The Bristlecone Pine Trail takes hikers to one of Great Basin National Park’s most unique features. These gnarly trees are among the oldest living organisms in the world. Great Basin National Park has several of these ancient groves of Bristlecone Pine Trees, which are around 4,000 years old. The Wheeler Peak grove is the only grove that is relatively easy to get to.
Situated just below Wheeler Peak, this grove is about a 1.5-mile hike from the trailhead at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. You can hike to just the grove or continue to the only glacier in Nevada.
Because it’s an out-and-back hike, you can see how you feel when you get to the grove and then decide whether you want to continue to the glacier or not. However, the trail is not too strenuous, even to the glacier.
What is the Bristlecone Pine
The Bristlecone Pine lives higher than most trees – between 9,500-11,000 feet in elevation. Bristlecone Pines like to grow in isolated groves right below the tree line. They live in harsh conditions and because of this, they grow slowly. Some years, they may not even add a growth ring. This slow growth makes the wood dense, which in turn helps it to be resistant to fungi, insects, and rot. Also because they can withstand such harsh conditions, there is less neighboring vegetation, which helps to limit the impacts of forest fires.
When Bristlecone Pines grow at lower elevations, they grow more quickly, which hampers their ability for longevity.
The Bristlecone Pine Trees in the higher elevations at Great Basin are the oldest living organisms that are not clones.
Finding the trailhead
The Bristlecone Pine Trail leaves from the trailhead at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive in Great Basin National Park. The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive climbs the mountain for several miles before dead-ending at the Wheeler Peak Campground. You can find the trailhead, just before you enter the campground. You can also hike the Accessible Island Forest Trail and Alpine Lakes Loop from this trailhead.
Trailhead to Bristlecone Pine Grove
The trail begins on a durable honeycomb surface as it shares this portion with the Accessible Island Forest Trail. When this portion ends, you want to veer to the right onto the dirt path. The Bristlecone Pine Trail begins to climb through the alpine forest of Great Basin. Around mile 0.15 you come to another intersection. Here you want to go to the left. Going to the right will take you around the Alpine Lake Loop.
The trail continues to climb gently, snaking through the alpine forest. Around mile 0.7, you come to another intersection, where you want to continue to stay to the left. This is where you leave the portion that is shared with the Alpine Lakes Loop.
The trail gets a little steeper at this point and you begin to see some of the talus slopes creeping below the tree line. The Bristlecone Pine Trail heads east along a slope giving you views of Great Basin National Park below, before turning and heading south toward Wheeler Peak.
Around mile 1, the trail begins heading into the bowl below Wheeler Peak, and you can start to see some of the Bristlecone Pines sprinkled around. The trail continues to climb and then around mile 1.25, you come to the spur loop for the interpretive trail through the Bristlecone Grove.
Interpretive Bristlecone Pine Grove at Great Basin National Park
A short loop provides a wealth of information about these amazing trees via placards. They are not in a specific order, so it doesn’t matter which way you hike. I chose to hike past the first intersection and circle around via the second intersection. This way I would have more views of the valley below.
When you get to this part of the hike, you can either make it a lollipop loop and hike back to the trailhead, or continue one mile to the glacier below Wheeler Peak.
Bristlecone Pine Grove to glacier
After you learn much about the Bristlecone Pine at Great Basin National Park, the trail continues climbing into the bowl below Wheeler Peak. Even though you have about 500 more feet in elevation gain, the steepness isn’t terrible.
Because the trail climbs through the scree below the peak, the footing can be a little tricky in a few places. The trail skirts along the base of the peak and around mile 2, it turns and heads toward the middle of the valley in the scree field.
From here you can follow the trail through the scree field toward the glacier and rock glacier below it. It’s interesting to take note of the moraine and see how the rocks slowly make their way down the mountain.
Bristlecone Pine and Glacier Trail, Great Basin
After exploring as much as you like around the glacier, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. The Bristlecone Pine Trail and extension to the glacier is my favorite trail at Great Basin National Park. This trail allows you to get up close to the oldest living organisms in the world as well as hike above the tree line. It also gives you sweeping views of Wheeler Peak and the valley far below.
- 4.5 mile out-and-back
- Elevation gain and loss 856 feet
- Dogs not allowed
- Backcountry camping not allowed