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  • Writer's pictureJason Sheck

Mammoth Lakes, the Ancient Bristlecone Pines, Silver Canyon, and some lakes (kind of)

US HWY 395 runs from the Mojave Desert in Southern California to the Canadian border in Washington. The stretch in California runs through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain that North America has to offer (think Death Valley, Mount Whitney, Mono Lake, etc.). One of the points of interest along the way is the ancient Bristlecone Pine forest just east of Bishop, CA in the White Mountains. To make a weekend of it, we drove the Land Cruiser (sorry, Jeep can't pull the trailer) and pulled our travel trailer to Mammoth Lakes on Friday afternoon. Of course we stopped at one of our favorite roadside BBQ places along the way - Mountain View BBQ in Walker, CA. The trip is about 3 hours of driving that took us 155 miles south of home. The Walker River was flowing more than when visited a few weeks back, which was nice to see considering how dry a year it looks like we're going to have.

We arrived at Mammoth Mountain RV Park which only had "standard" spaces available which basically meant a parking lot with electrical and water hookups. Our water hose barely reached the spigot, but after repositioning the trailer, it worked out. We actually took the hose into the trailer on Friday night before bed because I wasn't sure if it was going to freeze overnight.

On Saturday morning we left the trailer in Mammoth Lakes and drove south to Big Pine, CA. From there we took a narrow winding road up to the Bristlecone Pine forest. The road was paved all the way to the Schulman Grove. The Patriarch Grove was another 12 miles on a gravel road that had a lot of rocks and bumps. There is definitely a heightened risk of tire puncture/cut here, especially for passenger car tires.

We paid for a simple brochure at the Schulman Grove visitor center which really made the 4 mile hike through the grove interesting and informative. I've captured some of what we learned along the way in the commentary to the photos below. There are literally groves of trees that are 2000-3000 years old, and at least one that is over 4,800 years old. The oldest documented tree in the grove (Methuselah, named after the person in the bible that lived the longest) is not identified for its protection. The brochure indicated that dead Bristlecones can stand for centuries. Note to future visitors, Bri and I live at about 6,500 feet, but we noticed the elevation here, it's over 10,000 feet.

On the way back to Bishop from the Patriarch Grove we took Silver Canyon Road. This road goes directly down the mountain and is very steep. Overall it's not too rough, but you have to pay attention to how hot your brakes get. We stopped twice before eventually creeping down in our low range gears without a foot on the brake. This road does not require 4x4 when it is dry (and now snow), but a low gear range made driving down it much easier than riding the brakes the whole time. I would recommend an all terrain tire too, or at least an aggressive highway terrain. I wish we would have had the Jeep here, it would have felt at home. Half way down the mountain we came across a vehicle that had broken down. We tried to jump start them and charging their battery, but nothing worked. Ultimately we took one of the party with us down into Bishop where she had cell service and could call family. It's always nice to help someone, and good karma for when we're the ones with trouble.

Just west of Bishop are a few well-known lakes that make a lot photos on the relevant Facebook pages. We stopped at Lake Sabrina, North Lake, and South Lake. Lake Sabrina had been drawn down for maintenance the prior year, and with a below average winter, it was VERY low in terms of water. It didn't look like the pictures we had seen. North Lake was a fisherman's lake, but not much to look at. Though, at the end of the road to North Lake is a very nice tent camping campground. We also stopped at South Lake. I'd say South Lake was my favorite stop on the lakes portion of our trip.

Whenever possible, we take a different way home than to the places we visit. On Friday we were focused on making it to the RV park and stuck to the main roads. On the way home we took the Mammoth Scenic Loop, which takes you through a mature alpine forest, and the June Lake Loop, which takes you along June Lake, through the cute little town of June Lake, and along some steep rocky mountains. As we got closer to home, we ordered takeout from the best burger place in Minden, NV - Minden Meat and Deli. We ate our burgers at a fun and well-kept park at the center of town. It was Mother's Day so there were all kinds of people out enjoying the thick green grass of the park (a somewhat rare ground condition in the area).

What did I learn?

The paid version of GAIAGPS has a view that shows a satellite image taken within the last few days. The view helps me know if we're going to encounter snow at higher elevations so I can choose routes accordingly. The view of Lake Sabrina proved to be accurate in that it was pretty empty of water. In addition, standing among trees that are thousands of years old, including at least one that was over 4,800 years old, is an experience that reminds you how small we really are in the picture of time.

