Inyo County, California
White Mountain Rd
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
10 Mile - Length
Inyo - COUNTY
Narrows to single lane paved, 16% grade - PAVEMENT
180-degree hairpins - CURVES
Big Pine- GAS
Quick Ride: Mountain ride to the oldest living things on the planet
Trees that Rewrote History
A ride buddy told me about these 5000-year-old trees that were the oldest living things on earth on this mountaintop in the White Mountains. And you can only reach them via the highest paved road in the state. And they only survive at 10,000 ft high elevations.
You had me at 5000.
Say no more. Off I went, setting out on a new motorcycle journey with the intent being to circumvent the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The goal was to seek out these ancient trees that predated the pyramids. The secondary goal was to find new regions to ride for my new motorcycle tour business I had started a few years earlier. Leaving at 4am allowed me to reach the summit of the Sierra Nevada as the first rays of sunshine began coming over the eastern horizon.
The hand of the Almighty points the way
At the summit under clear blue sky, a single cloud appeared directly in front of me in the shape of a giant hand, complete with fingers. The rising sun illuminated the cloud and I took it as a sign, the hand of the Almighty perhaps pointing the way. The Hayabusa and I surged forward headed into 30 degree morning air bound for the Eastern Sierra to ride Highway 395.
Highway 395 by itself is not that exciting as it’s a major four-lane highway. However, all the Sierra Nevada passes of Monitor, Ebbetts, Sonora & Tioga connect to it. Then south of Mono Lake, a new chapter begins. I circled around the June Lake Loop, then headed for Benton via Highway 120 East, doubling back around via Benton Crossing Rd over the Wildrose Summit and past numerous hot springs to Crowley Lake. Then onto the shunpike of Lower Rock Creek Rd to stay off the main highway into Bishop bumping into Inyo County.
Owens Valley Radio Observatory
Further south near Big Pine, east of Highway 395 and north of Highway 168 off in the distance were large radar dishes for the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. You can reach the OVRO 4-miles north of Highway 168 at Orvo Rd 2.2 miles east of Big Pine. The radar dishes are used to make discoveries about star-forming regions, proto-stellar disks, proto-planetary disks and galactic structure. Galactic structure. It has a nice ring to it. The first 32-foot dish arrived to this valley in 1958 and by 1959 another was added listening to echoes in outer space. By 1968, a 130-foot dish was added. Radar dishes pointed towards the heavens are often paired up with other dishes in other parts of the globe all listening to the same radio frequencies.
Owens Valley Radio Observatory is 4-miles north of Highway 168 at Big Pine, California
“Light takes time to reach Earth’s observatories from the depths of space, and so you see objects and phenomena not as they are but as they once were. That means the universe acts like a giant time machine: the farther away you look, the further back in time you see—back almost to the beginning of time itself. Within that horizon of reckoning, cosmic evolution unfolds continuously, in full view.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist
Tours are given monthly, generally the first Monday of every month, but you’ll need to explore the OVRO website if or when they are available to sync up your travel plans with an available tour of this very unusual facility.
Call (760) 358-6410 for large group tours. But you can take Leighten Lane the 4 miles north on pavement to reach a gate near the dishes at least for a photo.
Next on the To-Do list was Highway 168 which leads to the place my ride buddy had told me about, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. To reach the bristlecones, continue east on Highway 168 on the north side of Big Pine and ride 13 miles eastward up Highway 168. After 6-miles, Highway 168 enters the Inyo National Forest as the elevation begins to climb out of the valley. As you gain elevation, the road surface and curves delve into an episode of encapsulated delight.
There’s an overabundance of tar snakes in this stretch, and on a hot day when the sun is coming down on the roadway, it’s best to avoid these tar snakes if you can. The why is quickly explained by the two-wheeled mode of conveyance you happen to be gripping with your thighs when you improperly align with these tar snakes at lean. The bike skips a few inches to the right in a sudden unnatural movement that releases a dosage of adrenaline from your at-the-ready adrenal medulla gland, entering your bloodstream like NOS being injected into a dragster motor. And your brain says, yeah, that was not fun, let’s try to avoid doing that again.
Highway 168 approaching the White Mountains outside Big Pine
Combine little traffic if any with left-right-left curves, add a dose of steady elevation climbing, and then stir in a few whoops where at the right speed the bike goes airborne.
They’re called whoops because that’s what you’ll find yourself doing as you ride over them- whooping: which can best be described as emitting high pitched sounds of delight. The pitch of your whoop may be related to your speed; however, prudence dictates if this is your first time on Highway 168 to take it easy.
