Methuselah Walk

The Methuselah Walk is a moderate loop through a grove of Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, which grow to be the oldest non-clonal organism on the planet, with the Methuselah tree reaching an estimated 5,063 years old. That is twice as old as the average sequoia.

Distance: 4.5 Miles
Elevation Gained: 800′
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1:45
Critters: None

Get there like this.

Note: There is a fee to park here, but I didn’t pay it as there were no employees to pay it to.

Details:

Since I am going to write a separate blog on bristlecone pines, I’ll confine this blog mainly to the hike itself. This was my first time in the Inyo Mountains, which stand opposite the eastern Sierras across the wide Owens Valley. Both ranges top out at 14,000′, and nearby White Mountain is the third highest summit in California. I got up to the 10,000′ level just in time to watch the sun rising over distant Saline Valley. Despite the brisk cold, I reveled in the alpine glow panting the highest peaks of the Sierras in reds, pinks, and oranges.

Bristlecone pine cones. Note the bristles.

The hike starts out at the visitor’s center (closed), which features a lot of information about the tree I would spend the next 2 hours with. Granted, many of these trees have spent hundreds of thousands of hours here being subjected to some of the harshest conditions in the state. This loop can be taken either way, although counter-clockwise is more comfortable.

The loop contours its way around a hill clothed in taller, younger bristlecone pines. Few of these trees take on the gnarled and contorted appearance of the older trees as these younger trees grow on more favorable conditions and look more like one would expect a pine tree to look.

The loop climbs up to a small ridge and views open out eastward where Death Valley lies concealed by neighboring mountain ranges. This is the westernmost boundary of the Great Basin, which is dominated by alternating mountain ranges and desert basins, of which Death Valley is one. There is some desolate, lonely country out there, and the view does not reveal any evidence of human habitation.

As the trail continues on, the vegetation changes from pure bristlecone to stands of tree-sized mountain mahogany, indicating a change in the angle of the slope and soil composition. Slope aspect, soil composition, and presence of water are the three major factors that determine plant growth, and the variation causes a dramatic and welcome relief. From this southeast slope, the Sierras become visible as the 14,000′ peaks loom off in the distance.

The Sierra Nevadas on the other side of Owens Valley

The next change comes as the trail bends around a contour into the Methuselah grove, where the oldest tree on the planet stands unmarked for its own protection. This is a sensible move as other famous trees like the General Sherman are covered in graffiti and carvings. I cannot understand people sometimes; what does it prove to carve your name in a tree like that? For those Bible scholars out there, Methuselah was reported to be the oldest human who ever lived at 969 years old. The Methuselah tree puts that guy to shame, as it reaches a ripe old age of over 5,000 years old.

Anyhow, this is where the gnarliest and oldest of the trees are. Paradoxically, the oldest trees endure the worst conditions. This goes along the “pain builds character” principal, and as the trees grow microscopically over the years, they also put into play a vast number of evolutionary adaptations designed to survive terrible growing conditions. These adaptations are so effective, that the trees essentially keep on going long after most other species have repeated dozens of generations. In fact, the two or three generations of trees present from live trees to decaying branches and stumps present a record dating back to the last ice age. The trees here are older than Greece, which absolutely boggles the mind.

The loop ends up back at the visitor center. This hike was extremely monochromatic after the vivid color of all the aspens on the Sierra. However, this is still a great experience due to the age and twistedness of the trees, the quality of the views, and the quality of the interpretive guide which provides a wealth of information on what you’re seeing.

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