Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bristlecone-Rock Glacier

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5 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The oldest known living tree on Earth- a bristlecone pine named Prometheus that was nearly 5000 years old- once grew in the cirque beneath Wheeler Peak in Nevada's remote Great Basin National Park. Prometheus has since been cut down, a tragic incident that spurred the protection of this land as Great Basin National Park. However, on the Bristlecone-Rock Glacier hike, you can still discover two unique sights in that cirque: the bristlecone pine forest of which Prometheus was once a member and the remnants of Nevada's last glacier that carved out this spectacular glacial bowl. For casual hikers visiting Great Basin National Park who aren't up for tackling the difficult hikes up Wheeler Peak or out to Magic Grove, this hike delivers the greatest rewards while demanding just a moderate effort.

The trail to the rock glacier is signed as leading to the glacier in some cases and the rock glacier in others; know that they refer to the same place. I will refer to it as the rock glacier in this post for consistency.

I hiked the Bristlecone-Rock Glacier Trail during a weeklong autumn road trip through Nevada to see the fall colors, arriving on the first day of October. Great Basin National Park is literally in the middle of nowhere- the trailhead is 4 hours from Salt Lake City and 5 hours from Las Vegas. The hamlet of Baker- population 68- is near the entrance of the park, while the closest town with full services is Ely, an hour away. I'll thus skip describing the route from any major city and instead just describe the route from Baker; Nevada Highway 488 leads from Baker to the entrance of the park. Upon entering the park, I turned right onto the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and followed it just a little over 12 miles to the Bristlecone Trailhead, a large parking area on the left side of the road just outside the entrance to the Wheeler Peak Campground. There's parking here for more than 40 cars and a vault toilet.

To start the hike, I crossed the road and started up the combined trail for the Sky Islands Forest Trail, the Bristlecone Trail, and the Alpine Lakes Loop. The first few meters of the trail were flat and wide for the ADA accessible Sky Islands Forest Trail but the Alpine Lakes Loop and the Bristlecone Trail broke off to the right very quickly. I took this right fork. This trail- wide and well maintained- began a gradual ascent and after a hundred meters it split apart again into the two directions of the Alpine Lakes Loop, with the right fork leading towards Stella Lake and the left fork leading to Teresa Lake and the Bristlecone Pine Grove. I took the left fork at this junction.

The trail climbed gently through a forest of spruce and fir for the next 2/3 of a mile before coming to the next junction. Here, the Alpine Lakes Loop continued towards Teresa Lake on the right; having seen from the summit of Wheeler Peak earlier that day that Teresa Lake had dried out, I skipped visiting the lake and instead took the left fork, which led to both the Bristlecone Pine Forest and the rock glacier.

The Bristlecone Trail dropped slightly from the junction as it crossed the dry creekbed of Lehman Creek. The trail then contoured around the northeast ridge of Wheeler Peak, staying fairly flat as it cut through forests on the slopes of the ridge. This stretch of trail delivered the first views of the hike: I could see across the Lehman Creek watershed to the colorful fall aspens growing on the slopes of Bald Mountain (there are no aspens directly along this trail). To the northeast, I looked out into the desert flats in Utah that are characteristic of much of the Great Basin.

Fall colors on aspens near the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
Looking out into the Great Basin
The trail made a sharp turn to the right as it entered the Wheeler Peak cirque. The trail began to steadily ascend as views of towering Doso Doyabi appeared ahead and the bristlecone pines came into sight.

Doso Doyabi rises above the bristlecone pine forest
The trail crossed a dry creekbed and then made a switchback and began a more aggressive ascent through rockier terrain as it began to pass a number of bristlecone pines. These trees live to be the oldest non-cloncal organisms in the world and inhabit the harsh upper reaches of the tallest ranges in the Great Basin. They do not typically grow to any impressive size due to the harsh environment, but over time the elements sculpt and twist the trees into unusual forms. Many older trees barely cling onto life, with just fragments of bark and a handful of needles giving life to a tree that had otherwise been reduced to a bare trunk. A number of dead trees dotted the grove as well: the dead trunks can last on these mountain slopes for thousands of years. 

Trunk of a dead bristlecone pine
Bristlecone pines have a range that is generally limited to the mountaintops of the many mountain ranges of the Great Basin. In the 1950s, Dr. Edmund Schulman of the University of Arizona visited the bristlecone pine groves of California's White Mountains and found- to his shock- that there were trees there a thousand years older than any giant sequoia, which were thought to be the oldest trees in the world at the time. Quickly, it became apparent that the oldest specimens in the White Mountains were easily over 4000 years old. In the following years, bristlecone pines became an object of academic fascination as the dendrochronological records in their trunks were used to validate radiocarbon dating and understand climate patterns of the past ten millenia.