Highway 168 headed out of Big Pine, the Sierra Range in the distance
All this effort headed up Highway 168 leads into a narrow single lane canyon reminiscent of the que de porka on Highway 108, only better. Why no one ever carved or blasted out a wider opening through the rock we’ll never know, but that’ll be the last thought in your helmeted head as you zip through this narrow single-lane canyon popping out on the east side to another set of rapid-fire left-right-lefts to the Cedar Flat Group Camp. It’s here the road finally straightens out and relaxes. The turnoff for White Mountain Rd is only a few hundred yards east of this camping area.
Single lane ride though a narrow canyon on Highway 168
Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy
A few years ago, another 23 large radar dishes were located directly across from the start of White Mountain Rd but were not visible from Highway 168. CARMA stands for Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy. This array was a radio telescope run by Caltech. Instead of a single telescope pointed skyward, 23 radar dishes of varying sizes pointed towards the heavens studying the cold universe through imaging of radio emissions from molecules, dust, and relic emission from the early universe. After CARMA lost their funding, these radio telescopes were removed in 2015. All the equipment and dishes were taken down the narrow canyon full assembled on special trailers and moved to the OVRO site at the 4000 ft level. This site at 7200 feet was preferred because water vapor in the atmosphere can distort the radio signals the radar dishes are absorbing. Any trace of the compound has been removed and even the soil returned to its natural state as if the 23 radar dishes and support structures had never been there.
White Mountain Road
White Mountain Road is the reason why we came all this way and it doesn’t disappoint setting out from the 7200 ft mark and gaining 3000 feet in 12 miles. White Mountain Rd is straight at first before wiggling into a canyon and curving northward with the first double 180-degree hairpin 2.5 miles in. Yes, double means a full 180 degrees then flipping back the other direction 180 degrees. Great fun! Road surface is fair to decent with a broken yellow. Elevation begins to climb through another set of double hairpins reaching Grandview Campground and then another four sets of hairpins. You can see the road ahead climbing the mountain. This view of the road ahead is enticing, alluring and spurs you ever onward.
Sierra View Overlook
Eight miles in from Highway 168 is a broad paved pullout providing a natural stopping and meet up point. Take a moment here and walk out a hundred yards to a small round top at 9300 ft. There are several benches here on the hilltop to take a moment to rest along with a picnic table for a planned lunch stop with an amazing view.
Sierra View Overlook
Your shortness of breath is the elevation. You’re approaching 10,000 feet and any exertion; your body quickly lets you know you may not be used to these elevations. By the time you reach the nearby summit of White Mountain Peak at 14,000 ft, the oxygen level has dropped 38%.
The view is stellar, unobstructed, expansive and stretches for miles across the northern Owens Valley to the nearby Sierra Nevada, only a few miles away as the crow flies. At the right time of year, the nearby Sierra Range peaks are capped in white.
At the Sierra View Overlook is a broad curving diorama of all the mountain tops you can see. If you’re in a group, this is also the group photo spot. The many tours I’ve led to this mountain top have resulted in exactly that. There are no trees here and very little vegetation, we’re still in the high desert with sagebrush extending up the mountainside to almost the 10,000 ft level. Very little precipitation falls on this mountain top as the White Mountains are are in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Range. The Sierra View Overlook is well-worth the stop.
Leaving the overlook behind, it’s another 2 miles to the visitor center, but a small surprise awaits. At least for myself that is. A small sign around the bend denotes the elevation passing through 10,000 feet and still climbing. White Mountain Rd is the highest paved road in California. Tioga Pass gets close, but never breaks over 10,000 feet. The irony is while Tioga Pass can get massive amounts of snow each winter, this mountain top gets a fraction of that snow, about a 1/3 of what the Sierra Nevada receives. However, the position of the White Mountain Range in the rain shadow of the Sierra produces the ideal growing conditions for the oldest non-clonal organisms on the planet.
Ten miles in, White Mountain Rd turns into a parking lot for the visitor center. The paved road also ends here although White Mountain Rd continues north another 13 miles as a dirt road along the spine of the range to a locked gate near Barcroft Station.
White Mountain Rd is the highest paved road in California at over 10,000 ft
Barcroft Research Station
This research station was built at an elevation of 12470 ft in the early 1950s and can house up to 20 scientists in a 40'x100’ quonset hut. The station has been the site of continued research in the physiological effects of high elevation in addition to the study of cosmic background radiation. The buildings are off-grid and all supported through rooftop solar panels. An additional research station at Crooked Creek is also along White Mountain Rd 10 miles beyond Schulman Grove. A second grove of ancient bristlecone trees is located at Patriarch Grove along the dirt portion of White Mountain Rd.
