If you’re looking for a literal off the road kind of adventure hop on US-395 for a couple of hours then ditch it to visit a forest housing some of the world’s oldest trees. On the third and final day of my Memorial Day road trip my friends and I took a side trip to hike around the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. I was most excited to explore this area of the Owen Valley, the ancient trees have been on my bucket list for some time now.
Ancient Bristlecone Quick Facts
Length: 4.5 miles (7.25 km) RT
Duration: 4-6 hours (account for all the times you’ll be stopping to take photos)
Elevation: 11,188 ft (3,410 m)
Name of the Twisting of the Trees that Grows: Pinus longaeva (Great Basin bristlecone pine)
Oldest Tree: “Methuselah” @ 4,847 years old
Restrooms: Vaulted Toilets available at Visitor Center
Parking: Available at Visitor Center
I’m surprised and yet simultaneously not surprised that this forest of ancients hasn’t risen in popularity to levels that places such as Half Dome or Havasu Falls are known for. Ancient Bristlecone is located roughly 23 miles up CA-168 E right off US-395. That deceivingly short 23 miles is actually a 45-60 min drive up a windy road. The drive also staggers between being paved and unpaved. You won’t need a high clearance vehicle to make your way up, but you definitely won’t be able to drive as you’d normally would on a freeway. Trust me it’s worth the drive.
What to See
After the long drive full of S-shaped turns my friends and I parked by the visitor center and prepared for our final hike for our Memorial Weekend trip. There’s two main hiking trails that will take you to see the unique, twisting trees: Methuselah Walk and Discovery Trail. Both trails are well maintained and some parts even have stairs constructed to help you climb up.
Methuselah Walk is the longer of the two hikes at 4.5 miles roundtrip. It ascends higher in elevation, and makes a south east loop.
Discovery Trail is only a mile long and is a great spot to watch the sunset.
My friends and I did both trails. We started in the afternoon and attempted to find the Methuselah Tree on the Methuselah Walk first –that oldie is incredibly difficult to find! The tree itself is unmarked for preservation reasons. Methuselah is a tough one to spot because the trail takes you right into a grove full of bristlecone trees. I had a relative idea of the location of the tree, however if you decided to venture off trail you’ll find yourself walking against scree and being surrounded by bristlecones that are indistinguishable from one another at first glance. If you think about it having too many bristlecone trees in one place isn’t a bad problem to have. The hike up brings you right up to the bristlecones. Literally you can touch them, but I wouldn’t since some of them looked like they could give you splitters.
Once you’re deep into the bristlecone forest there is a definite WOW factor in everywhere. No matter which direction that you turn your gaze the spiraling, twisting trees will make you wonder if these are really nature and organic or some strange alien plant that sprawled from outer space. My friend Jay described the trees as if they’ve been engaged in a game of extreme Twister for a very, very long time.
Unlike their neighbors in Sequoia National Park the bristlecone are not comparatively tall. The tallest one in the area is approximately 60ft (18.3m) with a girth of 36ft (10.9m.) Next to the more familiar firs and redwoods in California the bristlecone pines are considerably short and stout. Granted I can’t completely belittle their precious stature since they still over us mere humans. For scale here is my friend Sophia in tree pose with one of the 1,000+ year old trees.
As I mentioned earlier the end of Discovery Trail is a picture perfect place to watch the sunset. I spent a good amount of time playing with my Sony A7R II + 24-70/2.8 here. I’d take a quick photograph thinking I was satisfied with my image and later would find myself setting up for another shot several steps down the trail. As the sun went down it transformed all the distant rain clouds into big, pink cotton candy clouds!
To sum up this trip in one word: amazing. California is absolutely an amazing state that has so much diversity within a few hours of each other. In a single weekend I took my friends through a field of dragon scale like rock formations, a froze lake surrounded by snow, and ended on walk through a gnarly forest. If you ever find yourself driving north on US-395 take a detour and visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pines, otherwise where else would you see such twisted plants?
This is Part 3 of a 3 part blog series for Memorial Weekend.
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