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Visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California (Things to Do + Tips!)

Want to see the oldest living trees in the world? If you love nature, visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is one of the most exciting things to do in the Eastern Sierra of California.

Located in the White Mountains of California (and Nevada), the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a must-visit on a Highway 395 road trip, or if you are vacationing in Bishop or Lone Pine.

Ancient bristlecone pine
Ancient bristlecone pine

While the trees are the star attraction, the drive is scenic, and there are overlooks along the way to take in the spectacular views.

Considering a visit to this unique high desert destination? Read on to discover what to expect at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, plus things to know before you go!

What to Expect at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

In short: beautiful scenery, some must-do hiking trails, and the chance to get close to the most ancient trees on the planet!

The Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway

First, the drive to get to the groves is very beautiful! The White Mountains are the range you see across from the Sierra Nevada as you drive Highway 395.

Drive up CA 168 East
Driving up California Highway 168 East

The Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway starts in the Owens Valley and ends at the Patriarch Grove in the White Mountains.

The road gains over 8,000 feet in elevation from the start to the end!

Along the route, the high desert landscapes are gorgeous, with impressive rock formations and an array of flora (and fauna, if you are lucky!) Enjoy wildflowers in the spring.

At higher elevations, you’ll see mountain forests and alpine flora.

Pinyon Nature Trail

Look for the Pinyon Nature Trail sign about 3 miles after you turn onto Ancient Bristlecone Road.

This 0.5-mile easy loop trail winds through pinyon pine and Utah juniper and is a good stop if you want to stretch your legs and breathe in the mountain air. Along the route, you’ll have views of the mountains and canyons.

A view from the Pinyon Pine Trail
A view from Pinyon Pine Trail

There are information signs along the trail that identify plants: you’ll see sagebrush, bitterbrush, and different types of grasses.

Sierra View Overlook

The Sierra View Overlook comes up about 20 miles into the drive from Big Pine. There is a large parking area, but be on the lookout so you don’t miss it!

The observation area, a short walk from the parking area, affords a jaw-dropping view of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is one of the best panoramas of the Sierra Nevada peaks you’ll see without having to hike!

View from the Sierra View Overlook
A view from the Sierra View Overlook

Walk around and take in the views from all around the area. Look for Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous US states, and the Palisade Glacier in the Palisade Crest.

On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Ritter near Mammoth Lakes and Mount Dana in Yosemite National Park, and to the peaks of Death Valley.

There are interpretive markers that identify the mountains and viewing scopes to zoom in.

Information sign at the Sierra View Overlook
Sierra View Information Marker

The views are particularly beautiful in the earlier part of summer, when there is still a lot of snow on the Sierras.

Schulman Grove Visitor Center

Stop by the Visitor Center, which you will see upon turning into Schulman Grove. The exhibits here are a great introduction to the park.

Schulman Grove Visitor Center
Schulman Grove Visitor Center

You can also watch a film about the bristlecone pine and insights from research into the trees. It’s a fascinating watch.

Exhibits in the center impart information not only about the bristlecone pine, but also the limber pine, which is found up at the higher elevations, and other flora.

There is a bookstore at the center with books and maps. Rangers offer interpretive programs twice a day in the summer, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. In the spring and fall, the programs are offered only on weekends, and are dependent on the weather.

There are vault toilets available at the Visitor Center.

The center is open from 10.00 a.m. until 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday from mid-May through November, weather permitting. If you visit when it’s closed, there are several interpretive boards outside that you can still read.

Information sign at the Visitor Center at Schulman Grove
Information sign at the Visitor Center

Schulman Grove: Discovery Loop Trail

The Discovery Loop is the shorter and easier of the two popular trails you can hike at Schulman Grove.

A one-mile loop with an elevation change of about 280 feet, this trail offers great specimens of bristlecone pines. This hike is at an elevation above 10,000 feet, so watch for signs of altitude sickness and take it easy.

View from the Discovery Trail
View from the Discovery Trail

The bristlecone pines along the trail are estimated to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old. The trail offers good views of the surrounding areas and out to the Sierra Nevadas.

Schulman Grove: Methuselah Trail

Named for Methuselah, the oldest identified bristlecone pine, the Methuselah Trail is a moderately challenging 4.5-mile loop, with an elevation change of about 900 feet.

Methuselah is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old! The ancient tree’s exact location is not identified, to protect it from possible damage, although it is part of the Methuselah Grove.

A bristlecone pine
Bristlecone pine along the trail

The trail winds its way through ravines and ridges, and you will see many beautiful bristlecone pine specimens, along with mountain mahogany and other flora.

There are numbered posts along the trail, and you can pick up a trail brochure at the Visitor Center to read information that correlates to each marked post.

Expect the trail to feel longer than it is, because of the elevation. Pace yourself and note that the final stretch has a steep climb.

You’ll find benches along the way if you need to rest for a bit. Many of these benches are strategically placed to offer spectacular views eastward over the Great Basin.

