High in the White Mountains of California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sits Patriarch Grove, home to the world’s largest bristlecone pine tree. Patriarch Grove rests at an elevation above 11,000ft, and requires 13 miles of driving on an unpaved dirt road. There are two .5 mile hikes at Patriarch Grove, the Timberland Ancients Trail and the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail. In this guide, I’ll provide directions, photos, maps, and instructions on combining these two hikes for a 1-mile figure eight loop.
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 the visitor center at Schulman Grove. From Schulman Grove, you will see drive 13 miles along a dirt road to Patriarch 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
Although the drive from Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove is only 13 miles, it can take 45-60 minutes depending on the condition of the road and the vehicle you are driving. This is a well maintained dirt road, but can be very rocky in certain areas. High clearance is recommended, and four wheel drive might be needed after a rain. I have a body-on-frame SUV that can maintain a comfortable speed on such roads, but if you’re driving a unibody SUV or sedan, you’ll want to take things slow and steady.
After your 13 mile drive, you’ll arrive at a loop parking area for Patriarch Grove. The Timberland Ancients Trail begins on the west side of the loop and the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail will begin on the east side of the loop.
- Distance: 1.00 miles
- Elevation Gain: 227 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 11324 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 11408 ft
- Time: 1 hour
- 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.
- 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
Timberland Ancients Trail Description:
This figure eight loop hike begins on the Timberland Ancients Trail and then finishes on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail. From the parking area of Patriarch Grove, look west towards an interpretive sign to begin the hike.
Early in the hike you’ll pass a memorial plaque to A.E. Noren, an influential ranger that discovered the Patriarch Tree. This tree is the largest bristlecone pine in the world. This discovery drew the interest of scientist Edmund Schulman, who you can learn more about on The Discovery Trail hike at the Ancient Bristlecone Forest visitor center.
While standing on the trails here at Patriarch Grove, hikers are viewing a small piece of the Great Basin. The Basin is an area of mountain peaks and deserts that extend all the way to Utah’s Wasatch mountain range. Bristlecone pines can be found adorning the highest peaks and ranges in the Great Basin.
Millions of years ago, this area was a wide spreading subalpine forest with a wide variety of pine trees. The advancing glaciers of the last ice age cut away at that landscape and left behind the isolated patches of trees on mountaintops we see today.
The bristlecone pines that grow in this harsh alpine environment have a stunted and gnarled appearance to cope with the extreme weather of the timberline. This growth pattern is called krummholz, the German word for crooked wood.
The harsh winds of Patriarch Grove make seed germination a difficult process. This is where the resident bird plays a major role. The Clark’s nutcracker is a bird that caches seeds in the soil of the area. Any seeds that are not retrieved as a winter or spring food source can grow into future bristlecone pines.
The two prominent pines that live in Patriarch Grove are the bristlecone and limber pine. The limber pine is easily identified with its lighter bark and longer needles.
After a brisk .5 mile loop, this hike ends all too soon and you will see the parking area come into view. Once you reach the parking area and restroom, walk across the parking lot and you’ll see a sign to your right for the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail.
Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail Description:
The Cottonwood Basin is a small part of the larger Great Basin. The Cottonwood Basin is filled with forests, meadows, and streams. Unliked the dolomitic sedimentary rock found in the White Mountains, the Cottonwood Basin is dotted with outcrops of granite. On this short loop hike, you’ll climb a short incline and get a bird’s eye view of the Cottonwood Basin below.
Start on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail by walking east, away from the parking area. You’ll pass by a few bristlecone pines before reaching a rocky outcrop of limestone.
There are a few steps cut into the trail here, so hike up and over towards the bristlecone pines.
From this point, you’ll have a great view of the Cottonwood Basin below. Once you’ve taken enough time to enjoy the views, continue walking forward as the trail leads ahead. You will soon hit a hairpin turn and begin walking back towards the parking area and White Mountain.
On the trail back to the parking area, you’ll pass by a few large and ancient bristlecones that seem to tell a different story with every view.
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