Walking among the Ancient Sentinels


While visiting the Bodie State Historic Park in early August, Jim and I struck up a conversation with an employee of the park who was doing restoration work on one of the outbuilding roofs.  We got to talking with him about hikes and places we’ve visited so far in the Eastern Sierras, and he asked if we had been to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

I knew these trees existed somewhere in the southwest but I had not as yet discovered how near we were to the oldest living trees in the world – the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva – Western Bristlecone Pine).  We were psyched to hear of our close proximity to this ancient stand of trees, and immediately knew what our plans would be for the next day!   The young man gave us directions to the grove – which is located in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains south of Bishop.

View looking towards Death Valley from the Bristlecone Pine Forest

The White/Inyo Mountain Range can be seen flanking the eastern side of Owens Valley while driving along Rt. 395 south of Mammoth Lake, with the Sierras rising to the west of the valley.  While not very far apart in mileage, these two mountain ranges are worlds apart in both climate and composition.  The White Mountain Range is an extremely arid desert environment.  While both the White and Sierra ranges formed at similar times, the White Mountains have a completely different geologic make-up.  Contrasting with the granite peaks of the Sierras, they are composed primarily of sedimentary rock dating back 500 million years ago, and contain some of the oldest rock specimens in California.  Precipitation is sparse since this range lies in the rain shadow of the Sierras, and there are periods of drought alternating with some of the coldest temperatures in CA.  It is an extremely harsh environment, and while vegetation appears sparse I’ve read that there are over 1,000 plant species that call this place home!  Still, a seemingly unusual place to find the oldest living grove of trees in the world.

Western Bristlecone Pine

We started our day with a stopover in Bishop to do some shopping.   I liked Bishop, although the lower elevation here makes this a real hotspot in the summer and temperatures were already approaching 100 degrees when we were there at noon.  We found a fantastic outdoor gear shop and bought some much needed supplies (and some not so much needed items that were on sale!)   Most important, Jim was able to find a great pair of trail hikers (La Sportiva) to supplement his heavier hiking boots that were just too hot for hiking in this area.

Leaving Bishop, we headed for the town of Big Pine, where we turned left onto Route 168 and started our ascent up to the bristlecone pine forest.  In less than 25 miles, we would climb over 6,000 feet in elevation!  At least 4 diverse plant communities are evident during the drive – shadscale scrub, pinyon pine-juniper woodland, great basin montane scrub and finally, the bristlecone pine forest at around 10,000 feet.  On top of the pass at Cedar Flat, 13 miles from Route 395, White Mountain Road to the left takes you to the Schulman Grove of pines – another 10 miles of winding, steep road!

Pinyon Pine-Juniper Forest along White Mt Road

Since it was August, I expected there to be more tourists but it was surprisingly quiet and we pretty much had the road to ourselves.  We stopped for a late lunch along the White Mountain Road at a picnic area deep into the pinyon pine-juniper forest.  It was a nice spot and offered some shade!  Even at this elevation, it was a warm day.

Refreshed with food in our bellies, we drove the last 5 miles to the visitor center maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association.   The visitor center sits at the entrance into the Schulman Grove – one of two groves of bristlecone pines in this area.  The Patriarch Grove is another 11 miles on a dirt road past the visitor center.  It was already mid-afternoon so we were not going to see both groves today.  I highly recommend spending some time in the visitor center as they have an outstanding display on the history and physiology of bristlecone pines and this unique geologic area.

dsc_2370The Schulman Grove of pines is a little over 10,000 feet in elevation and covers the southernmost section of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.  It also happens to contain the oldest living bristlecone pines in the world!  We had time to take the longer of the two self-guided hiking trails – a 4.5 mile hike through the heart of the grove.  Armed with our printed copy of the Methuselah Walk, we headed out onto the trail.  Allowing for time to stop and take pictures and read all the interpretive information, we were going to barely get back to the visitor center by dusk!  But, the late afternoon light would be awesome for picture-taking!

Schulman Grove Visitor Center

The self-guided interpretive trail has 24 points of interest along the 4.5 mile hike.  We stopped at each marker along the way.  Since I had the camera, Jim carried the guide and was our narrator – reading the descriptions in the booklet for each signpost along the trail.  It was a good job for him 🙂

Pines trees are gymnosperms – which means they produce cones instead of flowers.  They have two types of cones  – seed (female) cones and pollen (male) cones.

The seed cones on the bristlecone pines are the small purple cones found on the trees and these are pollinated by the male cones – the rust-colored cones.  It was fun to see examples of both on the smaller trees.

Some interesting facts about bristlecone pines that we learned along the way include:

  1. Some of the living bristlecone pines in this grove are over 4,000 years old – including Methuselah which is the oldest living tree in the world at about 4,700 years (unmarked for its protection).  The oldest part of the grove where Methuselah lives actually does not have the tallest trees.  We tried to speculate which precise tree was Methuselah in the Methuselah Grove but I doubt we guessed correctly!

2. These trees are extremely shallow-rooted so they can find food and water quickly.

Lynn admiring a really nice specimen!

3. The trees have adapted to the highly alkaline dolomite soil allowing them to grow slowly and without competition as few species of plants can tolerate this low-nutrient soil.

The white alkaline dolomite soil stands out on the hillside opposite the trail

4. It can take up to 100 years for a bristlecone pine to grow one inch in diameter. This slow growth generates very dense, disease-resistant wood.

5. These pines hold their needles for up to 40 years reducing forest floor litter, and this helps to prevent wildfires.

In different parts of the forest, there were some other interesting plants growing that are common in this area.  Rock spirea (Petrophytum caespitosum) hugs the ground and can be found throughout much of the grove.

Rock Spirea

Fern Bush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) is another shrub that makes its home in this harsh environment and blooms in August.

Fern Bush

It was a tremendous honor to have been able to visit and stroll through this ancient forest.  These pines have been referred to as ancient sentinels.  I would agree that they certainly are guardians of this vast landscape keeping watch over this truly special place. On our way back down the mountain, the evening light was pure magic – casting a golden hue over the countryside.

View from the overlook near the Schulman Grove


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