This 4 mile loop snakes through one of several bristlecone pine groves in the White Mountains of California. The bristlecones are the oldest living trees (and the oldest living anything) on earth! This trail is pretty far “out there,” but these trees are incredible and definitely worth a visit. The hike itself is at 9,500 to 10,500-ft elevation and has several hundred feet of up and down. There is a visitor center at the trailhead. There is also an option for a shorter 1 mile loop with equally spectacular views of the ancient bristlecones.
Directions to Trailhead: From Highway 395 in Big Pine, follow signs for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Head east on CA 168 for 13 miles. Turn left on White Mountain Road. The Schulman Grove is approximately 10 miles from the turnoff on 168.
Trail Description: The trail begins at the newly rebuilt Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Sadly, an arsonist set fire to the former visitor center in 2008. Several bristlecone pines were also destroyed. What’s wrong with people? Anyway, the new center is lovely, as were the chatty park rangers working there.
The trail is a self-guided loop: numbered posts correspond to a brochure one can pick up at start of the trail. Each stop provides a little more information about the trees.
We ascended through a grove of younger trees, climbing several hundred feet. Soon we reached a high point with views over to Death Valley.
From there, we descended a mile or so down to the Methuselah Grove. “Methuselah” is the world’s oldest known living non-clonal organism – around 4850 years old. The tree is unmarked (to prevent vandalism), but many of the trees in this grove are in the 3000 to 4000 year old range. They are magnificent twisted specimens of rock hard wood – seemingly growing straight out of the boulders. They have withstood thousands of years of harsh conditions: gusty winds, dry summers, fire, heavy snow and ice blasting!
In order to survive in this environment some of the trees have partially died off. One can see the live bark and needles growing alongside the twisted weathered sections of dead wood on many of the trees.
A small handful of bristlecone pine groves exist in the world. They only grow in the Great Basin, Colorado and New Mexico, between 9800 and 11,000-ft. They are so remote, very few people even saw these trees until fairly recently. It was not until the last century that humans came to realize the true age of these trees. This grove is named after Dr. Schulman who came to the area in the 1950’s. He took core samples in order to analyze climate change using dendrochronology, the scientific method of dating using tree rings. He was stunned to realize that these trees were more than 4000 years old.
From the Methuselah Grove we hiked the last mile or two back up to the visitor center. It was getting close to dinner time and the visitor center was now closed. We were all ready to head back to camp for some food and beers. Life is short, unless you’re a bristlecone.
– The Inyo National Forest website provides directions and current conditions.
– Additional information on the Schulman Visitor Center can be found here.
– To learn more about the Bristlecone Pine trees visit the Wikipedia page.