The earth’s oldest trees live in this U.S. park

From its 13,065-foot summit to extensive subterranean passages and caves of limestone and glowing crystals, one national park in eastern Nevada seems to bridge multiple worlds. There’s a good geological reason for that.

Great Basin National Park takes its name from the vast region in the western United States covering most of Nevada and significant portions of Oregon, Utah—even stretching into California, Idaho, and Wyoming. So named by explorer John C. Frémont in the mid-1800s, the region actually comprises not one but at least 90 basins, or valleys, and its rivers all flow inland—not to any ocean. All moisture in this arid bowl evaporates, sinks underground, or flows into salty lakes.

This creates optimal conditions in groves across the park for the Great Basin Bristlecone pines, the oldest non-clonal species (which reproduce with genetic variation) in the world. The slow-growing trees live at high elevations on limestone ridges, through unforgiving conditions including high winds and temperatures well below freezing.

Some trees are more than 3,000 years old—having lived through ice ages, volcanic eruptions and the rise and fall of countless empires.

The oldest specimen, known as the Prometheus tree, was at least 4,862 years old when a graduate student cut it down for research purposes in 1964. It was older than Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza, which was completed in 2560 BC.

The easiest way to see these gnarled trees that have been twisted by wind, water, snow, and time is to go to Wheeler Peak, at 13,065 feet the second highest mountain in Nevada. Look for them in a grove on the northeast side of the mountain, two miles from Wheeler Peak campground.

In the flank of the mountain, at an altitude of 6,800 feet, lies Lehman Caves, with 1.5 miles of underground passages. These formed when higher water tables during the Ice Age made pockets in the limestone. In the late 1800s, a rancher named Absalom Lehman came upon the entrance to this spectacular cavern while on horseback—and named it after himself.

These days, the Lehman caves draw tens of thousands of visitors to see cavernous rooms of glowing translucent crystals and fantastical mineral formations carved by water. In the darkness, subterranean life thrives here. Eyeless shrimp wriggle in the cold water, bats use echolocation to navigate, rats follow scent and pseudoscorpions use their elongated pincers to feel the route before them.

Above ground, visitors can enjoy the spectacular darkness the park offers with minimal light pollution, low humidity and high elevation. In 2016, the area was designated an International Dark Sky Park. On a clear, moonless night in the park, planets, thousands of stars, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye.

Hike with us: National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps highlight the best places for hiking, camping, boating, paddling, and wildlife viewing in North America’s rugged frontiers and urban fringes. Created in partnership with local land management agencies, these expertly researched maps deliver unmatched detail and helpful information to guide experienced outdoor enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. Click here for maps of Great Basin National Park.
Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

Read This Next

Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.
Why monkeypox cases are still rising at such an alarming rate
Thunderstorms are moving East with climate change

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet