it is absolutely worth it. I say "summit area" because Wheeler Peak Campground is only at 9,800 feet even though Wheeler Peak tops off at 13,063 feet. The hike was really nice with great views and so many interesting trees to enjoy.

The Bristlecone Pine trees are beautiful. Due to high winds, they grow in weird shapes, often more horizontal than vertical. They also have very thin bark if any at all. After 5,000 years of wind and rain, the trees are amazingly smooth. I love the variety of colors in their bark and how sporadic the needles form. It was honestly hard to tell which were still alive, as many didn't have any greenery at all. But I assume they were just biding their time and might sprout a needle next year. After all, one missed season is nothing for these millennia-old trees.

My 8-Mile Hike

Yes, you can park at the "summit" of Wheeler Peak and enjoy a shorter hike to the trees. There is also a hike to a glacier and one that traverses several alpine lakes. However, my truck was struggling to make it up the mountain (spoiler alert: internal transmission failure), and I knew it wasn't going to make it all the way.

Instead, I opted to park outside of Upper Lehman Creek Campground, walk half a mile to the trailhead, and complete the 3.5-mile Lehman Creek Trail with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. This brought me to the base of Wheeler Peak Campground, which I crossed to get to the Bristlecone Pine Grove Trailhead. The hike was interesting, long, and covered a variety of landscapes. I loved all the birch trees, and I even saw two deer!

All up, I hiked over six miles up, gaining 2,500 feet of elevation, and then another 1.5 miles back to the Wheeler Peak parking lot. The hike was beautiful, but the elevation killed me. I had started my day out at 6,000 feet, and hiking from 7,500 to 10,000 feet was strenuous.

Ben, how did you get back down?

Listen, hitchhiking is dangerous. I do not endorse it. Kids, please do not try this at home. That said, I believe the most important rule for hiking alone is to know your limitations. (Second, always tell someone where you're going.)

And I knew my limitations: I had a headache, felt dehydrated, and was underprepared for how quickly the temperature started dropping. The Lehman Creek Trail was not well maintained in parts, and I had only passed one other person the entire time. I noticed that I was so exhausted that I kicked a couple of tree roots as I was hiking, and I worried that if I tripped and got hurt on the hike back down, no one would be by to rescue me.

Hitchhiking Down the Mountain

This is how I came to the decision that I needed to get a ride back down the mountain. I have never hitchhiked before and hopefully never will again. (I obviously would have first opted for a park ranger had there been any around or had I any cell signal.) That said, I actually had a wonderful experience haha. I sat around for a few minutes and let three cars with single drivers go by. I was nervous about the risks of getting in a stranger's car, and I thought it would be better to find a couple.

I was starting to panic that I would be too embarrassed to admit my poor planning to a stranger, but the thought of hiking four more miles was overwhelming. Just then, a couple emerged from the woods. They were maybe in their fifties and looked to be in good spirits.

Curtis and Wendy were absolutely amazing. I explained my predicament, and they were so understanding. We talked about my road trip and this blog, and I recommended Crater Lake. They had missed the opportunity to go when their daughter lived in Portland, and I told them to put it back on their list. They were from Tennessee and thinking about getting a camper, and I ended up giving them a tour of mine once we made it back down the mountain!

My favorite part of the experience was seeing them again unexpectedly. This had been on Saturday night, and I was sitting in the one coffee shop in Baker on Monday morning when I heard "Is that Ben?" I was glad to be able to thank them again for shepherding me back to safety with such compassion and friendliness. I know getting in a stranger's car is a no-no (sorry, Mom!), but if every car had a Curtis and a Wendy in it, I would totally do it again!

I hope to one day make it back to see these trees again. In fifty years, I'll look (and feel lol) so different, and yet, these trees might look exactly the same. How cool!


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