A few more miles north of Barcroft Research Station on 14246 ft White Mountain, a stone hut was built atop the peak in 1955. The White Mountain Range bumps over the Nevada state line at Boundary Peak. You can ride or drive as far as the locked gate near the Barcroft Research Station. There is a dirt parking area for hikers to base from for the hike to nearby White Mountain.
Open Gate Day
The gate at the end of White Mountain Rd is opened once a year for Open Gate Day. Autos may then drive to Barcroft Research Center which gets you 4-miles closer to White Mountain, however, you should always consult the wmrc.edu website as to if and when.
If hiking mountain peaks above 14,000 ft is your latest mid-life crisis, do some advance research as to when you can fit this hike into your vision board. White Mountain Peak is said to be the easiest hike of area fourteeners, peaks over 14,000 feet.
Summit Hut at the top of White Mountain at Station Hut at14246 ft on Open Gate Day
This graded jeep trail is also popular with high-altitude mountain bikers. White Mountain Peak is the third tallest peak in California, and receives on average 13 feet of snow each winter. In comparison, the Sierra Nevada Range which is so close, you feel you can reach out and touch it across the Owens Valley can get triple that of White Mountain Peak. The Owens Valley beneath the peak is 10,000 vertical feet below making it one of the deepest valleys in North America.
Hiking to the White Mountain Summit is a popular pastime. In 1955, a Summit Hut on the peak was built and has two small rooms used by research scientists. High-altitude physiology, astronomy, and cosmic radiation are studied at the Summit Hut.
The extreme differences between these two parallel ranges in the lack of moisture in the White Mountains produces a desert like climate of extreme dryness. Moisture in the air is scant, although this very dry air produces perfect conditions for stargazers who drive up to photograph the Milky Way. Photographs abound of the plethora of stars in the night skies taken on White Mountain.
In addition to the dryness, high winds are also a calling card of the White Mountain range with the summit on White Mountain Peak recording wind gusts at 162 mph in 2008. While summer temps can be a mild 65 degrees, low temps have reached -26 degrees. The tree line is 11,000 feet and above this elevation, a subalpine terrain of rocky barren soil remains although the lack of trees above 11,000 feet can produce subalpine grassy slopes carpeted in green dotted with patches of snow well into summer. Growing season at this elevation is short lasting mere weeks, generally about 45 days before winter returns, although it can snow any day of the year. Trees in this range all grow between the 7000 – 11,000-foot elevation band. The bristlecone pines are found at elevations 9800 to 11,000 feet and are also located on other mountain tops in Nevada and Utah.
Schulman Grove Visitor Center
The visitor center at Schulman Grove is brand new. In September 2008, a few years after my first visit, the visitor center burned to the ground in a deliberate fire set by an arsonist. Fire crews raced 24 miles to the mountain top from Big Pine but by the time fire crews arrived, the log cabin building had completely burned down. Plans to rebuild the visitor center began the very next day. The resultant present-day visitor center is a delight with open beam construction inside, and wide-open decks for picnics outside, plus there are numerous interesting displays within and always attended by talkative rangers who will eagerly explain the nearby trees.
Inside the visitor center, one of the most interesting displays is a long timeline placed up on the wall to attempt to give you a sense of what events have transpired over the last several thousand years over the life of these trees.
Another nearby display shows a closeup of a whitebark pine cross section with respective dates labeled. You’ll often see these in redwood forests at Big Basin State Park and Muir Woods. Those coast redwood cross sections are often huge, 6 to 7 feet across. However, the physical size of a bristlecone pine cross section on display at the visitor center that sprouted in the year 432 while the Romans were battling one another in Italy is quite small in comparison denoting how slowly these trees grow.
Large murals inside the visitor center were painted by artist Larry Eifert, a landscape artist known for having more art in America’s National Parks and Preserves than any other artist. One of my tour participants got very excited one visit here when he was able to purchase a tiny bristlecone pine tree at the visitor center and bring it home.
