Sunday, January 3, 2021

Magic Grove Bristlecone Pines

The Quarter Tree, a bristlecone pine in Great Basin National Park's Magic Grove
12.8 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, some route finding required
Access: Decent but narrow gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

One of the newest trails in Nevada's Great Basin National Park visits a spectacular grove of the oldest known tree species: Magic Grove, a windswept bristlecone pine forest on a high, rocky ridge. Referred to as the Mount Washington Bristlecone Pine Grove or simply the Bristlecone Pine Natural Area in park literature, this spot is known to locals as Magic Grove; therefore, I'll call it that. This grove has a far more spectacular setting than the bristlecone pine grove in the cirque beneath Wheeler Peak and contains one of the most iconic and recognizable bristlecone pines in the world, the Quarter Tree, which is featured on the Great Basin National Park US quarter. 

The destination is one of the highlights of Great Basin National Park and there are many nice views along the way, but for the moment this is still quite a challenging hike. Not only is the hike long with substantial elevation gain but portions of the trail are either incomplete, poorly built, or poorly marked. For the moment, this remains a hike for more experienced hikers with some route-finding experience; however, as the trail (or if the trail) is improved in the future, this will become one of the best day hikes in this park and in the state of Nevada. Upon completion, this hike would probably merit a moderate-strenuous rather than a strenuous difficulty rating. The hike utilizes the newly constructed Shoshone Trail in the Snake Creek drainage and then connects to the even newer and still incomplete Snake Divide Trail, which follows a long ridgeline west until coming to the grove on the slopes of Mount Washington near the crest of the Snake Range. The hike remains unmarked on most park literature, although it is displayed in some park maps displayed at the Great Basin National Park Visitor Center, as well as at the information boards at the trailhead.

A quick note on names: "Snake" is in just about every name related to this hike. Great Basin National Park is in the Snake Range; thus, references to the crest of Snake Range mean the primary, north-south ridge making up this mountain range. To reach Magic Grove, which is close to the crest of the Snake Range, I had to hike along the Snake Divide Trail; the Snake Divide, which is different from the crest of the Snake Range, refers to an east-west ridge running to the east from the crest of the Snake Range that separates the Snake Creek watershed from the North Fork Big Wash watershed.

I hiked to Magic Grove during a fall trip through Nevada, arriving during the first few days of October to see fall foliage on aspens in the Snake Creek valley. Magic Grove is in the Snake Creek area of Great Basin National Park, which is a remote region in a park that is already very out of the way. The closest town with full services is Ely, nearly a two hour drive from the trailhead, while the small village of Baker, which has little other than an excellent restaurant (Kerouac's), is about an hour away. The trailhead is also close to Garrison, a small populated area just across the border in Utah, but there are no services there.

From Baker, I followed Nevada Highway 487 south for 5 miles and then turned right at the sign for Snake Creek Road onto an unpaved road. I proceeded to follow this gravel road for the next 12 miles; while the first few miles were easy driving, the road became extremely washboarded as I entered Great Basin National Park, slowing me down considerably. I followed the road to its conclusion, 12 miles from the turnoff. Along the way, the road became progressively narrower and was just the width of a single car for stretches of a hundred meters at a time as it closely followed Snake Creek. The road condition was acceptable save a few potholes and a lot of washboarding and this road should be doable for any car with slow driving. The road ended at a large parking lot in a sagebrush meadow. It's clear that the National Park Service has been doing a lot of work here recently: the parking lot looked quite improved and there were brand new signs at the trailhead describing the multiple trails that set out from here.

Three trails depart from this trailhead. The trail for Johnson Lake departs from the north end of the parking lot, while the Shoshone Trail and the Dead Lake Trail start by following a combined path south from the parking lot. I took this south fork: the first segment of this hike follows the Shoshone Trail. Just a hundred feet from the trailhead, the Dead Lake Trail split to the right; I continued following the Shoshone Trail, which was extremely broad and followed a road trace. A hundred meters later, the Shoshone Trail came to Snake Creek, a year-round stream flowing down this valley that supports a population of Bonneville cutthroat trout. There is a nice, new viewing platform here next to the creek and an interpretive sign about efforts to restock native trout in the stream.

