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. The forest also makes for an excellent day trip from Mammoth Lakes.
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Ancient bristlecone pines can be more than 4,000 years old, and not only is their wood twisted into stunning sculptural forms, it is also beautifully colored.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 13-mile dirt road leads from the Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove, which contains the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine.
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.
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. It is located at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet.
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.
In the winter, you can go cross country skiing or snowshoeing along the road.
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).
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.
Drive very slow to avoid a flat tire: the rocks on the road can have jagged edges.
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!
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.
There is no piped water at either grove.
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.
Visit Early for Photography
You’ll get the best light for photographing the ancients if you arrive early in the day.
Photographers also like to capture the trees against a night sky or the Milky Way. Note that the Schulman Grove and Patriarch Grove are day use only and closed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
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.
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.
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.
If you plan to visit both groves, and hike at each one plan to start early in the day so you can be done before it gets dark.
Allow about one hour each way for the drive from the bottom and back, and some time to take in the views at overlooks along the way.
Planning to explore more of the Eastern Sierra? Check out some of our other detailed Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley travel guides and articles!
- Driving Whitney Portal Road
- Visiting Hot Creek Geological Site near Mammoth Lakes
- Mono Lake Tufa Towers: Where to See Them
- Driving Tioga Road Through Yosemite National Park
- Visiting Earthquake Fault in Mammoth Lakes
- Driving the Scenic June Lake Loop
- Visiting the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area
- Exploring Devils Postpile National Monument
- Things to Do at Convict Lake
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