Dr. Edmund Schulman, PHD
What’s even more interesting is these ancient trees were only ‘discovered’ in the 1950s. Dr. Edmund Schulman had been searching for ancient trees for two decades beginning in 1939. Schulman’s mentor was Andrew Douglass who also had been searching for ancient trees as a method to unlock recordings of ancient climates, the idea being this climate record could be found in tree rings. Historians were attempting to date Native American structures in the desert southwest. Core samples from timber used by ancient native Americans to build structures at the Show Low site in Arizona were compared to known tree ring samples near the site leading to a successful dating of the site. The success of this new method of accurately dating archeological sites through tree ring patterns would eventually rewrite the timeline of history. Success in dating the Show Low site led Schulman in search of even older trees.
After 15 years of searching, Schulman had reached a wall. It had been commonly accepted by scientists that trees could only reach 1500-2000 years old and their climate studies would end there. Schulman even traveled as far as South America to take core samples from a tree similar to the California Coastal Redwood.
Dr Edward Schulman, PHD
Schulman continued his search on mountaintops in Idaho and Colorado after feeling as though they had reached the BC barrier, or a lack of finding any tree that might break the historical barrier for the birth of Christ. By the early 1950s, samples of a bristlecone pine tree 37 feet in circumference in the White Mountains had been sent to the University of California where the tree was dated to 1500 years old. News of the discovery reached Schulman in 1953. Regarded only as a rumor at the time, he detoured into the White Mountains while returning home to Southern California.
Unbeknownst to Schulman at the time in 1953, 1500 years was a teenager compared to subsequent dating of other bristlecone pines. He hiked into these mountains taking with him a special coring drill bit known as an increment borer. The drill bit is hollow and a thin sample of the tree core could be pulled out without damaging the tree. The tree rings were then counted on the samples. The discovery of the 1500-yr-old Patriarch Tree prompted the forest services to set aside 2330 acres as a protected area in the Inyo National Forest.
By 1957, Schulman successfully dated other bristlecones to 2000, then 3000, then he discovered trees over 4000 years old in the White Mountains. Schulman postulated that while we may easily assume the oldest trees are the biggest growing in ideal conditions such as access to moist soil, his researched showed the complete opposite. It was the trees that faced the harshest conditions that grew the longest. Schulman called them the battered dwarfs. And he showed that the oldest dwarfs outlived the oldest giants.
On this mountaintop around the present-day visitor center, Schulman dated 17 trees that exceeded the 4000-year mark. Nine of these trees were located along the Methuselah Walk. The world’s oldest tree location is kept secret but coring samples are said to have dated the tree as high as 5070 years old and still continuing to grow. Using tree rings to map climatic events, via living bristlecone pines and the fallen wood from long-dead trees, scientist have managed to create a climatic and environmental timeline extending backwards 12,000 years far exceeding Schulman’s findings from 20 years earlier. Weather patterns, volcanic eruptions, fires, and even flood events are all recorded in the tree rings. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean, these trees were already 4000 years old.
The original method of dating archeological finds worldwide such as Stonehenge was through radio carbon dating. Archeologists in the 1960s dated the origins of European civilization by measuring the radioactive decay of carbon isotopes in ancient artifacts. By not adjusting for periodic changes in the earth’s atmospheric carbon levels, this early use of radiocarbon dating showed artifacts to be younger than their actual age. Schulman’s work on counting bristlecone tree rings first, then cross checking their findings with the radiocarbon method re-calibrated the entire scale and proved many early historical dates to be inaccurate. The newly calibrated dates corrected historical inaccuracies and revealed certain key events such as metal working in Northern Europe occurred much earlier than previously thought. Schulman effectively re-wrote the timeline of human history with his studies of tree ring patterns.
At 49 years old, Schulman suffered a fatal heart attack. The article he had been working on at the time of his death about his discovery was published posthumously 2 months later by National Geographic. The U.S. Forest Service in turn set aside 28,000 acres, roughly 43 square miles atop the White Mountain Range where a large majority of the bristlecone trees continue to survive.
The region around the present-day visitor center was named the Schulman Memorial Grove in his honor. When Schulman started his intercontinental quest in the 1930s to find the world’s oldest trees, he likely was not expecting to find them in a place that had very little moisture, extreme wind events, and very poor soil. In effect, he discovered these trees in the very last place he might have initially anticipated. Bristlecone Pines can grow to such unfathomable ages due to these several key factors required for success. The White Mountains are so named due to the color of the soil, known as dolomite, a type of limestone, which is largely alkaline that few other plants can survive in.
What’s more interesting is this 10,000 ft high mountain top used to be the floor of the ocean. The White Mountains are the result of the North American continent colliding with the floor of the Pacific Ocean. As these two tectonic plates have pushed together, they buckled pushing upwards creating these parallel north-south ranges separated by broad valleys like the Owens Valley below.
