You don’t have to travel very far north – not to the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada range or the redwoods of Northern California – to see some really old trees in California.
We may not have an attraction like Calistoga’s The Petrified Forest here down south, but we’ve got some old growth evergreens and “parent” trees that have defied the laws of nature – and survived way past their life expectancies.
These arboreal oddballs can be found along hiking trails, in forests and even in the middle of a busy intersection. But you have to know to look for them – otherwise you’ll miss them. And each one is a fascinating natural destination in its own right.
Here are five “mature” trees that have withstood the test of time – and weathered through everything that Mother Nature and man have thrown their way.
1. Methuselah, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Inyo CountyThe oldest individually growing organism on the planet is the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) – and we’ve got a whole forest of them on the slopes of the White Mountains, accessible along Highway 395, east of Big Pine and north of Death Valley National Park. In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, inconceivably old trees are still growing, reproducing and thriving in the harshest of conditions. They’ve risen from the former ocean floor, climbing their way up to the tops of mountains, growing very slowly in the driest of soils (which is highly alkaline, and more limestone and dolomite than “dirt”). The trees have to withstand a lot of perils – wind, weather and a climate dry enough to prompt them to occasionally burst into flames – yet some of them last thousands of years.
A dead limb doesn't bring them down. In fact, parts of the trees may die – their bark falling off and the wood underneath becoming twisted – while other sections still thrive. Nature has distorted the wood into swirling patterns, rippling like the waves of the sea.
Their secret to longevity seems to be in the sap, which a variety of woodpeckers like to suck out. Any wounds they create in the surface of the tree while feeding are immediately filled in by more sap flow, which seals the wound off from infection so it can grow back, leaving nary a scar. And when you come back in a few weeks – or a few thousand years – you won't be able to tell where it's been sucked or cored or otherwise marred.
Although they can live for thousands of years, some trees eventually die naturally. The winds and the tides of time leave their mark on the timber bones, strewn throughout the skeletal wreckage in an arboreal graveyard. Fortunately, these trees are protected and can't be legally chopped down – which is why the exact location of the oldest of the oldest trees, the 5,000-year-old Methuselah, isn’t revealed. Look for it somewhere along the 4.5-mile Methuselah Grove trail loop, accessible via Schulman Grove.
2. Wally Waldron, Mount Baden-Powell, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument
Of the the world's oldest living limber pine trees, one grows on the banks of the upper North Saskatchewan River at Whirlpool Point in Alberta, Canada – close to 3,000 years old. Another can be found on Cusick Mountain in Oregon. But California’s oldest limber pine (Pinus flexilis) clocks in at 1,500 years old – and precariously clings to the spine of Mount Baden-Powell near its summit, defying gravity as its roots hang cantilevered over the edge.
Believed to be the oldest living thing in the entire San Gabriel Mountains, this knotted and gnarled specimen can be found among an ancient forest of limber pines, known for populating high elevations. Also known as the Rocky Mountain white pine, the limber pine can live for more than 1,000 years – if ecological conditions are ideal. And clearly, they have been on this peak, formerly known as “North Baldy,” renamed in 1931 for the founder of the modern Boy Scouts, British Army officer Lord Robert Baden-Powell.
By the 1950s, though, Mount Baden-Powell had become neglected and somewhat forgotten – until volunteer Boy Scout leader Michael H. “Wally” Waldron helped spearhead a kind of renaissance for the mountain, leading 2,000 Boy Scouts in a project that produced a permanent cement monument for Lord Baden-Powell on its summit – erected at the summit over the course of nine weeks in 1957. In his honor, the old limber pine along the trail to the summit has been named “Wally Waldron.”
To get to it, travel along Angeles Crest Highway (CA-2) to about 7.5 miles west of Wrightwood and exit at Vincent Gulch Divide a.k.a. Vincent Gap, which has a turn-off, a large parking area and outhouses. Display your Adventure Pass or America the Beautiful national park permit to park there without getting cited, and then head to the Pacific Crest Trail and follow the signs to Mount Baden-Powell. You’ll zigzag up the ridge – and after literally dozens of switchbacks (with shade fortunately provided by Jeffrey, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines), you’ll pass the spur trail for Lamel Spring.
Then, at around the 4-mile mark, about 1/8 mile below the 9,400-foot summit, you’ll meet Wally. If you continue all the way to the bare summit – and go back down the way you came – your total trip will be 8.25 miles, with 2,765 feet of climbing. Note that at that elevation, there might be some lingering snowpack late in the season.
Champion Lodgepole Pine, Bluff Lake Preserve, Big Bear LakeThe biggest Lodgepole pine tree (Pinus contorta var. murrayana) – not just in California, but in all of the world – can be found at the Bluff Lake Preserve near the mountain community of Big Bear.
