Exploring Utah & Nevada: The Badass Bristlecone Pines

Cougars, Post-holing, and Bristlecones – Oh My!

Before I set off to intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center last summer, I accompanied my boyfriend and his mom to visit family in Utah and explore Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  After forgetting my favorite jacket at the Baltimore airport (a wonderful black Northface), we landed in Salt Lake City, Utah and got a hold of our little rental car that would be our ticket to traveling the vast expanses in the west. And this state license plate just might be the coolest one I’ve seen yet.

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We began our western adventure with some local hikes… just one or two thousand feet of elevation to get us started and to get me used to the elevation.  I had the biggest fear that I would get elevation sickness on this trip… I went from a measly 400 ft above sea level to about 4,300 ft in Salt Lake City (and we got even higher in the mountains to visit my boyfriend’s family).  Turns out, I was built for the mountains! I didn’t get a lick of elevation sickness the whole time and ended up out-climbing a few other people.  I had never been super confident in my athletic ability, but this trip gave me that extra boost of confidence I needed to kick-start a health and fitness regime that I have kept up to this day.  It’s amazing what going outside and doing something that scares you will bring.

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View from the top of our first hike in Utah – we had an eerie mix of snow and fog that made the trip all that more beautiful

After Salt Lake City, the three of us hopped in our rental car and drove out towards Baker, Nevada for some incredible views and intense hiking.  The massive expanses of flat land contrasted against prominent mountains looked like something out of Lord of the Rings – it makes you realize just how small you are when it takes you an hour to seem like you’re 50 feet closer to that mountain in the distance.

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I’d never seen so much flat land before – we could see stretches of fields and mountains for miles and miles in any direction.  You definitely want to stock up on gas before heading out here!

When we arrived, we were greeted with an empty hotel office, a trip into a family-owned grocery store with a less-than-pleasant cashier that probably owned 5 guns under the register, sneaking through sketchy alleys and backyard dumps, and a motel room that looked like something straight out of a horror movie.  Despite feeling like the stars of the newest American Hostel movie, we quickly settled in and began to enjoy the town’s little charms and had a great dinner made by the kindly motel owner.  After that, it was time to head out to Great Basin National Park and climb Wheeler Peak.

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Climbing Wheeler Peak was an incredible (if not terrifying) experience.  Since we arrived so early in the season, the entire peak of the mountain was still covered in 3 feet of snow.  We lost our way multiple times and decided just to hike straight up the face of the mountain until we found the ridge trail.  I felt like I was going to fall backwards every 5 steps and the post-holing was insane, but the views were unbelievable.  When I arrived at the base of the peak, I cried.  Yes, I actually began to cry.  I was so in awe of where I was and what I had accomplished to get there that I couldn’t help but get emotional.  It’s not every day that I’m fortunate enough to experience such natural wonder.

Eventually, we made it to the top of the ridge, but right as we were about to look towards the summit, we saw immense, black storm clouds forming over the horizon.  There is nothing scarier than being on top of a mountain in a thunderstorm, and we didn’t want to stick around to find out how harsh the storm would be.  The peak was also still covered in so much snow that we decided it was far too dangerous to continue – the melting snow could collapse below us on the narrow ridges or we could sink far down into the banks.  I left that day extremely disappointed that I could not summit my first real mountain… but it also left me hungry for more.  I still have summiting a real mountain high up on my bucket list, and I think its only a matter of time until I can make that happen.

While in the park and at the informational center, one organism really stood out to me as a champion of survival: the bristlecone pine.

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Photo by Frank Kovalcheck

The Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are gnarled, ancient trees that thrive under freezing temperatures and high winds and can live to see several centuries or even millennia.  Here are some quick facts I learned on the trip and through further research:

1. The oldest living tree is a bristlecone pine – clocking in at 5,000 years! This means that this tree was alive when the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed (2560 BC).

2. Harsh living conditions actually are what allow bristlecones to live for a long time. While bristlecones can grow more rapidly at lower elevations where winds are lower and temperatures are higher, these harsh conditions are actually the key to their incredible old age. Bring on the below-freezing temperatures and blustering winds!

3. Bristlecones grow so slowly that growth rings can take more than a year to develop.

4. Ever wonder what the climate of the Earth was thousands of years ago? Like in other trees, the growth rings of bristlecone pines can be used not only to date the tree, but also to look into the environmental past.  Using bristlecone pine tree rings, scientists can gain insight into past climatic events up to 9,000 years ago.

Having the privilege of climbing high enough to see these old-timers in person is an experience I won’t be forgetting any time soon.  And while we did bring a considerable amount of trail mix, we weren’t quite cut out to have an extended stay in the wilderness and left Great Basin just with sore legs and great memories.

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We finished the trip by visiting my boyfriend’s folks out on a ranch in Utah, where there were some adorable cows living the good life before reaching their final form – grilled steaks.

The West is quite different than the East Coast that I have known all my life.  It’s a little more wild… a little more adventurous.  And even with its dry, cold, hot, and simply unfavorable conditions, plant life can still thrive.  One day, I’ll return to Great Basin, and I will conquer that summit.

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