Author’s Note: This article “The Oldest Living Things on Earth: The Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains of California” is also a chapter in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Other Northern California articles are gathered in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
South and east of Mammoth Lakes and Bishop, the eastern Sierra offers a fascinating historic botany story. There, scientists found living trees that were core-dated to thousands of years old. These trees are the oldest living things on earth. They reside in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The Forest sits at 10,000 feet in the White Mountains of California, east of Bishop.
The Historic Story
It was in 1957 that dendrologists discovered by ring dating that this forest of bristlecone pines were 4,000 years old. These gnarled trees were even older than California’s famous sequoia trees. Moreover, a 9,000-year chronology of weather patterns could be established by matching the ring dates of living trees, dead trees, and downed wood.
Some bristlecones living today were already ancient when Socrates posed penetrating questions in early Greece. Throughout the years, the tenacious pines silently maintain their vigil. And surprisingly they live in the inhospitable conditions of the White Mountains. Here, moisture is minimal and locked up for long periods as snow. Wind constantly prunes adventuresome branches. The alkaline soils present as spare a nutrient base on which plant life can survive.
The twisted, ravaged bristlecones seem to stand as a metaphor of adaptation to adversity. It seems counterintuitive. However, the bristlecones survive as longevity successes. One would think that the oldest living things would flourish in more hospitable conditions. Most plants need moisture, nutrients, and an agreeable temperature. Those conditions are congenial. Stress is minimal. However, for the bristlecones, this is not the case.
Commune with the bristlecones. You will realize that passing fashions and the everyone-is-famous-for-15-minutes philosophy seem fleeting indeed.
A ranger on duty at the modern Visitor Center at Schulman Grove can acquaint you with two self-guided trails. Take the mile-long Discovery Trail, starting at the Visitor Center. This path has plenty of photogenic trees. Don’t miss the Pine Alpha. It is the first tree that Dr. Edmund Schulman, the pioneer botanist, determined was more than 4,000 years old. A second trail from the Visitor Center, the Methuselah Trail is longer. The trail takes several hours. It is recommended only for the extremely fit. To take this path,you need to be able to hike some distance in the rarified air at this 10,000-foot altitude.
You can also drive a decent road nine miles north to the Patriarch Grove. Here, you will see an entirely different cluster of bristlecones. However, check in at the Visitor Center and alert the ranger of your plan. You could have car trouble at the more remote site. The ranger could assist if you do not return.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a special 28,000-acre preserve within Inyo National Forest. Transport yourself to the aerie from your support base along Highway 395 at Bishop or Mammoth Lakes. Either spot is a convenient place for lodging and dining. Consider the outing to the bristlecones as an assault on a peak.
However, be sure your car is in good condition. And pace yourself. Take only very short walks with plenty of water. You may need to acclimate yourself for a day or more before hiking here. Hiking can be strenuous. Fill the tank with gasoline at Bishop. Take plenty of protective warm clothes. And carry a gallon of water per person in your vehicle.
The view west from the Bristlecone Forest area to the Owens Valley is a major panorama. You will notice the clarity of the light in an environment that can be cloudless. It is interesting to imagine what the Owens Valley was like before much of its water was shipped to Los Angeles.
Laws Railroad Museum
Before you go to the Ancient Pine Forest, make a stop near Bishop. Here you can picture what the Owens Valley was like. Helping tell that story is the Laws Railroad Museum. The small historic town of Laws is located on Highway 6, four miles northeast of Bishop. The town exhibits the railroad depot that dates to 1883. At that time a narrow-gauge railroad ran up and down the Owens Valley. It carried passengers and agricultural abundance.
Twenty-two historic buildings from the area have been transported to Laws. There they re-create the scene before the Owens Lake was drained by the Los Angeles Water District. Visitors can see actual tools used by pioneer dentists, physicians, gold miners, and blacksmiths.
Originally, the town was named after R. J. Laws. He was the superintendent for the Southern Pacific Railroad. On display is Locomotive No. 9. The narrow-gauge engine was affectionately called a Slim Princess. You can also see a string of cars from the era when the railroad ceased operation, 1960.
The Bristlecone pines can be seen east from Highway 395 in the White Mountains. From Bishop, drive south to Big Pine, then make the 23-mile drive east to the forest by starting 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 Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. You pass through a grove of pinon pine and Utah juniper until you reach the nearly pure forest of bristlecones, starting at 9,500 feet.
Be Sure to See
The ranger on duty at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest can alert you to the self-guided nearby Discovery Trail, one mile long, which has excellent and photogenic trees. Get an orientation at the Visitor Center before your walk.
Best Time of Year
May to October are the months you can see the bristlecones. Snow can obstruct the roads in the shoulder season and will entirely close down the area in winter.
Dependable and comfortable lodgings include the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth Lakes and the Best Western Bishop Lodge or Creekside Inn in Bishop.
For Mammoth Lakes, try Petra’s Bistro & Wine Bar for pork loin and 53 Kitchen & Cocktails (recalling the year Mammoth Mountain skiing started in a big way) for short ribs. For Bishop, consider the Bowling Alley (yes, the Bowling Alley!) for prime rib and the Sage restaurant for filet mignon and white-tablecloth fine dining. Two other culinary destinations in Bishop are Schat’s Bakery, known for its classic Sheepherder Bread, and Holy Smoke Texas Style Barbecue for smoked meats.
For Further Information
If planning a trip to the region, you might enjoy four charming and informative videos of the area:
Mammoth Lakes’ snazzy new 360 cluster of videos, showing latest technology portrayals of the destination.
A 1919 silent movie about Bishop, portraying Paiute Indians on horseback and white settlers in Model A’s welcoming development.
A 1960s Bishop Boosters promotional video, with the Forest Service stepping in at midpoint, celebrating its new Bristlecone Forest creation. The video shows a young couple in a newsreel portrayal, riding a now-historic vehicle to the Bristlecone Forest, evoking a nostalgic and carefree era.
Dave Hardin, a park ranger and legendary explainer of the bristlecones, informs in detail at the Visitor Center about these oldest living things on earth.