The trail crossed Snake Creek on a well-built bridge and then shrank to a single track trail as it entered the aspen forests of the Snake Creek drainage. The initial 2/3 mile of the hike ascended gently while heading southeast as the trail passed through alternating areas of sagebrush meadows and stands of aspen displaying beautiful fall color. Each of the two sagebrush meadows had nice views, although the views were particularly nice from the second sagebrush meadow, where I saw Pyramid Peak's distinct profile rising above heavily forested slopes that included large patches of aspens displaying brilliant fall colors. Eagle Peak, a tall limestone peak across the valley, was another notable part of the view.

Pyramid Peak rising over aspens in the Snake Creek watershed
As the trail headed south through the open sagebrush away from Snake Creek, it passed above a drainage that was filled with particularly colorful aspens that were spectacularly lit by the morning sun.

Fall aspens on the Shoshone Trail
After following the Shoshone Trail for 0.7 miles of fairly flat hiking, I entered a forest of mixed conifers and aspens. Here, the trail passed a few aspens that exhibited carvings- while much of this was graffiti, some of the trees displayed Basque arborglyphs, which are sets of messages and drawings left by Basque sheepherders who tended their flocks in these mountains in the early and mid-twentieth centuries and used aspen trunks to communicate with one another and entertain themselves.

The trail began ascending at a steeper grade as it headed east along the slopes of the Snake Divide through the forest. Having hiked a number of other trails throughout Nevada's Great Basin, I was struck by the dense forests of the Snake Range and particularly of the Snake Creek watershed. While many other high mountain ranges in Nevada, such as the Toiyabe Range, the Schell Creek Range, and the Ruby Mountains, are only able to muster aspen forests with sparse conifers on their slopes, much of the Snake Range is densely coated with forests of juniper, pinyon pine, spruce, and fir. The extra thousand feet of height of this particular mountain range was enough to induce extra rain and snowfall that can support forests far more lush than anywhere else in the Great Basin. 

Fall colors in Snake Creek Valley
The Shoshone Trail became steeper as I continued along, eventually transitioning to a very aggressive grade for a stretch as the trail pushed uphill towards the Snake Divide.  At 1.5 miles from the trailhead, after 750 feet of elevation gain, the Shoshone Trail leveled out as it reached a saddle over the Snake Divide, which is the high ridge separating the Snake Creek drainage from the North Fork Big Wash drainage. Here, the Shoshone Trail intersected with the Snake Divide Trail, which had a shiny new sign marking the recently constructed trail that headed off to the right along the ridge. The conifer forest abruptly ended at the saddle, transitioning to open sagebrush meadows on the south slopes of the Snake Divide; thus, there were nice views from the saddle past a stand of golden aspens into the North Fork Big Wash drainage and out into the desert flats of the Great Basin.

Aspens on the Shoshone Trail at the pass over the Snake Divide
The Snake Divide Trail immediately began ascending as it headed west from the saddle. The trail climbed through a mixed forest of aspens and conifers, which was generally fairly dense and only occasionally opened up for some views to the east of the desert flats of the Great Basin. This early segment of the Snake Divide Trail was reasonably well built, with switchbacks to grade the ascent as the slopes steepened. The trail pushed through 900 feet of elevation gain in just over a mile to reach a knoll along the Snake Divide; this is the most extended ascent of the trail, though because of poor trail conditions later in the hike it is not the hardest stretch.

Reaching the first knoll, there were some partial views to what the hike would entail ahead: there were two more limestone knolls on the ridge up ahead and then a longer stretch of ridge that led up to the crest of the Snake Range. There were some nice views here as well into the North Fork Big Wash drainage, especially of the massive limestone cliffs lining the other side of the valley.

