The Living Among the Dead
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
This past weekend, we decided to take a camping road trip down to see the famous ancient bristlecone pines – something that had been on our list of things to see for some time.
But first! A haircut after a year-and-a-half of this COVID-hair-don't-care 'do!
I was more than ready to "let go" of last year's locks!
Ok. Back to the main point of our weekend adventure...
We got the camper hitched up and loaded and then we headed down to Mammoth Lakes, stopping at our favorite little BBQ joint on 395 for dinner al fresco along the way.
We arrived in Mammoth in the early evening, so we were still able to set up in the daylight. Since this was more or less a last-minute trip, we weren't able to get a "choice" site for camping – we were basically in a parking lot – but we were only at the site for the purpose of sleeping, so the quality didn't matter too much and the location was perfect.
Saturday morning, we got up relatively early, put on our hiking gear, and filled up our water bladders. I made oatmeal on the stove, my husband made us each a PB&J sandwich, and I sliced up a section of sharp cheddar, then we grabbed some "healthy" crackers and diced peaches fruit cups and some trail mix for our later-on lunches to-go.
The paved rustic road up to the bristlecone forests is very windy and hilly, and is complete with a very narrow one-lane section that literally passes through rock walls on both sides. The road offers some spectacular panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We made a couple of different roadside stops to take in the expanse before we arrived at the first bristlecone pine grove.
I'm afraid a great deal of the magnitude is lost in the photos and it never quite looks as impressive as it does in person.
A couple of miles farther up the road, at around 9600 feet elevation, we arrived at the trailhead for our first bristlecone pine grove hike, the home of the oldest known living tree in the world.
Aptly named Methuselah, this tree is over 4,000 years old, and which specific tree is Methuselah is kept a secret as a means to protect it. All we know is it is somewhere in the section of the ancient forest called Methuselah Grove.
With only around 755 feet of elevation gain in 4.2 miles, the "ease" of this trail is somewhat deceiving. It is rocky and a little bit challenging as we end up hiking up to over 10,000 feet in elevation. Along the road to this trailhead, we had passed a sign that marked the 9,000-foot point, but I had no idea we'd be surpassing 10,000 feet on this hike. I kept wondering to myself why this little hike felt so hard! It wasn't until after we were done and reviewing our stats that we realized the elevation played a role in our hiking abilities.
As we started out on the trail, we bought an informative brochure that provided additional facts and information about the trees, the forest, other vegetation, etc. along the route. I warned my husband that I wasn't going to break any records on this hike because I would be stopping frequently to take photos. So, I allowed myself to take my time on this one and fully enjoy these unique ancient trees, the dead sculptures, and the panoramic views.
Are they pretty? You be the judge. The harsh conditions in which these bristlecone pines live is primarily the cause of their unique growth into nature-defying twists and turns and dead sections joined with living sections all in one tree – a natural survival technique of the bristlecone pines called "die-back."
Something I found particularly interesting about these ancient, weathered, contorted trees was that despite the texture, they were actually very smooth to the touch – at least the trunks that don't contain bark. And if you knocked on them a little, you would find them to be incredibly hard; even the still-standing dead bristlecone pines, called "snags," maintain their density.
My husband pointed out: "You know how they say, 'You are what you eat'? These trees are literally living in the rocks and they are also hard as a rock."
Bristlecone pines are tough. They are slow to grow and slow to decay. The dead snags can remain standing for thousands of years before toppling over. These are a couple of my favorite snag photos from the Schulman Grove hike.
The panoramic views throughout this hike are pretty awesome. Here, we are amongst and above the ancient bristlecone pine forests.
You can hear some of the birds that hang around the bristlecone pines and limber pines. Most of them are eating (or burying) cone seeds or digging for insects who have burrowed into one of the thousand-year-old snags.
A local bird perching atop a snag.
The Great Basin bristlecone pines are not exclusive to eastern California. They can also be found in Nevada and Utah, and the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines are in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. But the oldest trees are in Schulman Grove, right where this hiking trail is.
