Located in Inyo National Forest in Eastern California is a true California hidden gem: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This ancient forest is home to some of the oldest living trees in the world, and despite this, many people have still never heard of it. Inyo National Forest is located between the Eastern Sierras and Death Valley National Park. The forest is home to multiple different types of trees and wildlife, but the Bristlecone Pines are truly something special. These wind-twisted, weather-beaten trees grow at altitudes higher than 10,000 feet. Due to the harsh environments that they thrive in, this ancient forest remains relatively untouched by humanity. Because of the remote nature of the trees, they have been able to stay alive for thousands of years. If you want to see them (and help protect them), then this is the complete guide to visiting the 4000-year-old trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
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What Are The Bristlecone Pine Trees?
The Bristlecone Pine trees are famous for being some of the oldest “non-clonal” species of trees in the world which means that the trunk is the same age as the root systems. These incredible trees grow at altitudes that are between 6500 and 11000ft which means that they grow in a very harsh environment where not many species of trees are able to grow. The trees tend to grow on very exposed ridges are their design allows them to withstand the high winds that come with altitude and exposure.
How Do They Live So Long
There are a couple of reasons that these trees become “ancients” and have a long lifespan. One reason is that they keep their pine needles for a long time. The average pine tree replaces its pine needles every four to six years which takes energy from the tree to do. The Bristlecone Pine Trees keep their needles for nearly 40 years which helps them conserve energy to stay alive longer in harsh climates.
Another reason they live for so long is that they grow slowly in droughts (which are common in California) and produce a dense anti-fungal and anti-bug bark during these periods of little water. Speaking of bark, these trees can actually stay alive even when most of their bark is stripped away. Scientists have found that they can lose 90% of their bark and still survive!
These trees are also able to live for an incredible amount of time due to how slowly they grow. A new Bristlecone Pine sapling will only grow a max of about an inch a year. This means that the roots have time to really dig into the soil and provide a strong foundation for the trees as they grow taller. This helps them survive the harsh winds without being blown over. If these trees grew upwards rapidly, the root system would not be able to hold the weight of the tree up against the harsh winds on the exposed ridges where they grow.
The oldest recorded living tree, the Methuselah Tree, is located within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It is estimated to be over 4800 years old. The team of scientists who protect the forest use a method of counting rings by boring a small hole into the tree.
Why Do The Ancient Bristlecone Pines Look So Weird?
As soon as you enter the ancient groves, you will notice that these trees look really— odd. They look as though someone came and twisted them like a sculpted bonsai as they were growing, but in reality, it was all nature that shaped these trees. The ancient groves have been described as “sculpture gardens” because of the unique way in which the wind has shaped each tree.
How To Visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is actually very easy as long as you have a car. You will want to set your navigation to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. There are no public transportation options available to the ancient groves.
Inyo National Forest charges a $5 per person fee which is paid in cash to a little box at the entrance of the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center. You do not need a permit to hike in the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, and it is usually not very busy. There is also an option to pay $1 for a nice paper guide to the trails which I HIGHLY recommend. It was an awesome little resource that really guides you on your walk and tells you a lot of interesting information about the trees.
There are a few different trails that you can hike in the Ancient Bristlecone Forest that range from 1 mile to 4.5 miles if you are just looking for a quick day hike in the area. It is important to note that you will be hiking at high altitudes so it is incredibly important to bring plenty of water and sun protection. I got fairly sunburnt on our hike because I didn’t think to wear sunscreen. There isn’t much shade on parts of the trail so you will be happy to have a sun-shirt and hat with you. I would also recommend the use of trekking poles as there are some steep inclines.
- Discovery Trail: This 1-mile trail is a quick loop where you can get a taste of what the Bristlecone Pine Trees look like. This is ideal for people who don’t have the physical ability to hike further distances.
- Bristlecone Cabin Trail: This 2-mile trail is usually combined with the Methuselah trail to make it a bit more challenging. If done by itself, this trail offers you a slightly more difficult option than the discovery trail.
- Methuselah Trail– This 4.5-mile trail is the best trail in the area by a long shot. If you are able to do this trail, it is absolutely worth it. It is called the Methuselah Trail because it visits the Methuselah Grove which is home to some of the oldest of the Ancients including the Methuselah Tree which is estimated at over 4800 years old. Although the actual Methuselah Tree is not marked for protection, it is absolutely worth doing this hike and seeing the ancient trees. There is an 800ft elevation gain on the trail though so be aware that it requires a moderate level of fitness to complete at high altitudes.
Where To Stay Near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located high in the mountains where there are no hotels or lodging options outside of boondocking and a few designated campsites. It is important to note that you cannot bring an RV up to the Bristlecone Pines as the road is too windy for long RVs and trailers. If you want to camp in the area, you will need to car camp or bring a tent.
As for hotel options, there are two main areas that you can stay in and then take a day trip from to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
The first area you can stay in is Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Lakes is a beautiful area south of Lake Tahoe that provides multiple hiking and adventure options. This is much more of a luxury location due to its proximity to Lake Tahoe. Downtown Mammoth Lakes is roughly 80 miles and 1 hour and 45 minutes from the Bristlecone Pine Forest in Inyo National Park
Budget: Sierra Lodge
Mid-Range: Shilo Inn Mammoth Lakes
Luxury: Mammoth Village
The other option for a place to stay near the Bristlecone Pine Forest is the small town of Lone Pine. Lone Pine is located next to the Alabama Hills and the base of Mount Whitney/The Mount Whitney Portal. This town is a hiker town that caters to PCT hikers and those who wish to summit Mount Whitney. Lone Pine is a more budget-friendly option for those wishing to see the Bristlecone Pines and is also a great jumping point for heading to Death Valley.
There is also the option to boondock for free in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine as well.
Budget: Trails Motel
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