This is definitely the oldest living thing

September 6, 2023

Here in California, we have both the world’s oldest living thing and the world’s largest living thing. As long as you’re willing to be flexible with the definitions of “oldest” and “largest.”

By volume, the sequoia redwood tree “General Sherman” is the largest known organism. Before you raise your hand and say “what about the ‘humongous fungus,’” the humongous fungus (which lives in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest) is only the largest living thing by area, not by weight. Even though it spans around 9.6 square km (3.7 square miles), it “only” weighs something like 400,000 kg (882,000 lbs). That sounds like a lot until you compare it to General Sherman, which weighs around 1,225,000 kg (2,700,000 lbs). Anyway, if you’re a fan of The Last of Us, definitely don’t go to Oregon.

Me and 75% of my children at the General Sherman Tree, 2020.

California also has the world’s oldest living thing, and before you raise your hand and say “what about Gran Abuelo in Chile?” scientists can’t get a complete core sample of that tree so though they’re guessing it’s more than 5,000 years old, they also admit that their guess is only around 80% likely to be correct. And before you raise your hand and say, “what about the 11,000 year-old glass sponge in the East China Sea?” just shhhhh. We’re done talking now.

The oldest living thing (okay the oldest individual tree with a confirmed age) is the Methuselah Tree, which lives in California’s Inyo National Forest and is 4,854 years old. Seeing this tree is bucket-list stuff, and we finally got a chance to do it on the second stop of Road Trip 2023. Except when we got there, the rangers were like, “Okay the tree is somewhere around here,” [pointing to the map] but it’s not signposted. If you walk this trail, though, you will definitely see it. You just won’t know which one it is.”

This is definitely Methuselah.

Why is the Methuselah Tree not signposted?  Mostly because humans suck, and the Forest Service thinks telling people where it is will be an open invitation to vandalism. And in case you’re thinking, “No one would do that!” here’s a photo of some graffiti on the General Sherman Tree, circa 1969, and let’s not forget the tourist who wrote his name on the Colosseum because he “didn’t appreciate just how ancient this monument is.”

Jim Howell, 690813, Giant Forest, SNP, Vandalism, Park Ranger Robert Pyle at Sherman Tree inspecting carvings in tree.

Another small note if you’re planning to do this hike: The Methuselah trail is a 7 ¼-km (4.5-mile) loop. It begins at 3,048 m (10,000 ft) elevation and there’s around 275 m (900 ft) of gain. Now, I kind of have this weird obsession with Mt. Everest and the people who climb it, and sometimes I watch those documentaries and I’m like, “That doesn’t look that hard,” and I just want to say that at approximately one-third of Everest’s elevation I was pretty sure I was going to die from oxygen starvation.

No! It’s this one.

If you’re like a 20- to 30-year-old moderately-fit weekend hiker and you’re scoffing at me and my patheticness, please keep in mind that I am an old lady who sits in front of a computer for a living. Anyway, the air up there is really thin. Bring plenty of water, take your time, and rest frequently. Some of the trail is next to a fairly steep drop and you don’t really want to pass out and find yourself in a ravine.

Actually it’s this one.

Unfortunately, even after doing this hike I can’t give you any hints as to how to identify Methuselah. As you walk the trail, you kind of just have to guess. How do you tell the difference between a 4,854-year-old bristlecone pine and a 4,122-year-old bristlecone pine? You don’t. Just enjoy the hike.

I literally have no idea.