Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Timeless Trees of the Schulman Grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pines


May 17, 2018
Place: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Big Pine, California
Length:1 mile
Level: moderate

When I planned the road trip with my botanist friend to the Eastern Sierra region I naturally included the White Mountains in our itinerary. Pappa Quail wondered about snow blocking the road but considering the low count of precipitation in the previous months I didn't think that would be a problem. In any case, I wasn't about to get by the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest without at least trying to see it and show the place to my friend.
After a restful night in Bishop we drove south to Big Pine and then turned east toward the White Mountains. Snow wasn't a problem: there was none on the way up. What did slow us down was the pretty display of wildflowers along the road. In a couple of places where there was a particularly pleasing display of colors I pulled over and we got out of the car to explore the flowers more closely.
Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne leanira) on a Brittlebush, Encelia actoni
I was very please to see cacti blooming. Ot always amazes me to see how delicate and attractive are the flowers produced by these thorny entities I dare not touch.
Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii
My friend was pleased with the blooming cacti too, but she was truly thrilled to see the desert mallow in bloom. After seeing it without bloom at the Travertine Hot springs and the photos I showed her of my previous sightings of this plant in spring colors, she was really happy seeing them blooming in person.
Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua
There were many other wildflowers in that pretty roadside spot and also all the way along the road in places where we couldn't stop. If I include them all It'll be a roadside botany pst rather than a White Mountains hiking post, so I keep this part short.
California Primrose, Oenothera californica
Well, except for this one more cactus for which we pulled over on a very thin shoulder in a very narrow canyon pass. It was very high up the cliff but the bright red blossoms clearly visible.
Mojave Mound Cactus, Echinocereus mojavensis 
There was no sign of an snow by the Schulman Grove visitor center. The visitor center itself was closed so we didn't linger, but got to hiking right away.
Well, almost right away, first we had to greet the local squirrel that posed for us by the parking lot.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel 
We selected discovery Trail - a short, 1 mile loop that covers the essentials: wonderful ancient trees along with younger, vigorous ones, sweeping views of the area and of the Sierra Nevada peaks on the west, and early spring wildflowers. Although to view the wildflowers we had to go down on our bellies.
King's Bladderpod, Physaria kingii
While the valley flowers were already blooming beautifully as we've seen on our way earlier, up here in the heights f the White Mountains, spring bloom was at its very beginning. We didn't see many flowers and those we did see were some of the tiniest I've ever seen. Not just the flowers - the entire plants were diminutive.
Popcorn Flower, Cryptantha sp. 

Little birds hopped in the thick-needled pines like fleeting flashes of movement, too quick to catch by eye, let alone by camera. we were luck that at least one of these tiny energized feather balls came out in the open for a few moments while poking for pine nuts. There were other species of birds there, but the only one I got a good image of was the pygmy nuthatch.
Pygmy Nuthatch 
Tiny wildflowers and hyperactive little birds aside, the stars of this place certainly were the Bristlecone Pine trees.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva 
The longest living trees in the world belong to this species. The oldest known tree, named Methuselah, grows somewhere in this grove. It's exact location is kept secret to avoid vandalism.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva 
But even not knowing which of these magnificent trees is Methuselah, we were in complete awe of these trees. Each and every one of them is an impressive individual.
The trail led us uphill. We walked slowly. Very slowly. Taking a close look at each of the trees along our way. Enjoying the clear, cool air.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva 
Many of them look gnarled and weather-beaten. They, as all other plants there, have evolved to withstand the harsh White Mountains weather.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva 
In fact, all the trees up at the heights of the White Mountains are pines, and nearly all are the Bristlecone pines. The few yellow pine that manage to germinate and establish themselves there, never actually reach the size of a full grown tree.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva 
The bristlecone pine is named after the little bristles at the edge of the developing female cones. The female cones take two years to mature and release the seeds.
Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva, mature and open female cone
The Discovery Trail is a short loop. Although we were walking slowly soon we were  at the highest point and started heading back downhill. We came out of the forest, which was't very thick to begin with, and our path took us down a mostly exposed hillside, covered with scree.
There were a few plants there that were not bristlecone pines, nor belly flowers. A few 'fern' bushes grew on the more exposed western slope and we encountered them as we looped our way back and down the trail.
Fern Bush, Chamaebatiaria millefolium 
A few individual pines were growing outside of the main forest area. They looked wide and very impressive.

Looking to the southwest we could see the towering snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada range. On the morrow we would drive up to the Whitney Portal to get some mountain air over there, but on this day we were enjoying the desert scenery of the White Mountains.

The bristlecone pines grow very slowly. The growth season up there is very short and the weather extreme. What looked like small young trees can be a few centuries old.

Because of the dry climate there decomposition is also very, very slow. Dead logs can lie about for millennia before turning to dust.

In fact, dendrobiologist (tree scientists) were able to reconstruct a climatic timeline of the area that goes back nearly 13,000 years by matching tree rings of living an dead bristlecone pines.
Dead but still standing. 
From the final stretch of the loop trail we had a good view of the Schulman Grove. We snacked quickly, then got in the car and started driving up the road to the Patriarch Grove, about 2000 ft higher up the mountain.
Schulman Grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees


  1. thank you thank you thank you thank you for taking me up there!!! such a magnificent place! such wonderful trees!

    1. It was a great treat to show you this place!

  2. These trees are amazing! The flowers are beautiful too :-)

    1. Thank you my friend, I hope you'll get to visit them too one day!