By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
In Brief: South and east of Mammoth Lakes and Bishop, the Eastern Sierra offers one of the fascinating recent historic stories in botany. 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 at 10,000 feet in the White Mountains of California, east of Bishop.
The Historic Story: Not until 1957 was it discovered by ring dating that this forest of gnarled Bristlecone pines were 4,000 years old. These trees were even older than the famous sequoia trees of California. 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. The tenacious pines silently maintain their vigil, living in the inhospitable conditions of the White Mountains, where 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. Longevity of the twisted, ravaged bristlecones seems to stand as a metaphor of adaptation to adversity. The survival and longevity success of the Bristlecones is counterintuitive. One would think that the oldest living things would flourish in the most hospitable conditions, where moisture, nutrients, and temperature would be most congenial and stress minimal. For some plants, this is not the case.
Communing with the Bristlecones makes the passing fashions, the everyone-is-famous-for-15-minutes philosophy, the capsulized sound-bite mentality of our time, 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 and the Pine Alpha, 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, taking several hours, and is recommended only for the extremely fit who can 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 and see an entirely different cluster of bristlecones. However, check in at the Visitor Center and alert the ranger of your plan, just in case you have car trouble at the more remote site and 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, the convenient places for lodging and dining. Consider the outing to the Bristlecones as an assault on a peak. Be sure your car is in good condition and pace yourself, taking only very short walks with plenty of water. You may need to acclimate yourself for a day or more before hiking here, which 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, aided by 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.
One stop near Bishop, before you go to the Ancient Pine Forest, can help tell that story. The Laws Railroad Museum, on Highway 6, four miles northeast of Bishop, exhibits the 1883 railroad depot at the historic town of Laws. At that time a narrow-gauge railroad ran up and down the Owens Valley, carrying passengers and agricultural abundance. Twenty-two historic buildings from the area have been transported to Laws to 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 the superintendent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, R. J. Laws. On display is Locomotive No. 9, a Slim Princess, as the narrow-gauge engines were affectionately called. A string of cars from the era when the railroad ceased operation, 1960, is also part of the setting.
Getting There: 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.
Lodging: Dependable and comfortable lodgings include the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth Lakes and the Best Western Bishop Lodge or Creekside Inn in Bishop.
Dining: 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.
Videos: 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.