Schulman Grove: Bristlecone Cabin Trail

There is a third trail at Schulman Grove: the Bristlecone Cabin Trail, which leads to the interesting remnants of the Mexican Mine.

You’ll see some miners’ cabins and the entrances to the mine, and there is an information sign that relates the story of the mine.

This is a flat and easy trail, but you can make it a 3.5-mile loop by returning on the Methuselah Trail.

Patriarch Grove

A 13-mile dirt road leads from the Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove, which contains the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine.

Bristlecone pine cones
Bristlecone pine cones

There are two relatively short trails that wind through the grove. The grove itself is beautiful, with a lunar landscape that’s otherworldly.

The Timberline Ancients Trail is just 0.25-mile long and flat, and features many gorgeous bristlecone pine specimens, sculpted into fantastic shapes by the elements. You’ll find interpretive signs along the trail.

The Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail is 0.5-mile long and offers fabulous views of the grove and the surrounding areas.

Essential Things to Know about the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest serves to protect the bristlecone pine and the limber pine.

Bristlecone pines grow at high elevations in several western states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Stump along the Discovery Trail in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California
Stump along the Discovery Trail

The Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), found in Utah, Nevada, and eastern California, is the species with the longest life span. It thrives in the white dolomite soil of the White Mountains.

The most ancient bristlecone pine is more than 4,850 years old.

The longest-lived bristlecone pines grow in the poorest soils and harshest environments, in groves just below the timber line. They are so hardy that they continue to stand on their own roots for many years after they die.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California is part of the USDA Forest System, under the management of the Inyo National Forest.

The road that leads to the Schulman and Patriarch Groves is not maintained in the winter and early spring, so you’ll want to visit between May and October or early November. Check road status here.

View from the Discovery Trail
Discovery Trail

There is a fee of $3.00 per person, maximum $6.00 per car, and persons under 18 are free. National parks passes are accepted.

Dogs on leash are permitted on the trails. Bikes are not allowed on the trails.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is day use only, but Grandview Campground on White Mountain Road nearby offers 23 sites (no services). Stargazing is excellent at this campground!

Getting to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Bishop, CA

From Bishop, travel south on Highway 395 for 15 miles, to its junction with California Highway 168 East. From Lone Pine, travel north on US 395 for 43.6 miles.

Turn onto CA 168 E and drive for 13 miles to its junction with White Mountain Road. Turn left onto White Mountain Road, and you will arrive at Schulman Grove in 10 miles. (See map).

Schulman Grove Sign
Schulman Grove sign

Park in the parking lot and walk to the Visitor Center, visible from the parking area.

The trailheads for the Discovery Loop and the Methuselah Trail are signed and visible from the parking area.

To access the Patriarch Grove, drive past the sign for the Schulman Grove for a further 13 miles.

Note that the road is unpaved after the Schulman Grove, and while the road is maintained, the ride will be super slow and very bumpy in a sedan.

We recommend a high-clearance vehicle (SUV or the like) if you plan to drive all the way to Patriarch Grove.

Tips for Your Visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Take the drive slow

The road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is well-maintained and paved up to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, but it is a narrow winding mountain road.

In good weather, you may see cyclists biking up to the Visitor Center, so be watchful.

The drive will take you about an hour or so, in daylight and good weather. Take it easy and enjoy the views and the vegetation along the way!

White Mountain Road in California
White Mountain Road

Fill up the tank!

There are no services once you leave Big Pine, so be sure to fill up your tank before you head up the mountain.

Bring plenty of drinking water

The Visitor Center at Schulman Grove has bottled water available for sale when it’s open, but to be safe, bring an adequate supply of drinking water in your car, and carry enough on your hikes.

Bring snacks and food for a picnic lunch

If you plan to spend a few hours in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, bring snacks and a picnic meal! There are picnic tables in both the Schulman Grove and the Patriarch Grove.

Don’t expect cell service!

Cell service may be spotty or non-existent along the route to the groves and at the top.

Download any maps or brochures you need before you head out.

A bristlecone pine
Bristlecone pine

Watch for signs of altitude sickness

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is at an elevation above 10,000 feet. Take it easy when you hike and drink plenty of water.

Stay alert for signs of altitude sickness, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or disorientation: they mean you have to descend immediately to a lower altitude and seek medical help if necessary.

Wear sun protection

Use sunscreen when you explore the forest. Also wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed sun hat when hiking. We like this natural waterproof sunscreen!

Wear good shoes

The trails in the forest are packed dirt for the most part. Wear closed-toed walking or hiking shoes with good grip.

Dress in layers

Since you are heading up a mountain, you’ll want to dress in layers, especially if you visit early or late in the day or in the fringe seasons.

Information sign at the Visitor Center
Visitor Center information sign

Allow plenty of time!

Plan on at least one half day to enjoy the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, more if you plan to visit both groves, have a picnic, or hike more than one trail.

Allow about one hour each way for the drive, and some time to take in the views at overlooks along the way.

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Planning to explore more of the Eastern Sierra? Check out some of our other detailed Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley travel guides and articles!

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Discover how to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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