In 1964, Donald Currey, a graduate student from UNC Chapel Hill, was doing field work in this very bristlecone pine grove in the cirque of Wheeler Peak, using tree cores to help build a dendrochronological record. Currey found one particularly wizened and ancient tree in the grove- named Prometheus- and tried to core it for his research. The record is a bit unclear on what happened next- either Currey's borer for extracting tree cores broke or Prometheus was too unwieldly for him to get a representative tree core sample- but his resulting choice was devastating. Seeking and then receiving permission from the Forest Service, Currey cut down Prometheus to analyze its rings. He counted 4862 rings. Factoring in the time it took to reach the height at which it was cut down, Prometheus may have been as much as 5000 years old. It remains the oldest confirmed non-clonal organism known on our Earth and until it was downed by a human, it lived here on the slopes of Wheeler Peak.

Bristlecone pines
The trail split into a short loop at 1.4 miles from the trailhead. The left fork here led hikers through the short Bristlecone Pine Interpretive Trail, while the right fork skirted the grove and was a shortcut to reach the rock glacier trail. I took the left fork here to pass through the heart of the grove and see a number of truly ancient trees, peers of the nearly-immortal Prometheus. The interpretive trail had a number of informative signs about the species and the grove as it made its way by some very gnarled trees. A particularly impressive tree lay at the top of the trail; while much of its trunk was dead and the dead wood had been scarred by fire, a few living branches still sporting bristlecone needles demonstrated that this 3200 year old tree was still alive and photosynthesizing.

3200-year old bristlecone pine
The tragedy of Prometheus helped bring the outcry and attention needed for federal protection of these rare and ancient beings. Today, the oldest known bristlecone pines are preserved in the Bristlecone Pine Natural Area in the White Mountains and here in Great Basin National Park.

Gnarled bristlecone trunk
At the top of the Bristlecone Pine loop, the Rock Glacier trail broke off to the left at a signed junction. I followed this trail, which passed a couple more bristlecone pines while it made a steady but gentle ascent through rocky terrain. A quarter mile past after leaving the Bristlecone Pine loop, I arrived at an interpretive sign at the end of a switchback where there were the first good views of Wheeler Peak at the head of the cirque and the rock glacier at its base. As recently as the early twentieth century, there was a true glacier here with crevasses that filled the head of the cirque, but that glacier has since retreated and there is now just some permanent patches of snow at the head of the cirque and a rock glacier, a mix of rock and ice that has some flow characteristics similar to how a true glacier moves. This was the last true glacier in Nevada before it became a victim of the changing climate that is wiping out glaciers from the Sierra Nevada and Colorado Rockies to Montana's Glacier National Park.

Wheeler Peak rising above the rock glacier
The trail made a quick set of switchbacks after the viewpoint and then continued up the valley into the depths of the cirque. The trail flattened out for a while as it followed the moraines left by the retreating glacier, but the terrain was very rocky here, making the trail much less pleasant to hike along. After the flatter stretch of the hike ended, the trail ventured onto more freshly deposited moraine, ascending steeply through piles of rocks that were likely just deposited in the glacial retreat of this past century. As the trail ascended through this moraine, views opened up outside the cirque: I had gained enough elevation that the peaks of the North Snake Range, including lofty Mount Moriah, had come into view.

Mount Moriah and the North Snake Range
The trail ended at a sign that simply read "Rock Glacier." There wasn't terribly much glacier to see here: a few patches of permanent snow at the base of Wheeler Peak's headwall marked where the glacier would have once originated. While there is apparently still a rock glacier here, it was not obviously distinguishable from the moraine around it. However, the views of the towering cliffs around the cirque here were still impressive and humbling. It was also very chilly: surrounded by high cliffs, this spot in the cirque almost never gets sunlight, explaining how the temperatures here were kept low enough to support a glacier in the middle of the Great Basin Desert.

Wheeler Peak towers over the rock glacier at the head of the cirque
After enjoying the views here, I traced my steps back, taking the other segment of the Bristlecone Pine loop on the descent and reaching the trailhead around sunset. As I drove down the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, I saw an incredible harvest moon rising over the Great Basin. I finished my day with dinner at Kerouac's in Baker- it's one of the only restaurants for miles around and luckily, it's even tastier than any place you'd find in Ely; in fact, Kerouac's may have the best food you can find in the triangle defined by Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Elko, Nevada.

This is an excellent hike. The handful of nice views along this trail are paired with the awe of seeing trees older than the monuments of Rome and Athens as well as the majesty of the great rocky cirque carved by Nevada's last glacier. There are better hikes in Great Basin National Park, but those hikes require strenuous efforts while the hike to the bristlecone pine grove and the rock glacier allows visitors to more easily access the sense of wonder which this landscape can imbue in us all.

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