What if I told you that on your drive to Mammoth you're within an hour of the oldest living things on Earth?
What if I told you that those living things grow next to fallen, visible, naturally-preserved wood that pre-exists the pyramids, earliest civilizations and even the ice age?
That this forest was used to callibrate carbon dating? That the sciences of denrochronology and dendroclimatology were born here?
I'm not talking about the famous redwoods or sequoias, but rather the less well known but even older Bristlecone Pine specimens which lie at a 10,000 ft altitude in the White Mountains to the east of Bishop, CA. Unbelievably, some of the visible trees are 11,500 years old.
To see these ancient artifacts you will need to plan a day trip (or at a minimum a few hours) off the 395. So pack a lunch, hop in the car and spend a day enjoying the scenic journey to the excellent visitors' center and forest.
Last minute trip and you don't have a picnic? Read our post here about where to stop in Big Pine for picnic goodies.
The turnoff to the Bristlecone Pine Forest is at the north end of Big Pine, just past Glacier View Campground. There is a nice display at this intersection, with info about the Forest.
From there, you still have a squirrelly climb up the White Mountains ahead of you, but the road is paved and well-marked.
Along the route there are lots of places to stop and enjoy the views, have a picnic or take a hike, including Grand View Campground and Sierra View Vista Point. There are pit toilets at Grand View Campground. If you have time for only 1 stop, Sierra View Vista Point is well-worth the time it takes to stop and walk out to the point. At the point there are several benches that make a picturesque picnic spot.
Visitors' Center and Forest
Whatever you do, make sure to reserve a good chunk of time for stopping in to the Visitors' Center and exploring Schulman Grove itself.
The Visitors' Center is worth visiting and has information, staff, interactive displays. Not to be missed is the short film, Living History, The Ancient Bristlecone Pines, which describes the historical importance of the forest and how it came to be identified by an astronomer, Andrew Douglass. The film is only 19 minutes long, but is interesting, informative and entertaining, even for kids. It gives an excellent overview of the forest, and puts into perspective the critical importance of the hauntingly beautiful trees you will see if you take the time to enjoy one of the self-guided hikes. The Visitors' Center has limited hours that vary by time of year, so be sure to double check hours before visiting.
The self-guided hikes are also worthwhile if you want to stand next to the oldest trees on earth. For all these hikes, remember that you are at 10,000 feet. Wear sunscreen and/or hats, closed toed shoes and carry water. Although dogs are welcome on leash, some of the hikes have trails covered with sharp, jagged red rock that is difficult for puppy paws.
The shortest hike, Discovery, is only 1 mile but is hilly with a 300 foot elevation change which makes it moderately challenging-- especially when you remember that you're already at 10,000 feet. There are plenty of benches for catching your breath and photo opportunities for documenting your day. Near the stairs you'll encounter a grove where Dr. Schulman first discovered the 4000 year old trees.
A longer, but less challenging hike is Bristlecone Cabin trail, which takes hikers past a mining cabin made from this ancient timber. Interpretive signs explain the history of mining in the White Mountains which form the eastern border of the Owen's Valley. Cut back to the Visitors' Center or join with the most challenging, but impressive hike, the Methuselah.
The Methuselah trail is the most challenging at 4.5 miles and 900 foot elevation change but you'll be rewarded with seeing the oldest trees on earth. If you take this hike, pick up a trail guide at the trailhead. Be prepared for a fairly strenuous hike which will take 2-4 hours. Be sure to take water and snacks if needed.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Town of Bishop Info
US Forest Service Information