• Michael O'Keeffe

In Search of the Bristlecone Pine in the Springs Mountains of Nevada

Less than an hour to the west of Las Vegas sits a mountain range that holds some of Nevada's tallest peaks, an oasis thousands of feet above the scorching desert below. The range is comprised of bright colored limestone reaching up to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. As you ascend the range, the mesquite shrub of the Mojave gives way to a forest of Joshua Trees and eventually a montane forest consisting of pine, fir, and spruce. You would've thought you were transported straight to the Sierra in California with the towering ponderosa pines and fir trees. The Spring Mountains are special place in their own right holding a unique beauty feeling so far removed from the stark desert below. However, there is something else that makes the Spring Mountains so special, something far greater, a tree. Not just any tree however, but the mighty Bristlecone Pine. Bristlecone Pines are special not only in their specific distribution found only in scattered groves at very high elevations within the Great Basin region of the American West, but in that they are the oldest living things on Earth.

A bristlecone pine can live nearly 5,000 years with the oldest being "Methuselah", a 4,765 year old specimen found in the White Mountains of California. As far we know few things can kill a bristlecone, they appear to be resistant to disease, drought, and climate change. A humble sentinel keeping watch over their home. A truly old specimen (over 1,000 years) will begin to twist and shrink losing it's needles, but continuing to survive typically with only a sliver of the trunk actually still containing living tissue. Trees are interesting because they aren't in a hurry, they can't move, they must endure and adapt. A tree's wisdom is infinite. We could learn a thing or two.

So when Chyna and I had to the opportunity to spend some time up in the Spring Mountains in search of these ancient organisms we didn't hesitate. Our first night in the mountains was cold and rainy not what you'd initially expect. It was a welcome sight I will say, the smell of the forest after the rain was magnificent something I find both nostalgic and immediate. The following morning was bluebird and we hit the trail in search of some bristlecones. It was early October so among the pines and fir were groves of golden aspen. Early on the bristlecones were young and healthy a bit difficult to distinguish from the other conifer species in the forest to the untrained eye. If it wasn't for Chyna's plant ID expertise I wouldn't have known what I was looking at.

As we approached the ridge the forest thinned out and gnarled twisted trunks began to replace the young green healthy trees from the valley floor. This was what we were looking for. We found several large ancient Bristlecones twisted and gnarled appearing to be within an inch of its life. Neither of us are dendrologists so we had no way to accurately measure the age of the older pines on the ridgetop but a few of them had to be well over 1,000 years old. At one point we were surrounded by the ancient trees it was surreal moment where time seemed to stop. All they have seen, the droughts, the fires, the snowstorms, the floods, the mundane. It was a moment I'll never forget. Photos from our time in the Spring Mountains below.


Spring Mountains Nevada
A "forest" of Joshua trees looking down towards the distant desert.

Spring Mountains Nevada
More Joshua trees on the lower slopes of the Spring Mountains.

Spring Mountains Nevada
Entering the montane forest beneath the towering limestone peaks.

Spring Mountains Nevada
Ponderosa pines dot the open forest in Lee Canyon.

Spring Mountains Nevada
Light break in the clouds.

Spring Mountains Nevada
One of the Sisters (the other is in the clouds) above Lee Canyon.

Spring Mountains Nevada
The dramatic layered grey limestone cliffs high above Lee Canyon.

Spring Mountains Nevada
The limestone cliffs are peppered with Bristlecone pines.

Spring Mountains Nevada
A heavy storm enshrouds the high peaks of the Spring Mountains at sunset.

Spring Mountains Nevada
A clearing storm in the Spring Mountains.

Spring Mountains Nevada
The next morning a bluebird day far above the desert.

Spring Mountains Nevada
Golden aspen along the trail.

Spring Mountains Nevada
Towering pines and golden aspens.

Bristlecone pine Spring Mountains Nevada
A young (left) and old (right) Bristlecone.

Spring Mountains Nevada
An old pine searching for the light.

Bristlecone pine Spring Mountains Nevada
Another old specimen as we approached the ridge.

bristlecone pine Spring Mountains Nevada
A perfect bristlecone pine, this specimen was very old.

bristlecone pine Spring Mountains Nevada
I dreamed of a shot like this!

Spring Mountains Nevada
11,000 foot peaks above the ridge.

Spring Mountains Nevada
A few more bristlecones as we make our way back down.

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