Alkaline soil is usually comprised of a great deal of sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Because alkaline soil is less soluble than acidic or neutral soil, availability of nutrients is often limited. The lack of these components produces stunted growth as this soil is considered highly deficient of nutrients for plants to grow. What Schulman discovered is the Bristlecone pines thrived in this type of soil. Because few other plants or trees can survive in this soil, the bristlecone pines were able to grow in a competition-free environment. Schulman also sampled tree rings from what appeared to be dwarf trees the size of a small bush and discovered bristlecone pines that were already several hundred years old.
Several walking trails surround the visitor center, and walking up the trails even a short distance will immerse you in these trees. The one-mile Discovery Trail should take about an hour starting and ending from the parking lot. Note the parking lot has an elevation of 10,075 ft. There is 33% less oxygen in the air at 10,000 feet so it’s possible to feel altitude sickness if not used to these elevations. A longer walk from the visitor center is the Methuselah Walk of about 4.25 miles and circles around the 10,600-foot peak to the south of the visitor center. Along either of these walking trails, you’ll not only see living trees, but dead ones too. The dead bristlecone trees do not decay very quickly.
A nearby toppled tree was dated to 3200 years old, but once the core samples were compared to other nearby living trees, it was discovered the tree died in 1676 and is still resting in the same exact place over 340 years later. These trees grow so slowly, a core sample pulled from the trunks may contain 100 years of growth in one inch of tree rings.
While other types of pine trees replace and regrow their needles every 4 to 6 years, Great Basin Bristlecone Pines keep their same needles for nearly 40 years. The wood is pest resistant in the form of a dense, resinous wood that resists attacks from mold, fungus and pine-killing bark beetles. Bristlecone Pines can lose 90% of their bark and still continue to live with only a narrow strip of bark remaining. Many of the trees you see here have no bark exposing a twisted and gnarled appearance, often with a circular twist to the core of the tree. Many of the trees are shaped by the winds atop this mountain. The poor alkaline soil also allows the trees to grow competition free of other tree species and the low undergrowth prevents any fuel for wildfires providing a natural firebreak.
Along the trail, you can often see the original soil line on the base of the trees. More interesting is the level of soil has dropped as much as 3 feet around some trees as erosion over the course of several thousand years has slowly exposed the tree roots.
There is a second grove, Patriarch Grove, 12-miles north of the visitor center accessible via White Mountain Rd, but beyond the visitor center, White Mountain Rd is dirt. Patriarch Grove is found at the 11300-foot level and contains several more of the world’s oldest living trees. The world’s largest Bristlecone Pine is also found here.
Ancient Bristlecone Pines can grow to 5000 years old
Further north along White Mountain Rd beyond Patriarch Grove, the scene devolves into a barren moonscape above the tree line before finally reaching the locked gate nearing the Barcroft Research Station.
Despite the impressive age of these tree in and around Schulman Grove, new trees are sprouting and often marked by a stone border and a small flag to catch your attention. Born 2018, the flag says. In 5000 years, hopefully there will be another twisted gnarled Bristlecone pine tree in this exact spot.
Where to next?
White Mountain Rd is a dead end so this is the end of the line. It was a super-fun twisty ride up; you’ll get to embark on a twisty ride down. The hardest part is keeping your eyes on the road, as the way down to the Sierra View Overlook offers expansive treeless views across the Owens Valley towards Bishop in the valley below. On a clear day, the snowcapped Sierra Range seems close enough to touch. Other times of the year such as in fall, haze may obscure the peaks.
Twelve miles back down the hill leads back to Highway 168. East on Highway 168 heads into Nevada via 6374 ft Gilbert Summit.
West on Highway 168 rolls back through the twisty s-curves through the narrow canyon, back over the whoops and flows back into Bishop.
Manzanar War Interment Camp is south of Independence. Further south of Lone Pine is the Alabama Hills, Mt Whitney Portal, and access to Death Valley via Highway 190.
Directions to OVRO
Located southeast of Bishop, the Owens Valley Radio Observatory is 6 miles from the town of Big Pine. The only public access road to OVRO is via Highway 168, which begins at the northern end of Big Pine. Turn east onto Highway 168. After approximately 2 miles you will cross the Owens River Bridge. One quarter-mile past the bridge, turn left on a paved road, Leighton Lane. The radar dishes are clearly visible 4 miles ahead up the single lane paved Leighton Lane.
Come back to this same spot in 5000 years