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I remember reading a book when I was a kid that had a section about the oldest trees in the world. The book had photos of gnarled trunks popping out of a rocky landscape. It looked like an image from another planet. I’d long forgotten about these trees until I was planning a trip through the Eastern Sierra. I realized I could actually go visit these great old trees I’d been so mesmerized by as a child. High in the White Mountains of eastern California lies a remote area called the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home of the oldest trees in the world, including the famous Methuselah.
Getting to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located 38 miles away from Bishop, California in the Inyo National Forest. By car, the drive from Bishop takes about an hour due to the winding mountain roads. Take special care along the narrow section of Highway 168 where the road is only wide enough for one vehicle for a short distance.
Just off U.S. 395 in Big Pine (24 miles from the forest), there is a Bristlecone Pine Information and Historic Landmark off to the side of the road. Here you can get learn a bit more about these great trees.
Not far before the visitor center along White Mountain Road is the Sierra View Overlook. Here you’ll find panoramic views looking over much of the Owens Valley, all the way to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. It’s here that the road is closed during the winter months, as these high elevations can get heavy snowfall. Typically, the area is open from mid-May to November, but check local conditions as this varies by year.
The paved road ends at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center parking lot (day fee required), which is located at Schulman Grove. The grove is named for Edmund Schulman, the scientist who discovered the forest. He also helped determine the ages of these trees through dendrochronology, which is the study of tree ring dating. Here there are miles of hiking trails, including a loop through the Methuselah Grove.
For many visitors, this is enough. If you want even more adventure, you can continue 12 miles north on the dirt road to the Patriarch Grove, home of the largest ancient bristlecone pine. That doesn’t sound like too long of a journey, but a speed limit of 15 mph is recommended so as not to puncture tires.
History of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines
These ancient Great Basin Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are the oldest non-clonal organisms in the world. Clonal organisms such as aspens or creosote bushes live much longer, but no single part of these systems is particularly old, so that’s cheating. The trees in the ancient bristlecone pine forest are clearly much older individuals, which is what makes them so interesting as the oldest living things on Earth.
Just how old? It’s estimated that the oldest living bristlecone pine, Methuselah, germinated around 2833 BC. For context, the Great Pyramids had not yet been built. The First Dynasty of Egypt had only just ended & the Second had begun. The Early Dynastic Period of Sumer had only just started. In North America, the Middle Archaic period was underway. Stonehenge would not be built for centuries (and it’s far less impressive today than these trees, but that’s a separate story).
Throughout all of this, then onward for thousands of years, these trees sat surviving on this mountain. Their rings record world history, through droughts & volcanic eruptions that have influenced their growth. Despite their remote mountain location, these trees have helped rewrite history by leading to adjustments in radiocarbon dating methods for other artifacts around the world.
The reason why the bristlecone pines have been able to survive for this long is simple. Little else can grow up here, so there’s not much competition for limited resources. While few sprouts survive, the ones that do can then live for thousands of years. The rocky dolomite soil in these White Mountains doesn’t have many nutrients. That suits the slow-growing bristlecone pines, but few other plants. There is plenty of sunshine for the trees, however. Their wood is also so dense that insects that might destroy other trees are unable to do so. The bristlecone pine has evolved to survive this place & stubbornly holds on, seemingly forever.
Hiking in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The Methuselah trail is an approximately 4.5 mile/7.2 km loop trail from the visitor center through the Schulman Grove. It’s recommended to do the trail counter-clockwise, as this splits the uphill portions of the hike to some extent, while also following the information provided. There’s a booklet available for purchase outside the visitor center for $2. This guide gives details about notable sights along the way, including the life cycle of the trees.
Given the high elevations & lack of services at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, bring plenty of water & weather protection and also know your limits. The trees grow between 9,000 and 11,000 feet, so the air is thin. The whole hike takes 2-4 hours depending on your level of fitness & how long you spend gawking at the gorgeous trees & overlooks. If reaching Methuselah Grove is beyond your capabilities, there is also a shorter Discovery Trail hike from the visitor center parking lot.
The Methuselah loop trail has constantly changing views. This is a plus for anyone who has experienced monotonous hikes in the past. The first portion of the trail heads upward from the visitor center at a fairly gentle pace. However, you’ll still feel it in this thin air. It’s up here at around 10,000 feet above sea level where you’re most likely to find some snow. This photo was taken in early May following a drier winter.
As for the ancient bristlecone pines, they mostly grow on northern & eastern facing slopes. Take care with the loose rocks, as the trees are much better at gripping the mountain than you are.
After a while, the trail stops clinging to the mountainside & opens up to an easterly view. From here, you can see as far as Nevada & the Great Basin, as well as into the northern reaches of Death Valley National Park. It’s easy to see why this place is so popular for night sky viewing & photography.
This flatter portion of the hike is a nice break from elevation changes, though it’s also more exposed.
Then it’s time to head into the Methuselah Grove, home of Methuselah, the oldest living tree in the world, some 4,853 years old. Once again you’re surrounded by these withered trees that have stood in this desolate landscape for thousands of years. It’s truly a moving experience to consider just how long they have been here and how much longer they will continue to stand, long after we are all gone. Provided we don’t take the entire planet out with us.
Methuselah is unmarked in order to protect it from vandalism & damage. That also lets you pick your own favorite rather than focusing your attention on just one tree. A tree that might not even be the oldest living thing anyway, since not every tree in this forest has been measured. It could be any one of thousands of others. Each of these elderly trees is unique, with their brown & grey trunks and limbs reaching haphazardly into the California sky. Imagine the factors that must have caused each one to twist in its own way.
It’s not just the living trees that are noteworthy. While the oldest still-living bristlecone pines are around 5,000 years old, their wood decays so slowly that scientists have found samples from dead trees that are estimated to be over 10,000 years old.
The trail then heads back uphill toward the Schulman Grove visitor center. There are a few benches along the way. Relax & take in the beauty of the entire forest. After all, what’s an hour compared to lives spanning thousands of years?
Visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of California was a dream come true. I’m glad that I was able to finally experience these beautiful trees I was so fascinated with as a boy. The most picturesque of these trees are the ones that are thousands of years old, but look closely & you may spot some little seedlings that have only just sprouted. What history will they be around for?
If you’re on a road trip & making your way along Highway 395, I also recommend stopping at Manzanar & the Eastern California Museum. Bishop is also a nice town with some great craft beer spots.
Here are some other things to see & do near Bishop.
If you’re looking for a place to stay after hiking in Bishop, check out these nearby hotels.