Great Basin bristlecone pines (pinus longaeva) are found in scattered high elevation regions of the western US including the Wasatch Range and the Markagunt Plateau in Utah, the Spring Mountains and Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and, in California, the Inyo Mountains, the Panamint Range and the White Mountains. The trees in this latter region are the most widespread, well-known and easily-accessed in the state, reached by a paved road, and are contained within a 44 square-mile protected area, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of the Inyo National Forest and so managed by the USFS.
The trees are found along the east side of the summit ridge of the White Mountains, elevations around 10,000 feet, and are concentrated in two main areas, the Schulman Grove at the end of the paved portion of the access road, and the Patriarch Grove, 11 miles further on a generally good gravel track. In addition to the actual trees, with their characteristic twisted forms and richly colored wood, the place is also noted for its spectacular, long distance views, west over Owens Valley to the Eastern Sierra and east across the Great Basin in Nevada, while the surrounding landscape, especially around the upper grove, is also photogenic - stark, undulating hills mostly devoid of other vegetation, in muted shades of grey and brown, almost moonlike. The high elevations, clear air, low horizons and absense of artificial light for many miles in all directions make the ridge an excellent location for dark sky photography.
The two groves are usually accessible when the winter snows have melted, between late May and mid November, and one full day is enough to visit both, and walk all the trails. The nearest town is Big Pine, 23 miles from the Schulman Grove and 6,000 feet below, with more facilities 15 miles north in Bishop.
The bristlecones grow together with limber pines (pinus flexilis), a more traditionally-sized species, also distinguished by its longer needles, which lack resin dots, and by its larger cones.
Map of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The usual access to the bristlecone forest is from the south along the initially paved White Mountain Road
(FR 4S01), forking northwards off Hwy 168 near Westgard Pass
, which marks the divide between the White and Inyo ranges. From here, elevation 7,280 feet, the road climbs nearly 3,000 feet over ten miles, crossing rolling land of little hills and ravines, sprinkled with pinyon pine, Utah juniper and mountain mahogany, generally staying just east of the mountain crest, and eventually rising above the regular treeline at 9,500 feet and entering a broad basin,
, on the east side of which is the parking area and visitor center at the Schulman Grove. Along the way are two other USFS sites, Grandview Campground
and Sierra Viewpoint
. The continuation track to the Patriarch Grove re-enters sparsely wooded land for a while and in one place runs right along a narrow section of the mountain crest, later ascending further up to the bristlecone pines, at the end of a short side road. Although the road surface is generally good, the gravel includes many sharp rocks so slow driving speeds are recommended. The main track ends a little further at the White Mountain Research Station, from where a six mile trail leads to California's third highest summit, 14,252 foot White Mountain Peak
. Drivers of high-clearance 4WD vehicles may also reach the two groves via Silver Canyon Road
, a steep route that follows a major drainage on the west side of the mountains, meeting US 6 near Bishop.
Trees of the Schulman Grove grow mostly on north-facing slopes, above the upper end of the valley of South Fork Cottonwood Creek, which drains eastwards. The grove commemorates Edmund P Schulman (1908-1958), naturalist and dendrochronologist, who first established the great age of the trees. The visitor center, open during summer months, offers interpretive programs, books and gifts, and is the start point for three loop trails, all accompanied by notices and benches. The shortest, and closest to the car park, is the one mile Discovery Trail, while the longest and best is the 4.5 mile Methuselah Trail, which has a 900 foot elevation change and is named after the Methuselah Tree, the oldest known bristlecone pine in the world (4,852 years; also the oldest of any non-clonal organism) though its identity is kept secret for protection, and visually it is no different to many others. The 3.5 mile Bristlecone Cabin Trail is the least used of the three paths, encountering several cabins and other relics from Mexican Mine, together with many trees. The mine, originally Reed Mine, was established in 1863 with the intention of producing silver and gold, though only small amounts of lead and zinc were discovered.
Patriarch Grove contains the Patriarch Tree, the largest bristlecone pine in the world, recognizable for its broad, multi-segment trunk. This and many other trees can be viewed along the half mile Timberland Ancients Trail, a level route winding around a ridge to the east, while the 0.3 mile Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail climbs a little to a mostly treeless viewpoint overlooking Fish Lake Valley and the Great Basin, whilst also passing a good assortment of pines.