After mulling over a side trip from Mammoth Mountain, I figured I’d head down to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Near Big Pine, California, swing by Lone Pine California and the Alabama Hills and then pop down to Death Valley, stop by Scotty’s Castle (at least) and then make it back to Mammoth Mountain tomorrow with a night most likely spent in Lone Pine at the Mt. Whitney Portal Hostel. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it all off in two days but there were 6 days until it was time to fly out of the Mammoth Lakes airport to head to Costa Rica for a week.
I left Royal Pines Resort in Mammoth somewhere around noon and hit the road down toward Big Pine. All the gas stations in Mammoth Lakes, June Lake and Lee Vining (right outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park) rape you for gas and are up to $1.00 more than an average market price. Bishop is the nearest “city” where gas prices are somewhat reasonable. Fortunately I had enough in the tank to get to Bishop to fill up. Prices in Mammoth Lakes were in the $4.45 range per gallon while in Bishop they were $3.69 at the Vons.
Around 2:00pm I started up the steep narrow drive from Big Pine up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. An earlier start would have been nice! Along the way to the visitor center I stopped at the Sierra View Vista Point to snow a few photos. There were a few trees that looked like Bristlecones there as well as some fantastic views of the valley and the mountains down below. There was a little outhouse there I took advantage of as well. A few miles after that, the visitor center for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest appeared down a short road on the right side.
An arsonist burned down the real visitor center a few years ago so there is only a temporary trailer in place now. The visitor center is located right by the Shulman Grove of Bristlecone through which the Methusela Trail winds around for about four miles. In addition to the trail through the Shulman Grove there is a discovery trail that covers about a half mile and goes through a nice sampling of some pretty cool Bristlecone Pine trees. The Methusela trail is a bit strenuous while the Discovery Trail covers a couple hundred feet of elevation gain but is a pretty easy hike (at 10,000+ feet).
Before I could get started with the hikes, it was necessary to stop in the visitor center to show the national parks annual pass. About 45 minutes later I walked out of the visitor center after conversing with the rangers about the Bristlecones, the Sierras, relationships and travel, and road tripping for over a year! It must have been about 3:45 before the hike through the Shulman Grove along the Discovery Trail actually started. The air was cool, the sun was hot and the elevation was high. The hike up to the top of the discovery trail was a bit strenuous at such a high altitude but it wasn’t very long to not a big deal.
The sun was in a better position to photograph the Bristlecone Pines along the Discovery Trail than it was to photograph the Methusela trail, hence the reason to hike the Discovery trail first. Any Bristlecone Pine Tree is an impressive sight. It’s hard to imagine standing in front of something that has potentially been alive since around 3,000 BC and rather amazing to get a chance to photograph these ancient living things. The Discovery trail is a rocky trail. The dirt and rocks underfoot aren’t always very stable especially when taking a step or two to the side of the path for a better photo. Some of the best trees in the Schulman Grove are along the Discovery Trail and you can get shots of the Bristlecones with the mountains and valleys off in the distance along the short Discovery Trail so it is definitely worth the hike!
At some point along the Discovery Trail it hit me that it would be too lake to get good photos of the Bristlecone Pine Trees along the Methusela trail. As a result, the short hike along the Discovery trail took up most of the rest of the afternoon. There were some awesome trees to photograph glistening in the sun, the yellows and other wood tones shining bright in the sun. The greens of the live branches of the Bristlecones added to the photos, as did the deep blue skies. Clouds in the background would have been nice but there were none to be seen.
Once the hike along the Discovery Trial was complete it was time to make a decision. It was quite a drive to get up the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. I could stay in the (totally dry, as in no water available at all) Grandview campground which would require a drive about 5 miles back down the road up to the Bristlecone Forest, I could head down to Lone Pine to try to get a bunk at the Whitney Portal Hostel or I could head up to the Patriarch Grove, another 13 miles at a higher elevation along a dirt road and then make a decision.
In the end, the drive to the Patriarch Grove won out. There were some cool sights along he dirt road up to the Patriarch Grove and I stopped a few times to get some shots on the way up. Much like the views along parts of the Discovery Trail the road to the Patriarch Grove offered scenic views of Bristlecones with mountains and valleys in the background. While the road up to the Patriarch Grove was all dirt and rocks it was pretty easy to navigate up to about a mile or so from the parking area at the Patriarch Grove. At that point there was a sign warning of a great big snow bank in the middle of the road up ahead.
At that point I parked, hopped out of the car and hiked a quick mile over to the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail that goes through a portion of the Bristlecone Patriarch Grove. By this time the sun was starting to set and there was a large mountain off to the West that cut the sunset short. Before the sun went behind the mountain I was able to get to the Cottonwood basin Overlook Trail and get some decent photos of the Bristlecones. Once the sun was gone it came time to decide what to do for the night again. In the end I decided to just sleep in the car to minimize the amount of time driving and save a bit on gas and lodging.
The temperatures were dropping fast and for a while it looked like I’d be the only one up there sleeping among the Bristlecones. Soon a pickup truck with a cap on the back pulled up. A woman whose name I can’t remember got out. At first I wondered if she was a ranger of some sort coming to tell me I couldn’t sleep in the car but she was just an outdoor enthusiast from Bishop getting an early start on some morning hike tomorrow. I was eating Pop-Tarts and pasta out of a can. She was cooking something and offered to feed me. I stuck to the Pop-Tarts and canned pasta but did take her up on a few glasses of wine. She had a really cute dog too.
After we finished a few glasses of wine and what we had for dinner we headed back to our vehicles and went to sleep for the night. It took me a while to get to sleep, partly because it was cold (right around freezing) and it was uncomfortable sleeping in the drivers’ seat of the car once again. Eventually I did drift off for a little while with the CJ Performer blanket (from the heydays of affiliate marketing) over me. At the end of the day I met some cool people and had some interesting conversations but didn’t’ cover anywhere near as much ground as I’d hoped to. Tomorrow I’d get a chance to explore the Patriarch Grove and then go hike the Methusela Trail.