I cannot believe how resilient and tenacious these bristlecone pines are. Despite all odds, they "thrive" where virtually no other life can survive. And when I say "thrive," I mean they can live for thousands of years in these less-than-ideal conditions. They grow in rocks (calling it dolomite "soil" is being generous), they battle scorching hot desert sun, strong winds, and brutal high-elevation winters, yet they somehow survive with very little moisture. Located in a very dry desert range called the White Mountains, Schulman Grove may receive an average of just 10-12 inches of precipitation a year!
Speaking of moisture, another really interesting fact I learned about is the strategic design of the bristlecone pine needles. If you look at the very tips of a needle, you can see each one has "sub-sections" that come together and form a single five-needle "packet." This design is to maximize the retention of any moisture through pores that line the inside surface of this "packet."
I have also found that many kinds of pine needles can be sharp or pokey. Not those of the bristlecone pine. To combat the dry conditions, bristlecone needles have a smooth, waxy coating which also makes them extremely soft. I enjoyed running my fingers along the branches as we passed by.
How old would you guess this bristlecone pine is?
Believe it or not, it's 100 years old. I've mentioned that bristlecone pines are very slow-growing trees, mostly due to the extreme conditions and short growing season. In fact, it can take a century to accomplish a one-inch thickness of growth!
The root systems of bristlecone pines are shallow and grow laterally, spanning up to 50 feet from the tree. Because of this, the systems are greatly subject to damaging erosion, so there are a lot of exposed roots. It is important that foot traffic doesn't extend off-trail, causing compaction of the rocks and soil, which can jeopardize the tree's ability to obtain moisture from the ground.
Such unique naturally occurring coloring in some of the trunks.
This trail offered a lot of wonderful scenery, as well as the unique "sculpture garden" of bristlecone pine snags all around. But I particularly liked this bristlecone "tunnel" on the trail.
We continued along the Schulman Grove trail and I, for one, was quite relieved when we returned to the trailhead. I had worked up quite an appetite on this trek and was very glad we had earlier packed ourselves a simple PB&J lunch that we enjoyed on the tailgate of the Land Cruiser before we headed up to Patriarch Grove.
The road to Patriarch is gravel and bumpy and it brings us to over 11,000 feet elevation. It's not every day we are up that high.
We parked and got out to walk around the short loop throughout the grove. The first bristlecone you notice is massive, especially after seeing hundreds of snags and lots of die-back in Schulman Grove. Not necessarily the tallest or oldest, but definitely the thickest. It's so notable it has its very own plaque.
Indeed, it is the largest bristlecone pine.
Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in the air, but this place had a very different feel to it than Schulman Grove. Schulman Grove had a very dying, desolate vibe; whereas, the bristlecone pines throughout Patriarch Grove looked lush and full of life. Don't get me wrong, it was still desolate and we saw plenty of snags, but the bristlecones seemed healthier. Look how lush these needles and branches are!
This one has neat coloration, too.
A girl and her slab snag, hanging out at 14,000 feet.
This one was about one-half living and one-half dead, thanks to the die-back survival technique.
Once we had taken in enough of the bristlecone pine scene, we got back into the Land Cruiser and headed back down the gravel road to the next adventure of the day.
A "shortcut" to Bishop, CA, via Silver Canyon Road.
Oh, man. This road was really something. I told my husband that I can't believe anyone would even call this a "road" with a straight face. It's basically a 15-mile really steep dirt path covered in rocks and boulders of varying sizes connected by a series of hairpin switchbacks through a rock canyon.
My husband was driving (obviously) and he ended up putting the car into 4-Low and we just creeped our way down. We stopped a couple of times to allow everything to cool down and rest, especially the transmission. One of those stops was my opportunity to get out and take a few photos of this spectacle of a road.
Quite the terrain. And listen to that wind!
These dirt roads sure do make things messy.
