Chances are, if you have any sort of social media presence, you’ve seen with increasing frequency some sort of picture of people, tents, or both laid out artfully in front of tall mountains and crystal blue lakes. And, if you’ve seen these photos and there wasn’t a caption, you probably wondered where these lakes were, and if the photos were photoshopped. These lakes are the glacial lakes of the Big Pine basin, specifically located off the North Fork of Big Pine Creek; and for the most part, there is no photoshopping of the photos of these lakes – they actually do look like that way in real like, with brilliant shades of cerulean blue. The lakes popularity, however, precedes social media, as the trail up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek has long been one of the most popular destinations in the Inyo National Forest. As a matter of fact, the only thing unknown – and unspectacular about these lakes is their names. For unknown reasons, the lakes – and the waterfalls along this trail were given generic names – “First Waterfall”; “First Lake”; “Second Lake” through “Seventh Lake”. My personal suggestion for hikers or backpackers visiting the area – call them whatever you want, because they are amazing.
Before there were any of the superstars that grace magazines, social media postings, and every aspect of modern day life, there were a smaller series of stars of early Hollywood that first America, and then the world knew. Out of this group, by far, the most infamous was Lon Chaney. While Lon Chaney has somewhat disappears into the mists of history, in his heyday, he was well-known as “The Manof a Thousand Faces”, and turned in iconic performances as the Phantom of the Opera, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, among many others. Although there are many interesting facts about Lon Chaney, one of the more little-known facts about him is that he had a 1,288 square foot cabin built in the Inyo National Forest. While Lon Chaney is long gone the cabin remains to this day, and is a great halfway point for a day-hike through some of the more pristine wilderness in the Eastern Sierra.
Although California has its share of natural - and unnatural disasters, it also has some of the greatest biodiversity present on the planet; and some of the most impressive examples of biodiversity are the types of trees present in California. California has the world's tallest tree; and the world's largest tree (the General Sherman). California also has some of the world's oldest trees, Bristlecone Pines, which are also the oldest trees in North America. The largest concentration of Bristlecone Pines can be found in two spots in the White Mountains of California, in the Schulman and Patriarch Groves of the Inyo National Forest.
Directions: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located in the White Mountains, which is a remote area of California. The Forest Service, which manages the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest has provided some great directions here to Schulman Grove. From Schulman Grove, it is another twelve miles on a graded gravel road to Patriarch Grove. Before you go, however, you should know couple things about the White Mountains: 1) While the total distance from Big Pine to the Schulman Grove is only 23 miles, the roads are single-lane, windy mountain roads. This means that even under ideal conditions, it is about an hour drive one way; 2) The White Mountains are high – quite high, over 9,000 feet, topping out at White Mountain, which is over 14,000 feet. A majority of the White Mountain Road is above 6,000 feet, which means that during a large portion of the year, part, or all of the road is inaccessible, as it is covered with snow and ice. In particular, the road from Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove and beyond to the Barcroft Station is usually inaccessible and unplowed well into June or July of most years. While these conditions are great for snowshoeing or cross country skiing, they are not good for driving; 3) While the White Mountain Road from Schulman Grove to the Patriarch Grove is graded, it is unpaved. The conditions on that road vary depending on the season; and on when the Forest Service has graded/conducted repairs upon it. While it is passable at times in a regular car, at times AWD or 4WD is required. Depending on the season, judge the conditions accordingly before setting out in your car, as the area is quite remote, and does not have cellular coverage.
The Schulman Grove has an interpretive trail that winds through some of the Bristlecone Pines, the Methuselah Loop Trail. The trail is named for the oldest bristlecone pine, Methuselah, which is over 4,700 years old. It can be difficult to judge a large amount of time like this, so to put this accomplishment in layman's terms, this tree sprouted while the Egyptians were still constructing the pyramids. This tree has lived through the major events of the human race; and has had to survive the climactic changes that have passed through the White Mountains on a yearly basis, from droughts to storms, as well as insects, fires, and the occasional earthquake. If that isn’t amazing, I’m not sure what is. Then again, if you don’t find it amazing, maybe you don’t like trees – or history – or both.
The 4.5 mile long loop trail begins at the Schulman Grove parking lot. Although the trail is relatively flat, with only 800 total feet of elevation gain, it starts at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet. Because of the high elevation, this hike can be difficult for people who have traveled to the Schulman Grove for a day, even though it is not a challenging hike based on the mileage. For purposes of perspective, Big Pine is 3,989 feet elevation; so a day visitor will gain some 6,000 feet in a matter of hours if they head up to the Schulman Grove by car. In my opinion, even if you do not want to hike the entirety of the trail, you should hike a portion of the trail, as it allows you to experience the desolation that these trees have survived and thrived in for thousands of years; and it also allows you to get up close and personal with some of the living organisms on the planet, meaning that you can see the what the effects are of hundreds of years water, wind, and sun on the trees. For visitors that have the time, the Patriarch Grove is located twelve miles to the North of Schulman Grove on the unpaved portion of the White Rim Road.
Trivia. Out of the three unique trees in California - tallest, oldest, and largest, only the General Sherman (the largest) is known and readily accessible to the public. The tallest tree is unmarked, and hidden somewhere in Humboldt State Park, and Methuselah, the oldest bristlecone pine has also received the same treatment from the Forest Service.
Poetry about Bristlecone Pines (Not written by me). I grow in dolomite soil/facing harsh elements./My thoughts live for thirty years/with minimal nutrients./Your wild fires will consume me,/but I grow in spite of you./My bark is decimated,/Yet I will weather it through./Strong winds spread innuendos/of weakness, sickness and death./But winds do not contemplate/what inspires my current breath./The forest seems so clueless/in assuming I am dead./I am not dead already,/I am already dead.