The Discovery Trail is a short 1-mile loop hike that gains a mere 276 ft of elevation within the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. Although this hike is short, it can still be a challenge since it begins at an elevation above 10,000ft. The trailhead for the Discovery Trail is located at Schulman Grove, right outside of the Ancient Bristlecone Forest visitor center. In this guide, you’ll find driving directions, maps, instructions, and photos to see some of the world’s oldest living trees.
Getting There: Directions And GPS Track
- Your journey to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest will begin in the town of Big Pine California along HWY 395. Big Pine is located just south of Bishop, CA. From Big Pine, take HWY 168 east for 13 miles, then turn left on White Mountain Rd and drive north for 5 miles to reach Schulman Grove: White Mountain Rd, Bishop, CA 93514
- Make sure to start with a full tank of gas from Big Pine and bring all of the food and water you will need.
- The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway will close at the Sierra View Gates with snowfall and/or inclement weather. Be sure to check road conditions before your trip by calling the Inyo National Forest office at 760-873-2400 or White Mountain Ranger Station at 760-873-2500.
- Download GPX
- See track on Strava
- Distance: 1.00 miles
- Elevation Gain: 276 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 10039 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 10315 ft
- Time: 1 hours
- Difficulty: (1/5)
- Dog Friendly: Yes
- Permit Required: No
- Hours: Open 6 am to 10 pm while visitor center is open
- Cost: $3.00 per person/ maximum of $6.00 per car when visitor center is open
- Parking: Large parking area at the trailhead with restrooms and a seasonal visitor center.
- Water: There is no food or water available, so bring everything you need
- Weather: This hike is best done in the warmer months. It can be very cold and windy at this elevation any time of year. Come prepared for cold weather.
- Trail Condition: This trail consists of buffed out single track
- Cell Phone Reception: None
Do you have the appropriate gear for this hike? Don’t hike unprepared!
See my current hiking gear list.
Hike Map And Elevation Profile
The Discovery Trail hike begins at the visitor center at Schulman Grove. The visitor center is open during the summer and offers interpretive programs, a gift shop, and information about the bristlecone pines. You’ll see the trailhead right in front of the visitor center with a fork for the Discovery Trail and the 4.5 mile Methuselah Trail.
This one mile Discovery Trail loop has no junctions are requires no real instructions. In lieu of my usual guide, I’ll be providing information found on the interpretive signs along the trail.
The Discovery Trail starts on a slight grade and takes hikers by a few standing bristlecones and a few fallen trees. As many know, trees create growth rings every year which allows us to estimate their age. There is one fallen tree here along the trail that was 3200 years old when it died! The rings are very tightly packed together in some cases, with over 100 years of growth represented in a 1-inch section.
Being able to look back at thousands of years of growth rings is hugely important for scientists wanting to know about climate conditions in the past. In 1953, a man named Dr. Edmund Schulman, came to this area looking for trees he could study for this exact purpose. His discovery of trees as old a 4000 years old allowed for a new insight into climate patterns that had not been available before.
The Bristlecone Pine Forest is located above 10,000ft in the White Mountains. This area is unique in that it is located between the 14,000ft+ peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the -282ft elevation of Death Valley and the Bad Water Basin.
These trees have evolved to survive in this arid environment with roots that sit close to the surface. This allows the trees to absorb the scarce water and moisture before it evaporates. This arid land is also susceptible to erosion. This area averages 1-foot of erosion for every 1000 years. This leaves roots exposed on older trees and is another measure scientists can use to age living Bristlecones.
When Dr. Shulman began his studies of the Bristlecone trees here, he focused on the north facing slopes. Having also studied Sequoia trees, he assumed that the taller and larger trees were also the oldest trees. He soon discovered that it was actually the smaller, gnarled, and weathered trees that were the oldest.
This part of the Discover Trail is on the southern facing slopes, with views out towards, Big Pine, Bishop, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. This dry and sun exposed slope creates bristlecone pines with a dense and hard wood that is more resistant to disease and insects, leading to more longevity.
The majority of the rocks found in the White Mountains started out as deposits on the bottom of a shallow and warm ocean. Over the years, layers of sand, mud, and shells were compressed into a hard sandstone. As the water receded and plate tectonics pushed plates together, the sea bed was pushed up into what is now the White Mountains. The sandstone was under a lot of heat and pressure in this process, which transformed parts of it into a red quartzite through metamorphism. As you enter the back half of the Discovery Trail, you’ll notice the landscape take on a different form as you pass through this beautiful red rock.
Bristlecone pines are found in high concentration where there is dolomitic soil with a high alkalinity. There are very few plants that can grow and thrive in these environments, which means there is little competition for resources. The light colored soil also keeps ground temperatures cooler which minimizes evaporation.
At the end of this hike, you’ll have a view of Methuselah Grove, the grove that includes the 4.5 mile Methuselah loop hike. In that grove Dr. Schulman discovered the Pine Alpha Methuselah Tree, the world’s first tree documented at more than 4000 years old. If you have some more time, you can also hike that loop. You can also continue driving from Schulman Grove on the 15 mile dirt road to the Patriarch Grove visible in the photo below. Patriarch Grove is home to some of the world’s biggest Bristlecone Pines.
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