About 7 or 8 miles in, we came across an older model Chevy SUV parked off to the side. A middle-aged man (named Mark) in a white t-shirt with a ponytail held back by a scrunchie was opening the hood when we reached them. The vehicle was being driven by its owner, a long-haired middle-aged woman (named Michelle) who was wearing a pretty, loose-fitting, blue bohemian-style shirt and it was clear this was not her first time dealing with car troubles. In the backseat was a young woman (named Abigail).
Through some small talk, we learn that Michelle is local to Bishop and is well-acquainted with Silver Canyon Road, and that the battery in the SUV is brand-new, despite the vehicle being completely dead on this ridiculous road. My husband gets out to help them jump their vehicle, unfortunately without success. We sit a while longer and allow their battery to charge up and then jump it again. Nothing. This went on for maybe 30 minutes.
We are in a spot where there is no cell reception. It will be difficult – not to mention expensive – to get a tow in this location. We offer to help pull their SUV into a position where they could essentially "coast" downhill. We also offer to give them a ride into town. In the end, they decide that we should give Abigail a ride to town and Mark and Michelle will stay with the vehicle. Then Mark heads uphill a ways in an attempt to get cell service so he can call for a tow.
As we are clearing space in our backseat for Abigail, Michelle is overly apologetic and feels terrible how she's interrupted our day. I told Michelle, "Don't worry. This happens about twice a month for us. We don't mind one bit."
She tells us we are two angels and then follows it up with, "I can't believe I'm sending Abigail off with two complete strangers." I assured her Abigail is in good hands.
We take off (creeping) to finish the second half of Silver Canyon Road, which does eventually level out and open up to numerous water crossings. Michelle had told us that they saw around 17 big-horn sheep (and some babies!) on their way up this road, so we were keeping our eyes peeled for any sightings. Sadly, none.
We ask Abigail if she's from Bishop originally, and she explains that Michelle is from Bishop, her dad Mark is from southern California, and she is from northern California. She mentions something about living in a particular NorCal town for school. I tell her I didn't get a good enough look at her to judge her age, and I ask her if she's in college, or what. She tells me, "That's okay. I'm sort of fun-size, so it's hard to tell how old I am." This coined phrase, "fun size," makes me laugh and I tell her I might very well steal it.
We learn that she had plans to become a geologist, but once she realized it would be many years before she made good money, she changed her major and graduated from college last year with a civil engineering degree, instead, and has been working for a firm ever since. It was quite refreshing to come across a young person with such level-headed thinking!
She asked us to drop her off at one of the grocery stores in town, and so we did, and then we filled up with gas and headed out toward Lake Sabrina, our next adventure of the day.
So, Lake Sabrina. Technically, a reservoir. I've only seen it in some photos online, and the mountainous backdrop was impressive to say the least. Currently, this reservoir is very low, so the lake was none too impressive, so you kind of have to use your imagination a little bit, and if you squint, maybe you can see the beauty.
We also turned onto a road that led to North Lake, which wasn't much to look at, so I didn't even take any photos. On our way back from North Lake, my husband spotted this gushing waterfall down below the road, so we made our way that direction, parked, and wandered down the boulder trail to check it out.
Not a bad little impromptu stop.
Since Sabrina and North Lake were kind of a bust, we headed over to South Lake (also a reservoir). We climbed up and over a giant rock outcropping to get a clear view. The lighting was really nice, and here is my favorite shot of South Lake.
We eventually made our way back to our site at Mammoth and my husband built a nice little campfire – something we make a point to do whenever possible, since 99% of the time, campfires are prohibited everywhere out here. It was super cozy and a great way to wind down at the end of a long day!
The next morning, we got up, I made oatmeal on the stove again, and then we packed up our site and hit the road. We took a route that goes through June Lake Loop, which is such a pretty area.
And we spotted this huge waterfall above a neighborhood that we thought hard about finding a hiking trail to get to, but in the end, we decided maybe we'd had enough adventures for one weekend.
Schulman Grove (Bristlecones)