Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Schulman Grove Discovery Trail

Dead Sentry Tree and the Sierra Nevada
1 mile loop, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Inyo National Forest Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest recreation fee required

Gnarled and lonely atop the arid White Mountains of California, the bristlecone pines of Schulman Grove are the oldest known living things on earth. The Discovery Trail visits a particularly scenic stretch of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Inyo National Forest and while it doesn't pass by Methuselah- the oldest tree on the planet- you'll see plenty of 4000-plus year old trees, including the iconic Dead Sentry Tree, perhaps one of the most photographed trees. The stunning views of the Sierra Nevada across Owens Valley make this an even more rewarding hike. Despite fairly easy stats, the hike can be a bit challenging due to elevation- the entire trail is above 10000 feet. This is the easiest way to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and visitors should not miss out on seeing these incredible ancients.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains is a long way from any large metropolitan area, although it's not that far from the town of Bishop, which is the largest population center in Owens Valley. Las Vegas is 4 hours away, Los Angeles 5 hours, and the Bay Area at least 6 hours of driving away. I hiked the Discovery Trail during a summer trip to Mammoth Lakes with Anna. From Bishop, we followed US 395 south to Big Pine, turning left onto California Highway 168 at the very northern edge of town. We followed Highway 168 for 13 miles into the White Mountains, entering a narrow canyon where the road reduced to a single lane in spots. At the junction with the White Mountain Road, we turned left and followed this paved road 10 miles north along the crest of the White Mountains past stunning views of Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada to the right turnoff for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center, just before the pavement end. We parked in the visitor center lot, which had room for over 30 cars. We stopped by the visitor center first to learn about the grove and to pay the entrance fee for visiting the forest (Federal Recreation Passes are accepted here).

Multiple trails branched out from the visitor center into this grove of ancients. The Methuselah Trail, a four-mile loop which visits the oldest currently known non-clonal tree on the planet, is likely to interest most visitors, but as we arrived with limited time in the afternoon, we chose to hike the Discovery Trail instead, a shorter loop that visits the first bristlecone pines discovered to be over 4000 years old. The Discovery Trail started on the north side of the parking lot, across from the visitor center.

The Discovery Trail started off with a series of gentle uphill switchbacks through the bristlecone pine forest. The bristlecones at the start of the hike are not terribly impressive compared with what was to come. Here, the trees tended to be taller, straighter, leafier, and thinner: in other words, they looked far more similar to the traditional idea of a tree than their beautifully grotesque elders do. The Sierra Nevada on the other side of Owens Valley was visible from the start, although views would improve as we ascended.

Sierra Nevada and the bristlecone pines of Schulman Grove
As we gradually ascended the hill above the visitor center via switchbacks, the trees became more gnarled, trading their striaght trunks for increasingly spherical clusters of branches. These more wizened trees are typically older than their more put-together looking counterparts: the slow growth of these trees promotes a denser wood that in turn enhances the trees' longevity.

In the White Mountains, the soil erodes at the rate of about a foot per millenium; thus, the degree of exposure of a bristlecone's roots can hint at its age. Using this metric, it's easy to tell that some of the trees here are well over 3000 years old. 

Aged bristlecone pine with exposed roots
Among the oldest bristlecone pines, many barely cling on to life. What initially seems to be the dead trunk will often have just a few inches of live bark supporting small patches of needles and cones. 

After a steady ascent via switchbacks over the first third of a mile of the hike, the trail arrived along the spine of the ridge; here, the trail ascended via stairsteps along the ridge amidst some of the oldest and most spectacular trees in the grove.

Ancient trees atop the ridge
Schulman Grove is named after Edmund Schulman, a dendrochronologist from the University of Arizona who first measured the incredible age of bristlecone pines at this very spot in the White Mountains. Before Schulman arrived in the White Mountains in the 1950s, the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada were thought to be the oldest living trees: after all, the largest trees on earth, which were known to exceed 3000 years, had something to show for their extended age! The wizened, windswept, and stubby bristlecone pines were not initially thought to match sequoias in age. However, as dendrochronology- the science of using tree rings to establish a record of environmental changes over millenia- took off in the 1950s, Schulman came to the White Mountains to check out the bristlecone pines. On this very ridge, Schulman took a core of a tree now known as Pine Alpha and to his amazement counted over 4000 rings- the first recorded tree over four millenia old! By taking cores from long-dead trees here that had been well preserved by the dry and harsh climate, Schulman was able to construct a dendrochronological record spanning the past ten millenia. Pine Alpha is not identified for its safety, but is one of the trees that is found atop the ridge along this very trail.

Ancient trees near Schulman's discovery site of Pine Alpha

Bristlecone bark
At just over a half mile from the trailhead, we reached the high point of the hike. Here, the trail crossed a gully where the rock underfoot transitioned from limestone to some metaigneous rock. Bristlecone pines grow especially well on limestone: in fact, the presence of limestone at high elevations in the Great Basin is a unifying factor between where these trees are found here in the White Mountains and further in the east in the Snake Range of Nevada, which together represent two of the most significant occurences of these trees. Bristlecones were scattered across the limestone slopes but the forest abruptly ended when we crossed onto the talus slope of red rock.

Sierra Nevada and the Schulman Grove on limestone slopes
Although the trees along the trail ended briefly, there was still much to see from this high, 10500-foot perch in the White Mountains. The grand Sierra Nevada and its soaring granite crest rose to the south and the west, towering above the desert floor of Owens Valley that lay between the Sierra and the White Mountains. Looking south we could see Sierra giants like Mount Williamson, the pyramidal guardian peak of Manzanar; the range stretched out of sight, culminating at Mount Whitney before fading down to the Mojave Desert.

The most impressive part of this Sierra view, however, was clearly the Palisades, a granite wall rising to the southeast that culminated in 14249-foot North Palisade, the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada. Multiple permanent snowfields filled the cirques beneath the peaks of the Palisades; the most impressive of these ice bodies is the Palisades Glacier, which simultaneously has the distinction of being the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada and one of the southernmost glaciers in the United States. Much of the view of the glacier was blocked from this angle by Temple Crag, a rock monolith lying beneath North Palisade, but it was still exciting to catch a glimpse of one of the final remnants of the incredible geological phenomena that shaped much of the Sierra Nevada.

Palisades and the Palisade Glacier
As the trail began to descend the rocky talus slope, we came upon two isolated bristlecone pines that were well separated from their limestone-loving brethren. The uphill tree still sported a healthy complement of needles, while the lower tree was clearly dead. However, this lower tree- known as the Dead Sentry Tree- had a particularly twisted and gnarled look, with each branch spiraling skyward from its rugged base. This exceedingly pictureque tree is undoubtedly the most photographed spot along this hike and is also one of the world's most famous and visually recognizable trees, even if most people are unaware of its name. Although often mistaken for being Methuselah, the oldest tree on earth, Dead Sentry is in fact dead and not the oldest living tree.

Dead Sentry Tree

Dead Sentry
Past Dead Sentry, the trail continued to descend before heading south to return towards the visitor center. The final stretch of the hike had just a few bristlecones, most of which were less noteworthy, although there were still plenty of views uphill to the numerous bristlecones that we had seen earlier along the ridge. The trail brought us back to the parking lot to wrap up the one-mile loop.

This is one of the shortest and most easily accessible hikes for seeing bristlecone pines anywhere and both the trees and the mountain views along this hike are beyond spectacular. While hikers who are game for more may prefer more intense hikes in the White Mountains, all visitors to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest should walk through this grove once and marvel at the tenacity of life. Don't miss out if you're visiting the Eastern Sierra.

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