Nestled in the Inyo National Forest not far from the California-Nevada border and the Eastern Sierras grow the ancient bristlecone pines. In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, these Pinus longaeva trees grow in the harsh nutrient-poor, dolomite-rich soil, along with limber pines. The Great Basin bristlecones have stood the test of time and are some of the oldest trees on the planet, with many thought to date over 4000 years old, surviving for millennia in conditions most other plants can’t. In fact, the oldest tree in the world can be found in this forest, an unnamed bristlecone pine over 5060 years old. When I stopped to think of my own limited time here on Earth as I walked among the ancients, I felt humbled in the transitoriness of my own existence.
I’ve passed by the sign for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest a few times when driving north on U.S. 395 heading to Bishop and have often wondered what it was. Curiosity leads to detours which typically lead to adventure so, after a disappointing week of cancelled plans and expensive car repairs, and after a drive through possibly literal hell on a 115 degree day of desert scorch without air conditioning, Emily and I decided to take what I assumed to be a short drive up to the forest. Well, I was wrong about the ‘short drive.’ We took the turn from U.S. 395 onto CA-168 and drove a long 13 miles. After turning left onto White Mountain Road, it was another 10 winding miles across a road which was narrow at portions and felt treacherous as it climbed upwards with no guardrail on the side that dropped off a cliff. But it was a trek worth taking. For starters, it was nice to stretch out in a remote and rugged wilderness after spending six hours on the road driving without air conditioning through the Mojave desert. And we were rewarded with some spectacular views and fresh mountain air.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest contains a beauty in spite of and because of its location. Being in such harsh mountain conditions, the forest is more sparse than what is typically thought of as ‘forest.’ Yet there is a beauty in the twisted and gnarled trees that have grown and thrived over the thousands of years of their existence. The hikes are pleasant in the quiet serenity among the ancient bristlecones.
Some things to consider:
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is in the middle of nowhere, California. Cell service was spotty once we hit White Mountain Road. Make sure you have enough fuel for the drive up and back, plenty of water, and trail snacks.
An early start is best if you want to visit both the Schulman Grove near the visitor center and Patriarch Grove. Patriarch Grove is 12 miles north on a dirt road, but it boasts the largest bristlecone pine tree. For us, this is a trip for another day. Because we got a late start, there really wasn’t enough time to explore before the sun started setting.
The road up to the visitor center is for the most part two-lane and paved, however, there was a section that was only one lane with limited visibility. Extra caution is required while driving this stretch, as is when driving down from the mountain, and I would not recommend driving it at night. It is steep and it is narrow.
There is camping in the area. Grandview Campground is the closest campground to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. When traveling north on White Mountain from CA-168, you’ll see the campground before coming to the visitor center. I accidentally headed here to park before heading to the visitor center. There are vaulted toilets and no water, so you need to bring enough water with you for all your needs.
I love our spontaneous adventures when road tripping. This trek up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was no exception, and I hope to return and explore the area more. Happy trails!
For more info in planning your visit, along with source info, visit: