Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The planet’s oldest living things live here, high up on the desolate, windswept peaks of the White Mountains. The Great Basin Bristlecone pine trees live for thousands of years and the oldest of these gnarled, weather-beaten, and resilient old trees is confirmed to be almost 5,000 years old. It has been named Methuselah and its location is kept secret by the guardians of this forest.
The trees were discovered by Edmund Schulman, a researcher in the field of dendrochronology (the science of tree ring dating) in 1953. His findings and research greatly influenced the study of dendrochronology, and the bristlecone chronologies raised questions relating to the widely respected field of radiocarbon (C-14) dating methods. The C-14 process was subsequently recalibrated using data collected from the study of these trees. It is said that these trees rewrote history.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a protected area under the auspices of the US Forest Service. This healthy and growing forest is located high in the White Mountains, between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level. Many of the individual trees that live in this forest are over 4,000 years old.
The grove where Methuselah lives is easily accessed by road from SR 168 along White Mountain Rd to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The center is open annually from about mid-May through November, weather permitting. Trails that weave through the forest take visitors on a journey of discovery. The views out across the Owens Valley to the west and the Great Basin of Nevada to the east offer a perspective that cannot be seen anywhere else.
Getting to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest requires a drive of a little over one hour on a good paved road. It is steep and winding most of the way and there is no gas, food, water, or cell phone service available at the top or along the route. Before you go, call the White Mountain Ranger station in Bishop for more information, road conditions and visitor center hours (760) 873-2500.
Drive east from Hwy 395 onto State Route 168 East. Follow the road for 13 miles then turn left onto White Mountain Rd. Ten miles further you will arrive at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center.
Note: White Mountain Road is closed in the winter. This area is also remote, with no water, fuel, or cell reception, so be sure to plan accordingly when you do visit in the summer or spring.
A visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a wonderful experience for the whole family. The Schulman Grove Visitor Center is wheelchair accessible and many old trees can be seen from the deck and boardwalks. The trails are easy to moderate hiking and dogs are permitted when leashed. No bicycles are allowed on the trails. The rangers and staff at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center present interpretive programs at 11am and 2pm in the summer. Programs are presented on weekends during spring and fall, weather permitting.
Spread a blanket in the forest or set up a picnic on the tables in the visitor center grounds. Although the air is cooler up here, the sun is hot. Wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, and drink plenty of fluids. This will also help to prevent any altitude sickness in those not acclimatized to such a high altitude.
Cycling up to the visitor center is a popular road bike ride for experienced cyclists. It’s commonly ranked as one of the top 5 most difficult climbs in California. It’s also widely regarded as a very beautiful, quiet, and safe ride. Traffic is light and the road surface is very good.
For the equally adventurous, but more mechanized folk, the OHV drive up Silver Canyon Rd is another way to reach these ancient trees. This route begins just 5-miles north of Bishop off US Highway 6 near Laws Railroad Museum. This steep, rugged road requires a low range, 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle with an experienced OHV driver at the wheel. It’s also accessible on a side-by-side or quad. This route offers fantastic views and some technically challenging driving. From the junction of Highway 6 to the junction of White Mountain Rd is 11.5 miles and will take close to an hour to drive. Turn right to reach Schulman Grove, 3 miles south, or turn left to get to the Patriarch Grove, 10 miles the north.
Motorcycles are another way great way to get up here. The paved road option is well suited to sport, cruiser, and touring motorcycles. The OHV road should be tackled on a good dirt bike.
Camping nearby in Grandview campground is an excellent way to spend a few days during the warmer, summer months. There are 23 campsites, available on a first-come-first-served basis, spaced well apart with plenty of shade. Each campsite has a table, fire ring, and space for two vehicles. Three vault toilets serve the campground. Please review all the rules and regulations and pack out everything you pack in.
Night sky viewing is superb from this campground. The elevation at 8,600 feet and lack of light pollution make the stars and Milky Way an incredible spectacle in summer.
The White and Inyo Mountains
These gentle giants on the east side of the Owens Valley cover about 130 miles together from north to south. The narrow tip of the Whites rises to just over 13,000 feet at Boundary Peak like the prow of a ship sailing north. A little south of that and just northeast of Bishop is White Mountain Peak. At 14,252 feet, it is the highest peak in Mono County, the third highest peak in California after Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson, and the 14th most topographically prominent peak in the contiguous United States.
The White Mountain range is the highest range that is completely within the Great Basin of north America. It is also entirely inside the Inyo National Forest boundary with more than half of the range designated as wilderness. The planet’s oldest living things live here. Over 5,000 years of living history is preserved in the trees, the Ancient Bristlecone Pines, that eke out a rare existence high on the barren mountaintops above the Owens Valley.
The southern end of this range expands to about 20 miles wide where it meets its counterpart, the Inyo Mountains. The highest peak in the Inyo range is Waucoba Mountain at 11,128 feet above sea level. From there the range narrows and descends to a point on the high desert floor at 4,800 feet a few miles southeast of the Owens Lake.
Together the White and Inyo ranges form one giant fault block separated by a narrow gap through which State Route 168 runs. This wonderful, winding mountain road connects the Owens Valley with Deep Springs valley (a geological marvel itself) and beyond to Fish Lake valley in Nevada. It also provides access to a variety of mountain activities and viewpoints to the valleys below and the stars above.
>> More on Natural History of the Bristlecone Pines written by Gigi DeJong