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  • Writer's pictureMick McMurray

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Updated: May 19

Bristlecone Pines on a hillside with cloudy skies
Bristlecone Pines

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a protected area in the White Mountains, is located just east of the Owens Valley and can be accessed from Big Pine, California via US 395. To get there, take Hyw. 168 East and then turn on White Mountain Road. We stay at the Grandview Campground, which is 17 miles from Big Pine on White Mountain Road. The campground offers 23 first-come-first-serve sites with no hook-ups or other services, so be sure to come prepared and pack out your trash. Please note, there is a one-lane section on the road with a blind curve, so large RVs and trailers are not recommended. The campground is located at an elevation of 8,600 feet.

Car at the campground under a tree
Our site at the Grandview Campground

From the campground, it's a 5-mile drive on paved roads to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center at the Shulman Grove. Along the way, you will be able to enjoy beautiful views of the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra.

Sunbeams in the valley with a cloudy sky
The Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley

The Schulman Grove offers two trails, Methuselah Trail, and Discovery Trail. The Schulman Grove is home to a remarkable stand of ancient Bristlecone pines, including the Methuselah tree, which is considered to be the oldest known living organism in the world at over 4,800 years old. The Methuselah Trail, which winds through the Schulman Grove, offers visitors a chance to experience these incredible trees up close and learn about their history and ecology. The Discovery Trail offers vistas of the gnarled, weather-beaten forms of these trees. Visiting the Schulman Grove, Methuselah Trail, and Discovery Trail is an unforgettable experience that offers a glimpse into the ancient and enduring natural history of our planet.

For even more breathtaking views, continue on to The Patriarch Grove, which is 12 miles away on a graded dirt road. There is nothing in between, but the grove offers picnic tables and restrooms. The Patriarch Grove is home to a stunning stand of ancient Bristlecone pines, including the Patriarch Tree, the largest bristlecone pine located on an interpretive trail that is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. The trees in this grove are truly remarkable, with twisted and gnarled trunks and branches that have been shaped by thousands of years of harsh weather and environmental conditions. Hiking through the Patriarch Grove is like walking through a living museum, where each tree tells its own story of endurance and survival. The elevation at the grove is 11,000 feet.

Photographing the Bristlecone Pines and the Milky Way in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a dream come true for any landscape photographer. This remote and rugged environment provides a perfect backdrop for capturing the beauty of these ancient trees and the stunning night sky above. The twisted and gnarled forms of the Bristlecone Pines create a unique and fascinating foreground for any Milky Way shot. The darkness and clarity of the sky in this area make it ideal for astrophotography, allowing photographers to capture the Milky Way and other celestial wonders in all their glory. We have gone up to both The Shulman Grove and The Patriarch Grove at night many times. Sometimes you are there by yourselves and sometimes there are other photographers in the area but it is always a peaceful experience.

Most of my Milky Way exposures are taken with a 2.8 aperture, ISO of 3200 to 6400, and between 20 to 30 seconds. I just experiment and take test shots to get the correct exposure for the conditions. I don't go over 30 seconds on the exposure or the stars start to blur. It can be tricky getting the lighting correct. I use a small flashlight for the light painting and for the wider scenes I cut up a plastic cutting board to hold in front of the light to eliminate hot spots. Sometimes I light the scene on the same exposure as the milky way and sometimes I take 2 exposures. One for the foreground and 1 for the Milky Way and combine them in Photoshop.

Photo gear for Milky Way photos can be seen in the Photography Gear Guide

Next: Searching for Sky Rock


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