Hiking the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Bishop is located west of the Inyo and White Mountains, southeast of Yosemite, and northeast of Kings Canyon, and is a great jumping-off point for travelers to explore some of the natural wonders of this area. Bishop is the largest city in Inyo County. Its quaint western main street offers some low-key hotels and restaurants and ample places to rent equipment for a variety of active sports. Additional local color—including nightlife—is provided by the Paiute and Shoshone peoples, who have a large reservation nearby and operate a casino in Bishop.

With an elevation of just over 4,000 feet, Bishop doesn’t get as cold, or anywhere near as snowy, as nearby Mammoth Lakes, which is twice its elevation. Still, the area is pretty remote, so it’s best to be prepared for emergencies. Carry chains, food, and water in your car, and don’t pass up a chance to fill the gas tank on the way.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Photo © Juliegrondin/Dreamstime.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Photo © Juliegrondin/Dreamstime.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Directly to the east of Bishop near the Nevada border is yet another amazing California wilderness area. Little visited but worth a trip on its own, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a section of the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains where the world’s oldest trees reside. The bristlecone pines can be even older than the coastal redwoods and sequoias. The most famous bristlecone pine, Methuselah, at the ripe age of about 4,750, is believed to be 1,000 years older than any other tree in the world. To protect the tree, the Forest Service has chosen not to mark it or produce maps directing people to it, but don’t worry—almost all the trees around here are beautiful to behold.

There are two main groves of trees that you won’t want to miss. The Schulman Grove is where you’ll find the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitors Center (Hwy. 168, 23 miles east of Big Pine, 760/873-2500, 10am-4pm Fri.-Mon. mid-May-early Nov., $3 pp or $6 per car).

The second notable grove, 12 miles north of Schulman on a dirt road, is the Patriarch Grove. Here you’ll see the Patriarch Tree, which is the world’s largest bristlecone pine. A self-guided nature trail in the Patriarch Grove enables you to get out among the trees and learn more about them. Note that the road from the visitors center to the Patriarch Grove isn’t paved and can be treacherous for light passenger vehicles. At 11,000 feet, the grove’s elevation can also be difficult for visitors with health issues.

Three hiking trails begin right outside the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitors Center. The Discovery Trail is an easy one-mile loop with helpful signs along the way. The Methuselah Trail is a roughly five-mile loop that’s also easy. Yes, you will see the world’s oldest tree if you take this walk—you just won’t know exactly which tree it is. Its secret identity is protected, but you can have fun admiring all the noble specimens here and guessing which gnarled tree is most ancient. Finally, the Mexican Mine Trail is an out-and-back hike of about five miles in total that leads past some abandoned mine buildings made out of tough bristlecone pine wood, of course, in addition to still more living trees.

You can get to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest by car from the town of Bishop in about an hour. Take U.S. 395 south to Big Pine and turn left (east) onto Highway 168. Take Highway 168 for 13 miles to White Mountain Road. Turn left (north) and drive 10 miles to the visitors center in Schulman Grove.

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