BIG PINE, Calif. -- The bristlecone pines loomed out of the mist like ghostly apparitions, their limbs reaching in all directions. Walking among these ancients -- the trees are the oldest living things on Earth -- after an early fall snowstorm made their twisted and gnarled shapes appear even more otherworldly.
This is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where many trees are more than 4,000 years old and still growing, albeit very slowly. Even trees that appear dead are often alive.
Found high in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sits in a remote area between California's Sierra Nevada range and the Nevada border. These hardy trees thrive on adversity, living in harsh conditions and high elevation (about 10,000 feet) where little else survives.
The ancient forest gets about 30,000 visitors a year, said Patti Wells, lead ranger for the Inyo National Forest Service. That's less than 1 percent of the number of people who visit Yosemite National Park each year.
Hiking to see them
Hikers can view the bristlecones on three loop trails that depart from the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail is the hands-down winner. It was spectacular even on a cold, gray day because it takes you to the oldest trees. The trail is a treasure trove of bristlecone pines, including the world's oldest living tree, named Methuselah for a man in the Bible believed to be the oldest person.
The 4,789-year-old Methuselah isn't labeled, though it's officially listed at 4,789 years old, and its location is kept secret to protect it, said Wells, who works at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Some missing tree rings make it difficult to determine the tree's exact age, but in reality it probably is more than 5,000 years old, she said.
The Methuselah Trail, which gains about 700 feet of elevation and is narrow at some points, is not strenuous and has plenty of benches for rest. My hiking partner and I tried to guess which tree might be Methuselah. Was it the tallest one? The one with the oddest shape? We also had fun spotting shapes in the trees and calling out fanciful names, such as Medusa and Donald Duck.
The two other trails at Schulman Grove are the one-mile Discovery Trail, which is the shortest and easiest and has interpretive signs and benches; and the 2.5-mile trail to the Mexican Mine. The latter passes old mine entrances and cabins and provides magnificent views of the eastern Sierra.
If you're up for more adventure, drive 12 miles north of Schulman Grove on a dirt road to Patriarch Grove, home to the world's largest bristlecone, the Patriarch Tree.
Finding the ancients
Bristlecone pines are found in six western states, but the oldest are in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Scientists have discovered three types of bristlecones. Those in the White Mountains are the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, which also grows in Nevada and Utah. The Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The Sierra Foxtail Pine grows in California. In the White Mountains, bristlecones thrive in a type of limestone called dolomite and with little water by growing their roots laterally.
The rocky, alkaline soil limits rival plants, and the exposed, windswept landscape keeps insects at bay. High resin content prevents rot. The needles live up to 40 years, which helps in years of stress. Their gnarled shapes reflect this battle with the elements.
Bristlecones have survived harsh conditions for centuries, but they have a new challenge: white pine blister rust. It's an Asian fungus that arrived in the United States via Europe more than 100 years ago.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: From Los Angeles or Las Vegas, drive about 260 miles to Big Pine, Calif. From there, drive east on California Highway 168 for 13 miles to White Mountain Road at Westgard Pass. Turn left and drive 10 miles to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Storms can close White Mountain Road in winter and spring. Check Inyo National Forest's recorded information line at 760-873-2500. Contact: National Park Service, www.nps.gov; Inyo National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/inyo.
HOURS, FEES: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is generally open from mid-May through the end of November. Schulman Grove is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. as a day-use area. The temporary Schulman Grove Visitor Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (The visitor center was destroyed by fire in 2008. Construction on a new one is scheduled to begin this summer and will take about a year.)
The day-use fee is $3 per person or up to $6 per vehicle. Children younger than 18 are free.
* Climb two fourteeners: Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States (www.mount-whitney.com) or White Mountain Peak, California's third-highest summit (www.summitpost.org/white-mountain-peak/150221)(http://sonic.net/bristlecone/whitemts.html).
* Visit Manzanar National Historic Site, a former internment camp for people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, at Independence, Calif. (www.nps.gov/manz).
* See the limestone formations called tufa towers of Mono Lake (www.monolake.org).
MORE BRISTLECONE SITES:
Great Basin National Park, Nevada (www.nps.gov/grba); Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (www.nps.gov/brca); San Francisco Peaks, Coconino National Forest, Ariz. (www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino); Mount Bross, Pike National Forest, Colo. (www.fs.fed.us); and Mount Evans, Mount Goliath Research Natural Area, Colo. (www.mountevans.com).