California’s Bristlecone Pines, The Oldest Living Things on Earth | Bishop Visitor Information Center
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Bishop Visitor's Center

By Lee Foster

What are the oldest living things on earth? The current consensus is that they are trees, the bristlecone pines, which grow in the White Mountains of California, east from Bishop.

You can easily make their acquaintance and wander amidst a group of them. Visiting the bristlecone forest can be an inspiring trip. Some of these trees were already old when Socrates and Jesus Christ and Buddha were young.bristlecone-350

California boasts some astonishing superlative facts of nature that appear to be indisputable. In California, you can meet the tallest, the most massive, and the oldest living things on earth. These three superlatives all happen to be trees. In a week trip you could crisscross the state to witness these three arboreal phenomena. You would need to put a few miles on your vehicle to include all three.

The tallest living earthly entities are the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) along the coast north from San Francisco. The tallest specimen flourishes at a hidden location in Redwood National and State Parks, near Orick, in the northwestern corner of the state.

The most massive of living things are the coast redwoods’ inland cousin (Sequoiadendron gigantea), located in pockets along the western foothills of the Sierra at midstate. The giant among these is the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, east of Fresno.

The oldest living creatures on this planet are the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), which  survive in the White Mountains, a range east of Bishop. Bristlecone pines exist in other mountain settings in the Southwest, such as in Utah, but the California trees rank as the oldest, some more than 4,500 years, based on core samples that have been ring dated. Each ring measures a year of growth.

CA: Bristlecone Pines, Pine Alpha, Schulman Grove

Their true age was not known until 1957. Only then was the startling discovery made that these trees in the White Mountains of eastern California were so old. The bristlecones were much older than even the 2,500-year-old ancients among the sequoia trees.

The surprising discovery was that some gnarled bristlecone pines ring dated to that early period. Moreover, scientists projected a 12,000-year chronology of weather patterns by matching the ring dates of living trees, dead trees, and downed wood. When there are time gaps, carbon dating can help.

The tenacious bristlecones silently maintain their vigil, living in the inhospitable conditions of the White Mountains. Moisture is minimal, locked up for long periods as snow. Wind constantly prunes adventuresome branches. Alkaline soils present the sparest nutrient base on which plant life can survive. Longevity of the twisted, ravaged bristlecones seems to stand as a metaphor of adaptation to adversity.

Communing with the bristlecones makes the passing fashions, the everyone-is-famous-for-15-minutes philosophy, the capsulized soundbite mentality of our modern time, seem fleeting indeed.

A ranger on duty at the Visitor Center can acquaint you with self-guided trails, such as the Discovery Trail and the Methuselah Trail. Take the mile-long Discovery Trail, which has plenty of photogenic trees and the tree named Pine Alpha, the first tree that Dr. Edmund Schulman determined was more than 4,000 years old. The Methuselah Trail is longer, taking several hours, and is recommended only to the extremely fit who can hike some distance in the rarefied air at a high altitude.

The Bristlecone forest is a special 28,000-acre preserve within Inyo National Forest. Transport yourself to this aerie from your support base along Highway 395 in Bishop or Mammoth Lakes. Both cities have plenty of lodging and dining options. The drive is about an hour from Bishop.

Consider the outing to the bristlecones as an assault on a peak, for you will rise to almost 10,000 feet above sea level. Make sure your car is in good condition. Go easy on the brakes for the long trip down the 8% grade. When hiking, be sure to pace yourself, taking only very short walks. You may need to acclimatize yourself for a day or more before hiking here strenuously.

Fill the tank with gasoline at Bishop, take plenty of protective clothes, and carry a gallon of water per person in your vehicle.Bristlecone Pines Schulman Grove CA

From Big Pine make the 23-mile drive to the bristlecones by starting east on Highway 168, also known as Westguard Pass Road. After two miles, stay left at the junction with Eureka Valley. Eleven miles later, a sign will direct you to the bristlecone pines. May-to-December are generally the snow-free months with good road access. Check with the rangers in advance to be safe.

You will pass through a forest of pinon pine and Utah juniper until you reach the nearly pure forest of bristlecones, starting at 9,500 feet. Within the Bristlecone Pine Forest, visit the Schulman Grove, at the south edge. Another grove, the Patriarch Grove, lies at the north end. Get precise details at the Visitor Center.

California is a special place. The state can boast of these arboreal natural wonders. Even the most dispassionate scientific observers support the notion that California offers you a visit to the tallest, most massive, and oldest living things on this planet.


If You Go: Visit the Bristlecone Pines

Search for Schulman Grove Visitor Center in the Inyo National Forest comments on the USDA Forest Service website at

For a more detailed discussion on visiting all three superlative tree species, see my website article at

You can find more of Lee’s writing on his blog, Foster Travel.

About the Author: Guest Blogger

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Our guest bloggers come from various locations and walks of life, but all share a common interest in this beautiful place.

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1 day ago

Visit Bishop

WOW! Check out the rain yesterday up at the Bristlecone Pines! Please note this is what caused the washouts on Hwy 168, which is closed today for repairs.

U.S. Forest Service - Inyo National Forest
Wondering about the flooding we have been reporting? Here is a video one of our rangers took as they were leaving the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center yesterday evening. Caltrans District 9 reports that Highway 168 East will remain closed today and tomorrow, effectively closing access to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We are getting reports of flooding/sinkholes/ and unstable conditions on our OHV roads as well. Travel safe and turn back if you can't get through. The forest will still be here when the rain passes.
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1 day ago

Visit Bishop

Can anyone help the museum identify the building in the first photo?So many Tales Along El Camino Sierra...Can anyone help me with what is the building in photo 1? This was apparently in the Owens Valley somewhere in the 1920s and 30s. Photo 2, the Commanders House was located at Fort Independence, and moved the 3 miles into the town of Independence after the Fort closed in the 1870s. It still sits proudly in Independence today at the intersection of Edwards (Hwy 395) and Main Street, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Eastern California Museum. Photo 3...some of the adobe walls that remained of Fort Independence, a few years after it closed. Thanks if anyone can shed some light on photo 1. ... See MoreSee Less

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2 days ago

Visit Bishop

A little more about the closure of Hwy 168E. That’s a lot of water!

CHP - Bishop
SR-168 is closed from 1.7 miles east of the junction of US 395 at Cal-Tech Rd (Inyo Co.) to 11.6 miles west of the Inyo/Mono County line due to flooding. Motorists are advised to use an alternate route.
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