No big announcement was made, but the paved road in the White Mountains to Schulman Grove, along with the unpaved section leading beyond to the turnoff for Patriarch Grove is now open. Those are the two main groves for taking in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to some of the most gnarled and photogenic trees you may ever see. If that's not impressive enough, it's also where the oldest known tree in the world can be found, along with many of its elderly brethren.
White Mountain Road closes seasonally for winter, but as the story has been throughout this spring, California mountain arteries that traditionally see a May or June opening had their gates unlocked early. John Louth, who manages the 29,000-acre pine forest calls it an "exceptionally early" opening.
With the two groves accessible and the visitor center at Schulman Grove opening May 18, here's what you need to know:
Things To Do: Walking among these ancient trees and taking photos are the main attraction here, and there are three trails to choose from, all which start at the parking lot and are dog friendly. If you haven't acclimated, be mindful of your ability at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
- For a quicker look, the 1-mile looped Discovery Trail is the way to go. But don't rush: Enjoy the nuances of the trees, use the benches to rest and relax, and take the time to read the interpretive signs as you'll come out of this walk understanding much about the trees, their discovery, and the landscape around you. This trail has about a 300-foot elevation gain and the only one in the forest clearly marked on Google Maps.
- If you want to see the oldest known tree in the world, take this. But two things to know before going. First, the looped Methuselah Walk trail, named after the oldest tree, is about 4.5 miles with a 900-foot elevation gain. Secondly, when you see Methuselah, you won't know it because it's not marked for reasons of not only vandalism (obviously), but also attracting too many people near or on it roots, which could threaten its health. And if you're curious, the tree is estimated to be 4,743 years old, according to Louth.
- The third trail is the odd duck of the bunch. It's a mostly flat .5-mile trail to an old mining site with historic cabins built out of bristlecone pines. Thus, it is called the Bristlecone Cabin Trail. It's a there-and-back trail, but you can make a loop since it connects to the Methuselah Walk. Just choose your poison: one way takes you right back to the parking lot for a total 2-mile trek; the other way completes most of the trail for a total of 5.5 miles.
Getting There: It's 23 miles from the small Inyo County town of Big Pine. From U.S. 395, take Highway 168 east 13 miles to White Mountain Road. Hang a left (north) onto White Mountain Road for another 10 miles (make sure to stop at the amazing Sierra View lookout point that provides a stunning view of the Sierra Nevadas). Both roads are paved and very curvy, so plan ahead for at least 45 minutes of driving each way. Once at the parking lot, there is a fee.
Things To Do: Like Schulman, spending time with the trees and taking photos is the main attraction, but without a large parking lot or visitor center. Two short, dog-friendly looped trails are established here: the .25-mile Timberline Ancients Nature Trail, which goes past the Patriarch Tree (the largest known Ancient Bristlecone Pine) and the .5-mile Cottonwood Vista Overlook. Since this grove is at 11,000 feet elevation and at the tree line, the barren landscape gives the area a much different feel.
Getting There: It's another 12 miles past Schulman Grove, but the road is no longer paved. The Forest Service does not recommend "light passenger vehicles." As of early May 2013, the 2-mile road off White Mountain Road (see it on a map) was still blocked by snow. It's walkable, but cars will have to be parked at the turnoff until the snow melts, which is expected by mid-month. To check the status, call Inyo National Forest at 760-873-2500.