Limestone ridges and cliffs of Mount Washington
Leaving the first knoll, the trail descended about 50 feet as the ridge dropped to a saddle. Fortunately, the trail did not follow the undulating top of the ridge, which would've packed hundreds of extra feet of elevation gain into this hike; unfortunately, it was at this point that the quality of the trail deteriorated significantly. The trail cut across the forested slopes on the north side of the Snake Divide, staying slightly below the main ridge, which was rocky and frequently rose and fell. However, this trail appeared unfinished: rather than being properly cut into the slope, it seemed more like a dirt scar, with the walking surface at nearly the same angle as the slope itself. The loose dirt and rocks along the slope made hiking on this path a bit treacherous; I was glad I had brought hiking poles for additional balance to avoid slipping and falling. I have to imagine that this is not the intended final form of this trail and that the Park Service means to build a more formal trail into this slope.

Unfinished, narrow, angled Snake Divide Trail
This rough trail continued for about a mile, with some spots where switchbacks in the trail had become an eroded, treacherous mess of loose dirt and no traction. This unpleasant stretch was only briefly punctuated by a spot where the trail came to a limestone outcrop with a sweeping view over the Snake Creek Drainage. The many colorful aspens in the valley below were complemented by the high summits of Johnson Peak, Pyramid Peak, Wheeler Peak, and Doso Doyabi, which all had rocky tops with densely forested slopes. Eagle Peak rose across the valley and looking down from the outcrop I could see the trailhead parking lot.

Pyramid Peak, Wheeler Peak, and Doso Doyabi rising over the forested Snake Creek watershed
The trail continued traversing the north slopes of the Snake Divide until it returned to the top of the ridge at 4 miles from the trailhead; at this point, the trail had passed all three of the limestone knolls along the Snake Divide. The rest of the ridge was a gradual ascent up to the crest of the Snake Range itself. While the incomplete/poorly built stretch of angled trail ended here, the defined path also briefly ended when the trail came onto the ridge. A few sparse cairns marked the route but were hard to follow; it's easiest just to head west along the top of the ridge itself. After 200 meters of trailless hiking with a very slight descent along the ridge, I came to a saddle in the ridge where a number of road traces intersected. I followed the road trace that headed west along the ridge for a few hundred yards before a somewhat defined trail marked with cairns peeled off to the right. It's easy to miss this turnoff: if you find yourself descending down the south side of the ridge, know that you've missed it and should turn back.

This faint trail continued following the ridge uphill and arrived at a clearing at 4.7 miles from the trailhead. The ridge began rising steeply across the steep talus clearing from here and was covered with bristlecone pines- the start of the bristlecone pine forest of Mount Washington. The first bristlecones were quite orderly looking, lacking the gnarled look of the more exposed, older trees, and the bristlecones were interspersed with many similar looking limber pines. Although I had arrived at the edge of the grove, I was still far from where the real magic happened. The trail joined another road trace once amongst the bristlecones and I followed this road trace west along the ridge for nearly a mile, with a few flat stretches interspersed with steep uphill climbs. The road trace faded out and the surrounding terrain transistioned from forest to an open talus slope as the ridge steepened for the last major uphill of the hike. 

As I approached the top of this last uphill, I began encountering a handful of truly spectacular trees that had twisted, half-dead trunks that still supported a few leaving branches. The views here quite spectacular, too: all of the Snake Creek drainage was laid out below me to the north, with the distinctive white limestone ridge of Eagle Peak rising to the east. Eagle Peak is home to the third major grove of bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park, the first two being Magic Grove and the grove in the Wheeler Peak cirque. The views to the east also stretched out into the vast desert expanses of the Great Basin, which reached deep into the state of Utah from here.

Bristlecone pine and Eagle Peak
Bristlecone Pines of Magic Grove
Soon after passing these magnificent bristlecone pines, the Snake Divide leveled out as it ran fairly flat for its last half mile to join up with the crest of the Snake Range. I crossed a barren stretch of the ridge that had open and awesome views to both sides, reaching from Wheeler Peak and Pyramid Peak to the north to the now close and impressively massive Mount Washington. Past the barren part of the ridge, the trail entered the heart of Magic Grove, which was marked by a sign that simply read "Bristlecone Pine Natural Area."

