Methuselah, the Bible tells us, lived to be 969 years old. Since then, the name “Methuselah” has become a synonym for someone or something old. It makes sense, then, that a 4,771-year-old tree, high in the mountains of California, is known as the Methuselah tree.
Think about that for a minute — 4,771 years old. That means the tree is older than Egypt’s Great Pyramids, as well as many civilizations and religions.
The Methuselah tree is a bristlecone pine tree, located in the aptly named Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest, deep in the White Mountains. The forest is east of Yosemite National Park and north of Death Valley National Park. Sitting at an elevation of 11,000 feet, it looks, well, desolate. That’s perfect for the bristlecones, however.
As a PBS Nova article explains, since little else grows there, the trees don’t need to compete for water and nutrients. That means they can freely spread their root systems and crowns. Because the trees are widely spaced apart and there is little groundcover, wildfire risk is very low.
How Do Scientists Know Its Age?
Many people know you can gauge a tree’s age by counting the rings in its trunk. But how do you do that without cutting the tree down?
Fortunately, researchers have a tool called an increment borer, which is used to safely extract a small cross-section of a tree, the U.S. Forest Service explains. Think of the procedure as taking a biopsy from a tree’s trunk. This sample of the tree is then used to determine its age.
The Methuselah tree was discovered in 1957, Atlas Obscura explains. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the oldest tree in the forest.
At that time, the oldest Bristlecone pine in the forest was a tree known as Prometheus. According to the National Park Service, accounts about what happened and why vary — and are still debated — but Prometheus was accidentally cut down at the age of 4,862 in 1964.
Although Methuselah is located in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, its exact location is a closely guarded secret to protect it from vandals. Another tree, more than 5,000 years old, has also been discovered in the forest. It has not been named, and its location is also confidential.
Can You Visit The Tree?
The question of whether or not you can visit the tree is easier to ask than answer. For one thing, the exact locations of the Methuselah tree and the older, unnamed tree are kept secret. You can, however, visit the Bristlecone Pine Forest and even Patriarch Grove, where you can see the Patriarch Tree — the world’s largest Bristlecone pine tree.
If you do plan to visit the forest, keep the following note from the Forest Service in mind.
“This is a remote area with limited cell phone coverage,” the Forest Service said. It further notes that visitors “need to be prepared to be self-sufficient” as the nearest source for food, water, or fuel is Big Pine, California, 35 miles away.