Of the many scenic wonders found within the Inyo National Forest, one of the most amazing is the ANCIENT BRISTLECONE PINE FOREST, located between 10,000 and 11,000 ft. in the White Mountains, east of the Sierra Nevada. These trees (Pinus longaeva) are the oldest known living trees on earth. Here in the White Mountains, the ancient trees have survived more than 40 centuries, exceeding the age of the oldest Giant Sequoia by 1,500 yrs.
Each Bristlecone pine, from young seedling to ancient relic, has an individual character. Young trees are densely clad with glistening needle-covered branches that sway like foxtails in the wind. With their bristled cones dripping pine scented resin on a warm afternoon, they exude all the freshness of youth. As centuries pass and the trees are battered by the elements, they become sculpted into astonishingly beautiful shapes and forms. These"old age" gnarled Bristlecones command complete attention, for there is a definite emotional impact upon meeting a 4,000 year-old tree. The aged trees tenacity to maintain life is impressive. While most of its wood is dead, growth barely continues through a thin ribbon of bark. When all life finally ceases, the snags stand like elegant ghosts for a thousand years or more. They continue to be polished by wind driven ice and sand. The dense wood is slowly eroding away rather than decaying.
Thin clear air and crisp ultraviolet light drench the high altitude arid slopes where the Bristlecone Pine makes its home. At this high elevation, one has the impression of a lunar landscape. The trees manage to survive in the poorly nourished, alkaline soil with a minimum of moisture and a forty-five day growing season. In fact, the trees longevity is linked to these inhospitable conditions. The trees grow very slowly, adding as little as an inch in girth in a hundred years.
Those that grow the slowest produce dense, highly resinous wood that is resistant to rot and disease, are more likely to join the Fraternity of the 4,000 year old Ancients. Not all Bristlecones attain great age. Trees anchored to more moist slopes grow fat and tall, produce less dense wood, and succumb at an earlier age. Long life is then granted to trees that are able to cling to life under situations of severe duress.
To access the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, take Highway 168 east from Big Pine. In 13 miles, you reach the turnoff to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest, paved for the 10 miles to the Visitor Center at Schulman Grove, them a reasonable (though rough and steep) dirt road another 13 miles to Patriarch Grove.