A rainbow and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California.
A rainbow and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Don’t make the mistake of passing the steep, curvy, road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest without actually driving up for a look. This sliver of mountain-top terrain is a sacred place, home to the oldest trees in the world, and by extension, the oldest known living things in the universe. It is a harsh but stunning alpine landscape where relatively few visitors venture, even though access is good. Come here to explore bumpy roads, enjoy dramatic views of the Sierra Nevada, and, as you hike amongst gnarled ancient trees, rediscover the profound beauty of simply being alive.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forst
FAQ

What’s the best camping spot near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest?

Camping is prohibited within the boundaries of the forest, but there’s a pretty rad spot to a pitch a tent nearby. Grandview Campground, sitting at around 8,500 feet, has plenty of spacious, shady sites and is only a couple of miles from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It is, however, first-come, first-served and tends to fill up on the weekends. There are plenty of other campgrounds to check out in the Eastern Sierra; you’ll just have to make the hour-long drive up and down the hill each day.

What is the oldest tree living here?

Methusela, a bristlecone pine estimated in 1957 to be 4,789 years old, is the oldest-known tree in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and the oldest-known living thing in the world, excluding some ancient clonal organisms, like colonies of spruce or aspen. Good luck finding this incredible tree. Methusela remains unmarked and its exact location undisclosed. All that being said, scientists agree there are even older trees here; they just haven’t been sampled and aged.

What’s the elevation of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest?

Most of the area you can drive, hike, and explore is between 10,000 and 11,500 feet. White Mountain Peak, just north of the forest, tops out at 14,252 feet. That’s about as high as mountains get in the Lower 48.

When is the area open?

The Forest Service website lists the area as being open mid May through mid November, however, the exact timing is going to vary year-to-year based on the snowpack and condition of the roads. The best time to visit, when you shouldn’t have to worry about cold or snow or ice, is late June through early September. Smokey skies from wildfires could be an issue, though.
Double rainbows over the Patriarch Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forst.
In the Moment

Magic in the Patriarch Grove

By Brian Klonoski

Just a tad above 11,000 feet, toward the northern end of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, on the way to White Mountain Peak, you’ll find the Patriarch Grove, where some of the oldest trees in the world live.

I was sitting in my car in the parking area — which is cut into a bowl overlooking the Great Basin — smoking some Jack Herer, listening to music, and watching jagged slashes of lightning zig-zag across the sky.

Incredible thunderstorms tumbled over the high peaks, pelting the trees, which could care less, with waves of hail and rain. The sun, meanwhile, played coy, peaking through the shifting clouds every now and then, just to remind me it was still there.

The storms soon dissipated, drifting east into Nevada, but held together long enough that the downpours they continued to unleash captured the glint of the sun’s rays.

A large rainbow appeared over the grove. I rushed out of the car, dropped to my knees, looked through the viewfinder, and… realized I didn’t have the right lens.

I sprinted back to the Jeep in a flurry of F-bombs that rivaled the earlier booms of thunder, clicked in a new lens, screwed on a filter, and by the time I turned around, my luck had doubled. There were now two rainbows instead of one, and they hung around just long enough for me to make this image.

In the Moment is a series of short stories that fondly recall the creation of a photograph.
True Story
The oldest-known tree was a bristlecone pine in eastern Nevada named Prometheus, estimated to be around 4,900 years old. Unfortunately, It was cut down in 1964 by a graduate student doing climate research. 😬
An ancient bristlecone pine tree.
Rainy weather in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
FAQ

What’s the weather like?

Much like the trees, the weather in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is gnarly. Expect a dry, windy environment that can be overtaken by sudden and intense thunderstorms. Temperature-wise, it’ll hit 100 degrees down in the Owens Valley at the peak of summer, but up amongst the ancient pines, it’ll be in the mid-70s .

Fact

The bristlecone’s range could be reduced as climate change drives competing trees, like the limber pine, up mountain slopes in search of cooler temperatures.

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Gnarly limbs on an ancient bristlecone pine tree.
Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz

Recommended Reading

The California Field Atlas

It's a struggle to come up with words that do this beautiful book justice. And few books are as fine for flipping through while sitting beside a fire or relaxing in a hammock—so bring this one camping. That being said, a true atlas it is not. Instead, it is the gospel of California's natural world and systems according to Obi Kaufmann, a brilliant naturalist, artist, and writer who is able to wrangle the spirituality and profundity of this amazing state onto the pages of his gorgeous work, which is packed with maps, illustrations, information, and musings. If you love California, this book is a treasure waiting for a spot on your shelf.

The Ritter Range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Enjoy Rad Views of the Sierra Nevada

As you drive up the Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway, you’ll be treated to some incredible views of the Sierra Nevada’s steep eastern slope, from Mount Whitney all the way to Yosemite National Park and beyond.

This is one of the few places — the other being an airplane — where you can see more than a hundred miles of land and terrain along the Sierra Crest in a single gaze.

The views get even better once you enter the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Look for pullouts on the western side of White Mountain Road.

The image above was captured in one of these spots. You can see some amazing mountains just to the left of the setting sun, even though they’re 60 miles away: Banner Peak, Mount Ritter, and the Minarets. The glint of light beneath the range is Lake Crowley.

 

Know Before You Go

A map showing the location of the ancient bristlecone pine forest
This spectacular landscape sits high in the White Mountains above Bishop, just across from the Sierra Nevada, with the dramatic Owens Valley laying in between the two mountain ranges.

To get here, take the Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway (Route 168) where it branches off into the mountains from Route 395 in Big Pine.

Be sure to stock up on gas, water, and supplies before you head up the hill. This is a remote area with spotty phone reception that’s 25 miles from any sort of services.

If you’re looking for a more detailed map of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, consider using Gaia GPS to create personalized maps you can save for offline use with their amazing GPS app. You can also print your custom maps if you’d like a paper backup.

If want to buy a map, this one, this one, and this one are all great maps of the Eastern Sierra, but none will show the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in any sort of incredible or useful detail. Gaia GPS is the best way to do that.