Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet live near Bishop
You’ve arrived. Well done! This page will guide you on when, where, and how to see the world’s oldest living things. Not many people will ever have the opportunity to visit them in person. So, we encourage you to make a commitment to visit the Eastern Sierra and see these ancient ones.
California has many superlatives including highest, lowest, deepest, biggest, tallest, largest, hottest, and more that have been scientifically measured and verified. Many of these are located in the Eastern Sierra and one of most fascinating of them all is the oldest. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pines are not just the oldest things in California or even North America, they are the oldest living non-clonal organisms on our planet!
They are gnarled, weather-beaten, and resilient. The oldest tree, as yet unnamed, is believed to be 5,070 years old now. This individual began life at about the same time humans began to develop the concept of writing. It was about 500 years old when the pyramids at Giza were built. This tree would have been about 3,000 years old when the English language began to evolve.
Many of the individual trees that live in this forest are over 4,000 years old. The older ones are at least 1,000 years older than any other species on earth. They are about 2,000 years older than the nearby Giant Sequoia, which are the world’s tallest trees. No other non-clonal species has living individuals that have seen more time on this earth.
This healthy and growing forest is located high in the White Mountains above Bishop. Visitors say they feel a sense of awe and peace when they walk the trails that weave through the groves of old and young bristlecones. 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.
Come and see these ancient beings and let your imagination wonder at the passage of time and the history of humankind through which these trees have lived.
Did you know they have become known as the trees that rewrote history? Find out more in the subsections below.
Everything you need for a beautiful bristlecone experience
Click each toggle bar below to read more about these incredible trees.
What & Why
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) grows between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level in a habitat that is essentially inhospitable to most other life. The white, rocky soil, for which the White Mountain range is named, is dolomite – a type of limestone with a very high alkalinity. At this elevation, temperatures range from around 55 deg F in summer to 0 deg F in winter. Precipitation, which is mainly in the form of snow, produces less than 20” of water annually on this cold, dry, windswept mountain top. The altitude and latitude here provide one positive growing aspect – almost 16 hours of daylight in summer and as much as 9.5 hours in winter.
It is a very challenging growing environment. The ancient bristlecone pines have adapted to the soil alkalinity and have developed a low need for nutrients and moisture, and a high need for light. They have become tolerant to extreme conditions and can withstand gale-force winds. This has given them the ability to grow in a near competition-free environment. The lack of surrounding ground vegetation also reduces the risk of fire. And, it has put them in a position to live in a near fungi- and pest-free ecosystem. The mountains where these ancients live are rugged, steep, and largely inaccessible to humans. So, these trees have lived almost undisturbed for 5 millennia.
Edmund Schulman, a researcher in the field of dendrochronology (the science of tree ring dating) discovered these ancient life forms in 1953 and focused his studies on the trees that were 3,000 to 4,000 years old! After four years of extensive research his findings were reported in National Geographic and worldwide attention was brought to the White Mountains.
Sadly, Schulman died of a heart attack in 1958 shortly before his article was published and just prior to the establishment of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest by the US Forest Service – protecting the species for generations to come.
His findings and research greatly influenced the study of dendrochronology, which continues to advance today through the protection and study of these trees. The bristlecone chronologies raised questions relating to the widely respected field of radiocarbon dating (C-14) methods and have subsequently been used to recalibrate the C-14 process.
This is the reason these trees are said to have rewritten history!
Where & When
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.
From Bishop drive south on US Highway 395 for 15 miles and turn left 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.
Named in honor of Edmund Schulman, the Schulman Grove Visitor Center is open annually from mid-May through November, weather permitting. From the visitor center at 9,846 feet above sea level two trails take visitors through the groves. One is the Discovery Trail, a short walk of just less than a mile through the Schulman grove. Views westward toward the Sierra Nevada are spectacular from this trail. The other is the Methuselah Trail, a 4.5-mile hike that loops through the Methuselah Grove where, unmarked to protect its identity, lives Methuselah, now 4,850 years old. There are spectacular vistas looking out eastward over Nevada’s basin-and-range region, and side trails connect to interesting, old mining sites.
Beyond the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, White Mountain Rd continues unpaved for 13 miles to reach the higher elevation Patriarch Grove where the biggest of the ancient bristlecones, the Patriarch, lives. The oldest tree, unnamed and also unmarked to protect its identity, lives here too. The area has two short loops of less than a mile each with interpretive signage along the way and a vault toilet.
The road to this grove is maintained, but it can be slow and difficult going for a light passenger car. It is recommended that visitors drive this section in an SUV or high clearance vehicle and motorhomes are not recommended on this road. Have a full tank of gas before leaving the Owens Valley below. As always, when venturing into the mountains, bring plenty of water, snacks, sun screen, and layers of clothing.
Who & How
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.
TWO IMPORTANT NOTES:
- If anyone in your group complains of a headache, dizziness, nausea or appears to be disoriented leave the area immediately and return to a lower elevation. The symptoms should ease significantly within a short period of time, but if symptoms persist, head to the Emergency Room at the Northern Inyo Hospital.
- Drivers of all types of vehicles should use low gears when descending down the mountain. Use brakes intermittently. All road users must obey speed limits and posted signage, as well as mandated vehicle and driver regulations. Stay in your lane at all times as there are many blind corners. Be aware of slow-moving vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and animals.
Links & Things
The fauna and flora that can be seen in the area are:
Single-leaf Pinyon Pine
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
It is likely that these trees will continue to live their Spartan existence for eons to come and are considered neither threatened nor endangered. Notwithstanding that fact, the species is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) red list, as yet labeled ‘Least Concern’.