Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 5, 2018

Visiting California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

My previous blog post was a video tour of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1420 680

If you missed it, I invite you to click here to watch it.

In this post, I’ll address the practicalities of getting there to see the oldest living things on earth.

Note: There are other Great Basin Bristlecones farther south in the Inyo Mountains, as well as pockets in Nevada and Utah. The forest in the White Mountains is attractive because of its scale, accessibility, established trails and a visitors’ center (open seasonally).

The Schulman Grove, which I visited, is quite accessible, but reaching it requires some driving or a significant amount of hiking (skiing or snowshoeing in winter). Let’s go.

The White Mountains

The White Mountains form the eastern boundary of California’s Owens Valley. The valley’s west side is formed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, seen here from near the Bristlecone forest.

Sierra view Brad Nixon 1313 680

To reach the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, you’ll start in Big Pine, California (map, red underline), 300 miles north of Los Angeles on U.S. Route 395.

Bristlecone map Google 680

Before you leave Big Pine

You’re about to drive a minimum of 57 miles round trip. Make certain your car has fuel before you leave town.

You’re leaving all reasonable sources of water, food and, yes, even cell coverage. Before you start, have all your provisions. Beyond Big Pine, there is nothing, nada, zilch, rien, niente. They’ll sell you some bottles of water at the Schulman Grove visitors’ center. Unless they’re sold out. Or closed for the season or some emergency. Then you’re stuck.

Primary Caveats

You’ll be hiking at 10,000 feet. If you’re not in some reasonable condition, pay close attention to how you feel, and pace yourself.

It can be extraordinarily dry up there. The day I hiked, the humidity was in the single digits. Your body loses fluid at a rapid rate. You’ll need far more water than you’re accustomed to. Hiking the Methuselah Trail will require 3-4 hours, and  you’ll need at least a gallon of water per person. Drink it steadily, rather than waiting until you’re in a dangerous condition.

To Schulman Grove

From the north end of Big Pine, drive northeast on route 168. A sign marks the turn from 395.

Continue 13 miles along a well-paved, winding road that climbs several thousand feet. At one point, the road narrows to a single lane, so use caution.

Turn left on White Mountain Road. Signs should direct you.

Bristlecone sign Brad Nixon 1309 680

Once snow falls in winter, the road is closed.

White Mountain Road is paved. You have ten more miles to drive. Don’t believe any guidebooks that tell you it’s ten minutes to the visitors’ center: miles.

Now you wind, climb, wind and climb some more. There’s a turnoff with a spectacular view of the Sierras that you should take a few minutes to see.

>Sierra view Brad Nixon 1316 680

There, you’re above 9,000 feet elevation. A few minutes later, you’ll pass this sign.

Bristlecone sign Brad Nixon 1327 680

Soon after that, the right turn into the Schulman Grove parking lot will be evident. Beyond that point, the road is no longer paved, and the scene looks like this.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1330 680

That road continues to Patriarch Grove, mentioned below.

The visitors’ center is your spot to get geared up. There are “vault” restrooms (that means there’s no plumbing). The new center is impressive.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1492 680

And, yes, those are Bristlecone Pine trees all around.

Three Trails to Choose

If you have questions, the staff will answer them. They’ll explain that three trails lead from the center. All the trails go through the Bristlecone forest, and will give you a look at the high altitude environment in which the trees thrive.

Get a printed trail guide at the center for a small donation. It’s worth it. The guide I got for the Methuselah Trail was thorough, informative and practical.

A one-mile nature Discovery Trail is level and easy. The two-mile Cabin Trail loop involves more elevation changes, and is moderate in difficulty.

Methuselah Trail

I hiked the 4.25 Methuselah Trail loop. It descends 900 feet, then climbs back up to where you started. A few steeper sections are a bit strenuous, but at no time are you scrambling or boulder-hopping. Moderately well-conditioned hikers should manage it without undue stress, but consider the 10,000 foot elevation. There are benches at several points of the trail that provide welcome opportunities to catch a breather.

That is the only one of the three trails that reaches “Methuselah Grove,” a steep, rocky enclave which includes — unmarked — “Methuselah,” a living tree 4,850 years old, although innumerable trees in the grove are 4,000 or more years old.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1464 680

One appeal of the Methuselah Trail is the variety of terrain it traverses. At one point, you emerge from the Bristlecone environment (the soil is different) into an area occupied by Mountain Mahogany trees, sagebrush and a few junipers. There, you have a view southeastward to mountain ranges above Death Valley (purple underline, map, lower right) in the distance, 80 or 100 miles away.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1368 680

Beyond to the Patriarchs

If you have time and energy, you can drive 12 unpaved miles beyond Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove. There you’ll see the largest of the world’s Bristlecones, the Patriarch Tree. I haven’t visited, and refer you to the USDA website to begin your planning at this link.

Before setting out, remember you have to drive 12 unpaved miles back, too.

U.S. Forest Service Regulations

The forest is part of U.S. Forest Service land, and a protected environment. Camping, fires, collecting and overnight stays are prohibited. Visitors are technically restricted to daylight hours. The nearest campground is Grandview Campground, five miles from Schulman Grove.

The Schulman Grove visitor center is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. in season. You do not need reservations or permits to hike. The center requests a $3 per person donation. More than reasonable.

Click here for full information.


There are a few motels and places to eat in Big Pine. There are many more in larger Bishop (map, blue underline), 15 miles north of Big Pine on Route 395, as well as grocery, hospital, restaurants and other services. Lone Pine (map, green underline), 42 miles south of Big Pine, is also a popular place to stay and eat.

I hope you can visit the Bristlecones. If you do, I’d be delighted to have you come back and leave a comment about your encounter with the planet’s oldest inhabitants.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1430 680

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google with my emendations.


  1. Beautiful country!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is my kind of place. I appreciate your cautions about gas and drinking water, too. There never can be too many of that kind of reminder. Even when I’m not off to a place like this, I never leave home without a pair of knee high boots, a tow strap, jumper cables, and three or four gallons of water in the trunk of the car. And I always fill up on a half tank of gas. I learned that lesson in western Kansas. Not every place is filled with convenience stores and gas pumps!


  3. Interesting article. It looks like an amazing place for hiking. Those trees are so exotic. Did you notice the thin air at those high altitudes?


    • If I say I did, friends and family who make a habit of hiking up 14,000-foot peaks will mock me.
      Yes. I did feel it. Living at 200 feet above sea level, the couple of days we’d spent at 4,000 feet prior to the hike doesn’t fully acclimatize one. It takes its toll not at once, but over several hours of hiking. I did not feel like sprinting along the trail just for the heck of it. Not enough oxygen. So, not high enough to be dire, but certainly a noticeable difference.


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