We recently visited the Inyo National Forest to hike White Mountain and see the ancient bristlecone pines. Typically when we drive north on highway 395 we are headed to the eastern sierras, this time we made the turn east towards the White Mountains. Highway 168 out of Big Pine winds up out of the Owens valley into the dry landscape of the Inyo National forest. After a few miles there is a turn-off for White Mountain Road. The terminus of White Mountain Road is also the trail head for White Mountain Peak, which at 12000 feet it is one of the highest trailheads in California. After turning off Hwy 168 onto White Mountain Road, we were engulfed by the sight and smell of a juniper woodland. As we traveled further up the road the forest became more and more sparse as the sage scrub began to take its place. At around 10000 feet we came to the bristlecone pine forest.
Bristlecone pines have the distinction of being the oldest known living non-colonial species in the world. Until recently the bristlecone named “Methuselah” was thought to be the oldest of the ancient centennials having 4,847 years under its gnarled bark. However, in 2013 an even older tree was discovered, the tree is believed to be 5,065 years old, which means it germinated sometime around 3051 BC. For a sense of comparison, this is about the same time humans developed the first writing systems in Mesopotamia, and is 50 years after the construction of Stonehenge first began. Walking through these timeworn trees and passing my hands over their bark filled me with such a sense of humility. Our lives are already so short and sweet but compared to a Bristlecone pine human life is a millisecond.
If you ever make your way to the forest, take time to stop in the visitor center where you can learn more about how researchers age the trees. I also recommend the Methuselah trail to the bristlecone mine trail. And no trip to the ancient bristlecone pine forest is complete without visiting the Patriarch grove. The grove is home to some of the most weather-worn and gnarly trees in the park. Take the short loop hikes here and enjoy the red and yellow bark against white rocky soil and robin egg blue sky.
At 14246 ft the summit of white mountain is ranked as the third highest peak in California and the highest outside of the Sierra Nevada. Coming from Riversides 900 foot elevation, we thought it important to acclimatize a bit. Our first night was spent at the Grandview campsite where we were rewarded with an amazing sunset. The sunset was offset by a large thunder head to the Northwest which shrouded the valley in a pink light. Our second night was spent at the white mountain trail head. I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad sunset in the mountains and I was not proven wrong that evening. After a second thunder storm, where we had hail and sleet falling on our heads, the air cleared and the hills were covered with a heavenly golden light. Coming up out of the valley of Southern California I become intoxicated by the freshness of the mountain air. I filled my lungs to try take the air home with me.
The hike to White Mountain peak is pleasant and probably the easiest 14’er you can bag in the US. The trail follows a well graded dirt road. At about two miles the trail passes the Barcroft Research Station. The Station studies a variety of subjects including meteorology and the effects of elevation. My husband had his own theory on what kind of research they do up there, mostly involving a combination of The Thing and The Island of Doctor Monroe.
In some ways the trail is uneventful, sparse, and barren but that is what makes it so unique. I have never been so in awe by looking at nothing in the life. The imposing Sierra Nevada range to the west creates a rain shadow which results in the white mountain range receiving very low rainfall. Due to these conditions the peak is referred to as a “desert” mountain. When visiting the area, it is easy to see the comparison. The land surrounding the summit of White Mountain looks like a moonscape covered in small tuffs of grass. The only inhabitants are the marmots; or are they some alien life form? After about 6 miles of hiking we reached the summit of White Mountain. White Mountain was our first 14er and fittingly checks off number 10 on my 30 for 30 goal. We were rewarded by perfect weather on the summit, and cheese sandwiches.
The vastness of the west never ceases to amazing me. There so much to see, more than a lifetime’s worth. At least now I can check the White Mountains off my list. Although, I did have a crazy idea to traverse the whole range…Boundary Peak to White Mountain? Maybe it was that thin mountain air but what a grand adventure that would be.