Gnarled by time, vivid with color, perched on top of the world, the trees of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are among the world’s oldest living things. Many are over 4000 years old, sprawled along a remote area in California’s White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest.
A Hidden Place
East of Yosemite National Park, the Sierra folds down into the Owens Valley, a high desert region that runs down towards Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, and Los Angeles. Further east rise the White Mountains, and hidden in their topmost folds and crests grow the world’s oldest living trees. Hardy, adapted to extreme conditions, they survive where most things don’t.
At around 10,000 feet, the park is one of those places visited by few, and intensely enjoyed by those who do go. A majority hike the Schulman Grove, in which dwells the ancient Methuselah Tree that is 4,800 years old. Think about it – this tree was born before the ancient Egyptian dynasties arose, lived through Greek and Roman civilizations, was old when Jesus was born, and has continued to this day. It crouches among similarly ancient fellows on the 4.4-mile Methuselah Trail. The tree itself is not identified in order to protect it from souvenir hunters.
But there is something about the Methuselah Grove itself that is intense. Bristlecone pines are not like any other trees. Slow growing, they’ve developed extraordinary mechanisms to survive. They live primarily on bands of white chalky soil known as Dolomite, a type of limestone created under the warm, shallow, inland sea that once covered this region. Extremely alkaline, most other plants have difficulty growing in it, enabling the bristlecones to get established and grow in a nearly competition-free environment.
Living in the Sierras’ rain shadow, the region is arid. In extremely low water years, a tree will actually allow a portion or even the majority of itself to die off, while keeping a bit alive. The result is a tree cobbled of dead and live sections. Slow growing, the twisted dense wood is a riot of yellows, tans, russets, some thick, some thin, depending on the environmental stress during which the tree ring grew – much like geological layers in stone. The resinous wood is resistant to rot, disease and insects.
Bristlecone pines are most visually striking in the sunlight. The Schulman groves are mainly on the eastern side of the mountain, so visit them in the morning or early afternoon for the most visual drama. By mid-afternoon, they are in deep shadow.
The Schulman Grove is also home to the Visitor Center, the 1-mile Discovery Trail, and the 2.5-mile Mexican Mine Trail, which passes old mine entrances and provides stunning views of the Eastern Sierra. Each trail has interpretive signs and benches. During the summer, rangers and Center staff offer interpretive programs at 11AM and 2PM. In spring and fall, programs are available on weekends only.
On Top of the World
For sheer breathtaking beauty, the Patriarch Grove is the place to visit. But it demands patience. It’s a 12- mile drive on curving dirt washboard roads that run along the mountain ridge north of Schulman Grove. The views are glorious, the silence amazing; just you, the birds and the breeze as you ascend to 11,200 feet.
This sprawling grove is more open, completely sunlit, and invites one to wander among bristlecones of all ages, with two easy interpretative trails that roam about, giving you views of Owens Valley and the Great Nevada Basin. The Patriarch Tree is the world’s largest bristlecone, with a massive trunk and bushy top. But the trees are mere teenagers, just up to 1500 years old.
One of my favorite discoveries in this grove was the pinecone icicles. The long cones slowly drip resin that glitters in the light, creating unique icicles perfect for unusual photos. For dramatic photography, Patriarch Grove is the place. Here the brilliant sunlight and clean air lend themselves to vivid colors, sharp-edged shadows, and contorted woods that beckon the artistic eye.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a step outside of time, where you can wander and wonder among the silent sentinels of time.
Open mid-May – end of November.
Closed 10PM – 6AM. Day use only.
$3 per person, maximum of $6 per car.
Children under 18 are free.
Be prepared for any weather conditions – you’re in the mountains. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, and hike with sturdy shoes. Carry water – you’ll get thirsty in the low humidity, and there is no water fountain or spigot available.
The nearest food, fuel and water is in Big Pine, about 45 minutes west.
Schulman Grove Visitors Center: bit.ly/SGVC
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: bit.ly/ABPF