The World's Oldest Forest Was Discovered In A Location We'd Never Guess

At the tail end of the 2010s, scientists in Cairo, New York, made the extraordinary find of fossilized roots representing the world's oldest known forest. To be clear, this is not a living forest, but rather, the remains of one that stood 385 million years ago. For perspective, that means its trees were growing even before dinosaurs walked the earth.

You wouldn't necessarily expect to hear of the oldest forest on Earth springing up just two hours away from the future site of Times Square, Manhattan. Taking a figurative bite of the Big Apple is one thing, but the Garden of Eden feels like it should be hidden deep in ancient Mesopotamia — nowhere near the world's most-filmed location, Central Park. Yet the town of Cairo is only 120 miles upstate from the bustle and billboards of modern Times Square. It's a relatively small town with a population of about 6,733, as of the last U.S. Census Bureau estimate in July 2022. The town's fossil forest was unearthed in an old quarry.

Don't pack your bags and amateur paleontology tools just yet because this "forest" isn't open to the public. It's a protected site, which is understandable, given its immense research value and how many incidents there have been in recent years of tourists and irreverent YouTubers damaging or disrespecting famous natural and historical landmarks. As a gateway to the Catskill Mountains, however, Cairo and the echoes of its fossil forest can still inspire learning and some adventures in tree tourism.

From Queensland to California and Cairo

The world's oldest living forest is reportedly the Daintree Rainforest near Queensland, Australia (pictured above). This is one forest you actually can visit; it welcomes around 400,000 tourists a year. At the tender young age of 180 million years, the Daintree Rainforest has seen less dino action than Cairo's fossil forest (bearing in mind that dinosaurs emerged 250 to 200 million years ago). That said, it's back under Aboriginal custodianship as of 2021 and has survived as a UNESCO World Heritage Site within Queensland's wet tropics. Take a zero-emission crocodile cruise down the Daintree River with Solar Whisper to see some scaly reptiles that outlived the dinosaurs.

Back in America, the oldest of all living trees and earth organisms is said to be on the coast opposite Cairo in California's Inyo National Forest. It's a 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine whose exact whereabouts are kept safely under wraps. Hike the forest to commune with the tree's environment, maybe while calling out its name, Methuselah, a nod to the Bible's oldest person.

This is where you can start playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with trees, actors, and religious figures. Besides its fossil-forest claim to fame, Cairo is also the birthplace of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who co-starred in the biblical epic "Noah," where Anthony Hopkins played Methuselah. Coincidentally, fish fossils have turned up in Cairo's quarry, leading researchers to theorize that its forest may have died in a prehistoric local flood, not unlike Noah's mythic global deluge.

Gilboa Fossil Forest and the Catskill Mountains

New York State and the Catskill region hold the fossils of not one, but two of Earth's oldest forests. By late December 2019, when Current Biology made the findings in Cairo known, another New York fossil forest had already reigned for almost a century as the previous record holder. About a 40-minute drive from Cairo is the town of Gilboa, where the petrified stumps of primeval trees from the Devonian Period were uncovered in a riverside stone quarry in the 1920s. The stones went toward the construction of the Gilboa Dam.

Though Cairo's fossil forest may not be actionable as a travel bucket list item, Gilboa now has an eponymous museum with fossils on display. This includes Devonian tree stems and an Archaeopteris, the same early tree type found in Cairo. This proto-tree — not a fern, not yet a true tree — was a significant evolutionary step toward forests and life on Earth as we know them. You can also see a fossilized Gilboa tree stump in the New York State Museum in nearby Albany.

As for Cairo, it bills itself as the Crossroads of the Catskills. Use it as a gateway to their hiking trails, campgrounds, and waterfalls. If nothing else, visiting these age-old mountains and forming a mental picture of the world's oldest forest in Cairo serves as a reminder that the earth was here long before us. Who would have guessed that cosmopolitan New York was such a cradle of civilization?