There is no route worth posting for this outing. Points of interest include:

  • Mammoth Mountain Resort

  • Schulman Grove and Methuselah Grove (basically same location)

  • Patriarch Grove

  • Silver Canyon Road (4x4 with low gear range only)

  • Lake Sabrina (Bishop, CA)

  • North Lake (Bishop, CA)

  • South Lake (Bishop, CA)

After setting up the trailer at Mammoth Mountain RV Park we made our way to the ski area. I hadn't been here before, and for the most part, it looks like any other first-class mountain resort in California, like Heavenly and Squaw Valley. To be clear, this image is the lodge, the village is down in town, which is connected to the area by two gondolas. I noticed some really nice mountain bike trails as we drove up to the lodge, and the terrain looks great! Might have to come back.

Saturday morning we made our way down 395, filled up with gas in Bishop, CA, and continued south to Big Pine. Just before town we headed east into the White Mountains and followed the signs to the Bristlecones. The road was in good condition and wound its way up the Canyon.

Looking back to where we came from, if I spun around 180 degrees you'd see the end of the pavement, and the road to the Patriarch Grove.

There are groves of these ancients spread throughout the Great Basin area, and beyond. The trees used to cover large swaths of the Western US, but changing climate conditions over the past millennia have limited the areas they can now exist.

Of note in this image is the harsh terrain, but the light color. This area is brutal in the winter, followed by extremely dry summers. For some reason the trees found in these harsh environments live the longest, a natural anomaly. The light color of the rock (Dolomite) is relevant because it keeps the soil measurably cooler during the dry season, preserving precious moisture for the trees. Not many other plants to compete with the Bristlecone Pine. Two include the Mountain Mahogany and Limber Pine.

In addition to the age of these trees, the fact they are partially alive, and partially died off, is an incredible adaptation. The dead part is referred to as "die back" and results when the root or heart of the tree is damaged for some reason, typically from unusually severe drought, fungus, or fire. Dead Bristlecones trees can stand for centuries due to their very dense and resin heavy wood. The standing dead Bristlecones feel more solid than concrete when you knock on them.

Bri read that the needles form a cup on the end aimed at capturing as much moisture as the tree can, when it comes. The needles are soft and waxy. The waxy texture is also said to conserves moisture.

This "young" tree is about 3' tall and standing by itself looking over the grove below. Weather and climate make a significant difference in how quickly these trees grow, but it can take as long as 100 years to grow 1" of thickness for a Bristlecone. I am not sure this tree is 100 years old, but the brochure led us to think that.

The brochure we obtained refers to these Bristlecone Pine groves as a natural sculpture gardens. Maybe this picture explains why?

Some 12 miles up a rough gravel road from the Schulman Grove is the Patriarch Grove. When you leave the pavement just past Schulman Grove there is a nice reminder to check your spare tire and cell phone coverage because a tow beyond this point is a minimum of $1,000. I am glad we didn't have to find out what it actually costs...

Not sure why they're called the White Mountains...

The Patriarch Grove was my favorite of the two. The trees seemed healthier and larger. A short trail wound its way through the grove and provided more useful knowledge about these trees. For example, it's common for these trees to be found in bunches. Why? Because the Clark's Nutcracker (a bird), caches seeds from the tree for use during winter and spring. If the bird never comes back to the cache, the seeds have a chance of sprouting, typically in bunches.

These trees are at higher elevation than we're used to hiking and being active in, and during our hike at the Schulman Grove, we felt it.

Instead of taking the paved curvy road off the mountain, we took a much shorter, steeper, and all around sketchier route down Silver Canyon Road. Our brakes got hot so we eventually wound up in 4Low, creeping down the mountain. It worked well. This road is not all that rough, but 4Low is needed to creep down the mountain under control.

Lake Sabrina. With so many "lakes" in the Sierra actually being reservoirs, there is always a chance a weak winter leaves you without water. This unusually low reservoir is actually the result of two things - drawing the water down in 2020 to do maintenance on the spillway (part of the dam system), followed by a weaker than average winter in terms of snow.

North Lake turned out to be a bust for photos, but there is a neat tent camping campground at the top of the road. On the way back we noticed a waterfall down in the canyon below us. We parked along the road and hiked in to find this falls.

South Lake wasn't as low as Lake Sabrina, but you can still see exposed shoreline at the water's edge.

Back at camp, showing off the fun doormat my parents gave us for Christmas of 2020.

Part of living in the West is living with wildfire risk, and often without campfires. It was early enough in the season for us to have a fire, so we did!

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Pam Settergren Hauer
Pam Settergren Hauer
May 14, 2021

Interesting to learn about the Patriarch grove of old, old trees. I was surprised at all of the snow still in the mountains.

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