Tracking Colorado’s oldest trees

May 13, 2014

bristlecone pineYou already know about Colorado's fantastic skiing, hiking, mountain biking and fishing, so why not check out one of the state's hidden treasures on your next visit. Tucked away in just a few scattered pockets, some of the world's oldest trees stand as ancient sentinels of the high country. Some bristlecone pines growing in Colorado were already more than 1,000 years old when Columbus set sail for the New World!

One of the best places to visit bristlecones is along Mt. Evans Road, just a short jaunt to the south of I-70 about halfway between Denver and Copper Mountain. You can find detailed instructions for visiting the area at this Forest Service website.

So how do the trees survive for millennia? For one thing, their needles don't fall off every year. They can live for decades, helping to sustain the trees even during times of severe stress like drought that could kill other trees. The bristlecones also survive because their bark dies back very gradually, sometimes leaving only a narrow strip to conduct moisture from the ground up to the crown of the tree.

And until recently, bristlecones have been mostly immune to natural pests like fungus and insects because their slow-growing wood is so dense and resinous. Forest Service scientists are carefully monitoring the trees to see if a warming climate will change their susceptibility to insects. The oldest bristlecones live in the most exposed sites and are widely spaced, making them less prone to forest fires from lighting strikes.

with a considerable amount of space between each tree. The longevity of the bristlecone needles and the inability of other plants to grow in the dolomite soil make for little leaf litter or ground cover. This distance in between, combined with the lack of ground cover, is how a tree can sustain a lightning strike, catch fire, and not have the fire spread to surrounding trees. Finally, even the oldest trees can produce cones with viable seeds.

There are even a few bristlecones scattered about in Summit County, notably at the summit of Mt. Royal, a popular local peak in Frisco, but one of the best areas to see them is a little farther south, in Park County. From Frisco, head south on Highway 9, zoom through Breckenridge and over Hoosier Pass, then be prepared for an adventurous drive up the flanks of Mt. Bross to the Windy Ridge bristlecone pine area. Detailed directions here.

The Forest Service created the Windy Ridge area in 1964 to protect the trees, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. Windy Ridge is great place for spring and summer hikes and many people even use snowshoes to visit the grove of ancient trees in the winter.


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