There are some remarkably beautiful trees in this area. One massive tree was mostly dead on its western side but had intact bark and a sprawling crown on its eastern side. Some of the old trees nursed collections of young bristlecones on their leeward side.

An impressively large bristlecone pine in Magic Grove
The crowning glory of this grove, however, was the Quarter Tree, an ancient pine with a beautiful, windswept form and sprawling, exposed roots. Isolated from the others in this forest, the Quarter Tree stood at the very highest point of the ridge, its twisting branches outstretched to support a shield-like crown of needles. The Quarter Tree- an informal name, as this tree has no official name- is one of the most iconic bristlecone pines in the world and a symbol of Great Basin National Park. Its moniker is due to it being featured on the coin design for Great Basin National Park's quarter. 

The Quarter Tree and Mount Washington
These amazing trees are the oldest known non-clonal trees on Earth. I'm not aware of the age of any specific trees in Magic Grove, but based on the harsh, exposed conditions of this ridge and the impressive size of some of the trees, I'm confident that some of these trees here are thousands of years old. The oldest known bristlecone pine at the moment is Methuselah, which grows in the White Mountains of California and is over 4800 years old; however, the oldest tree ever dated was Prometheus here in Great Basin National Park, which lived nearly 5000 years but was died when it was cut down for dating. Bristlecone pines have a range spanning the entire Great Basin, growing near the highest ridges and peaks in the many parallel mountains ranges of California, Nevada, and Utah.

The Quarter Tree
Bristlecones can be identified in part by the very neat distribution of needles along their branches, with most needles around similar length. Once seeds from the cones of these pines start growing into trees, it can take centuries just to become a thin, juvenile tree; in harsh growing conditions, the bristlecone pines sometimes add very little new volume in their short summer growth season. The result is a dense trunk that often survives for thousands of years after the tree dies. The remarkable longevity of these trees and their responsiveness to environmental conditions make the growth rings of bristlecone pines a climate record for the past 10000 years.

Bristlecone pine cones
The Quarter Tree was the highlight of the hike, but the trail didn't end there. The end of the Snake Divide- which is very poorly defined at this point- is at the crest of the Snake Range. It is about a 0.3 mile walk from the Quarter Tree to a saddle on the crest just south of where the Snake Divide joins up with the Snake Range's crest. A sign near the saddle marks the end of the Snake Divide Trail and notes that there is not yet a marked or maintained trail from here up Mount Washington. This spot provided a nice perspective looking back at Magic Grove. Here, I realized that the grove was much larger than it looked from atop the ridge; the bristlecone pine forest stretched downslope on the southern side of the Snake Divide and was actually quite extensive. However, the trees lower on the slope appeared to be growing in more favorable climes and lacked the drama of the twisted limbs of the trees atop the ridge. Behind the grove, the many desert basins and mountain ranges of the Utah Great Basin stretched out to the horizon.

Magic Grove and the Great Basin
At the saddle, 11140 feet above sea level, excellent views opened up to the west as well. The high limestone summit of Mount Washington rose steeply above the saddle to the south while Spring Valley opened up below. The Schell Creek Range and the Egan Range were two layers of mountains beyond Spring Valley; while I might have seen to even more remote mountain ranges on a clear day, smoke from California wildfires constrained visibility.

View of Spring Valley from saddle along the Snake Range crest
I only saw a single other hiker during my whole day of hiking here- a far cry from the fifty or more hikers I had seen the previous day on both the Wheeler Peak and Bristlecone-Rock Glacier Trails. There is something truly magical about the ancient, windswept bristlecone pines on the slopes of Mount Washington. The trail is still a bit tough to handle at the moment, but as it improves this will likely become one of the premier hikes in Great Basin National Park. For the moment, though, visitors are still rare and you can have this magnificent grove to yourself if you can handle the long hike, substantial elevation gain, and poor trail conditions.

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