Nicknamed “Champion,” it was first discovered in 1963 and has risen to over 110 feet tall and 20 feet around – when this California native normally grows no taller than 70 feet in height. And it’s not just because it’s that old. Although the Champion Lodgepole pine is estimated to be over 500 years old, there’s one in Yosemite that’s got this one beat by about 80 years.
Sierra Lodgepole pines usually only grow on terrain that’s above 8,000 feet – but Champion beats the odds once again by thriving at 7,600 feet elevation in this ecological reserve. It’s no wonder that Pomona College chose this location to use as a nature field study area from the 1920s to the 1940s – and not just for this one “twisted pine.”
The area is also known for its mature forests of Jeffrey pine and white fir – which provided the scenic backdrop for Disney’s production of "The Parent Trap" in 1961, when it was then known as Bluff Lake Camp and owned by the Pasadena YMCA.
Although the reserve is technically located within the bounds of San Bernardino National Forest, it’s managed by The Wildlands Conservancy, which acquired it in 2000. The Champion Lodgepole Pine is on federally managed forest lands, accessible from the reserve along the Champion Lodgepole Pine Trail, on the south side of the lake and the western side of the meadow, near the Siberia Creek Trail junction. Trail guides are available at the trailhead or the Big Bear Discovery Center.
You can expect a 1-mile round-trip out-and-back, with just 100 feet of elevation gain.
Access to Bluff Lake is off Big Bear Blvd. west of town on either Tulip Lane or Mill Creek Road. Prepare for driving along some rough road – though you won’t need a 4WD if you go slowly and carefully.
Note that the property is snowed in through winter and spring: Forest Service Roads 2N10 and 2N11 are not plowed and therefore not open to motorized vehicles. May 1 through November 1, however, Bluff Lake Preserve is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
4. California’s First Pepper Tree, Mission San Luis Rey, OceansideIt was once known as the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), but that all changed in 1830 – when a sailor brought a seedling from Peru to Mission San Luis Rey in present-day Oceanside, north of San Diego. Franciscan friar Padre Antonio Peyri planted it at the mission, and ever since, the tree has been known here as the California pepper tree. It’s the source of pink peppercorn – which isn’t a true pepper, but a berry.
The tree still stands today in the middle of the Mission Garden – which is something of a marvel, since California peppers usually only live to about 150 years old. And this first pepper tree is now at around 190 years since being planted.
Although not technically a California native, it’s a drought-tolerant evergreen that’s adapted to our climate well and has since become ubiquitous throughout SoCal. (One such “weeping” tree in San Juan Capistrano – measuring 57 feet high and over 30 feet around, a crown spread of 72 feet – has been registered as a “California Big Tree.”) It’s even become a “signature species” for some SoCal streets (including several “Peppertree Lanes”) and entry drives.
You can see the original “mother” peppertree by visiting Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, either on a self-guided or guided tour. You’ll find it in the Mission Garden beyond the Carriage Arch and Rose Garden, next to the well house.
Parent Washington Navel Orange Tree, RiversideCalifornia Historical Landmark No. 20 marks what many consider the beginning of the Southern California citrus explosion – the Parent Washington Navel Orange tree. This seedless navel orange variety sparked a citrus revolution because of the unobstructed “meat” of the fruit, which was easier to access past a much thinner rind than most folks were used to before it was introduced – making it much easier to peel.
On average, navel orange trees usually live to be 80 to 100 years old, but the “parent” tree in Riverside was planted nearly 150 years ago – and still blooms. In fact, clippings from it have spawned millions of other navel orange trees that have wound up all over the world. And in the California navel orange groves, the trees are all genetically identical to this one.
This Inland Empire specimen is actually one of two original ancestors of all California navel oranges – but the other died at The Mission Inn in 1921. They both had originated in Brazil and arrived in Riverside in 1873 as saplings, sent by the USDA’s first botanist, William Saunders, from Washington D.C. to one of Riverside’s founders, Eliza Tibbets. Her nurturing of this early- and mid-season variety of sweet orange earned her the title of the “Mother of the California Citrus Industry.”
After Tibbets died in 1898, the City of Riverside took ownership of the tree and, in 1902, transplanted it several blocks away from her home. Since the 1930s, UC Riverside scientists from its Citrus Clonal Protection Program have taken on the task of preserving it and prolonging its life – perhaps indefinitely. For now, you can find it on the southwest corner of Magnolia and Arlington Avenue in Riverside. (The closest address is 7115 Magnolia Avenue.) A plaque has been erected to highlight the importance of the plant, and a surrounding fence and smudge pots protect it from vandalism and frost. There’s a parking area just past the tree.