White Mountains: Ancient Quiet

 Ancient Bristlecone Pines are the oldest trees on the planet

Ancient Bristlecone Pines are the oldest trees on the planet

 Bristlecone Pines at night

Bristlecone Pines at night

It’s a long drive to get to the White Mountains, and it’s dry and hot.  The only trees look like they’re dead, but it keeps out the uninitiated, and quiet is guaranteed. If you want to get away from it all, and then look down on it, the White Mountains are for you. There are plenty of spots along White Mountain Road to turn off and look down onto the Owens Valley, nearly 10,000 feet below. On a clear day, you can see from Lone Pine to Yosemite.

The White Mountains are ancient, with rocks dating back to the Precambrian period, some 700 million years ago. The range is dominated by 14,252 ft. (4344 m.) White Mountain Peak, which casts its shadow into Utah. At the top of the peak is the Summit Hut laboratory - the third highest research facility on the planet - operated by the White Mountain Research Station.  The station is used for high-altitude physiology studies.

The final little bump (no offense, Nevada) on the north end of the ridge is the highest point in Nevada -- 13,146 ft. (4007 m.) Boundary Peak.

The mountains are home to bighorn sheep, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees, Native American and mining history, and an ultimate challenge for mountain bikers. 

State Route 168-East is the road to the range.  Starting in Big Pine, it winds up and over Westgard Pass, where a left turn onto White Mountain Road leads into the range. The road is steep and sharp and rises to over 10,000 ft. in elevation quickly. 

The paved road ends at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and Visitor Center at Schulman Grove, about 10 miles from the pass. There are two trails that can be tackled here; a short 2 miler up a hillside covered in the gnarled trees eons old, or the Methuselah Trail, a longer and more strenuous outing that takes hikers through the oldest of the trees, including the 5,000+ year old Methuselah Tree.

The trees are surreal, sculpted by winds, the exposed grains are as smooth as marble. Twisted limbs and trunks and small purple cones, the trees are like nothing you’ve ever seen. The trees flourish best, and live longest, in the harshest conditions; little water, north facing slopes, growing out of pure rock, and a regular diet of gale force winds are ideal.

The rugged dirt road continues near the crest of the mountains and forks.  Take the high road if it’s open, and arrive at the turn-off to Crooked Creek Research Station, 10 miles from Schulman. Further up the road is the Patriarch Grove -- home to the largest Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees.  A locked gate blocks the road just below 12,400 ft. (3780 m.) Barcroft Station and Laboratory, another facility managed by the White Mountain Research Station. The road/trail continues to the summit.

 Bristlecone Pines thrive in harsh conditions

Bristlecone Pines thrive in harsh conditions

The White Mountains are made for mountain bikes, that is if you can get used to the altitude. Even hardcore mountain bikers can get skunked in the rounded hills. The now defunct White Mountain in a Day race was considered the hardest mountain bike race in the states - maybe the world - in its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Riders would start in the Owens Valley, travel up steep Silver Canyon and onto White Mountain Peak (and a token lap on top of the Summit Hut, the true highpoint) and then back down -- that’s more than 20 miles and 10,000 feet of gain, one way.

There are Native American artifacts, like obsidian chips and house rings, scattered throughout the range.  They are very photogenic, but please do not disturb any of the objects, and don’t remove anything -- leave no trace, so that others may enjoy this pristine, lightly traveled area for decades to come.

Mike Bodine has been reporting on the small town news and gossip of the Eastside for more than 15 years.