Ancient Bristlecone Forest: Patriarch Grove & the Largest Bristlecone Pine in the World
I can’t believe that in California we have two of the biggest trees in the world and a few of the oldest living trees in the world as well. The former can be found in Sequoia National Park, and the latter can be found in the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. These trees sit at right around 11,000 feet, and because of that, they have adapted to survive at such high altitudes. To see this particular grove, which has the largest Bristlecone Pine, you need to drive 12 miles down a dirt road and reach heights of up to 11,300 feet. Here is all the information so you can check it out for yourself.
- 12-mile dirt road, may need 4WD after rain
- Plan on at least a half-day to get there and back, starting from Bishop
- The two trails here are about 1-mile total round trip and 100 feet of elevation
- This information is from my visit in 2016 and 2020
- Read about all of my favorite Highway 395 stops here
From Bishop, you will head south to Big Pine. There you will see signs that direct you up the mountain to the Bristlecone Forest. It is about an hour to the visitor center from Bishop, as it is a lot of uphill on small windy roads. From the visitor center, you will continue to drive to the Patriarch Grove, which is 12 miles along a dirt road. This section is another 45 minutes to an hour each way, depending on the state of the road.
If you do not like driving on a dirt road or have a low clearance car, you can just do the hikes they have at the visitor center, which are also great. You can read about them here.
When I went, the road would have been technically accessible with a two-wheel drive car, but it would have been slow going, and I imagine that based on the weather, there are times when it would be not open to a car like this. I would recommend just asking at the visitor center what the road conditions are, and if they recommend not going, then just hike around the center where there is a lot of fantastic trees to see. When we made the drive, it was easy to follow and nice and bumpy all the way to the Patriarch Grove.
What sets this grove apart from the one at the visitor center is how desolate the area is. This is the top elevation that these trees can live at, and it looks like some type of lunar landscape. This grove is about 1,200 feet higher than the forest at the visitor center.
After reaching the grove, you can park in the dirt lot, which has a pit toilet and then head out on one of two different trails, Timberland Ancients Trail or Cottonwood Basin Overlook.
Timberland Ancients Trail
I headed out on the Timberland Ancients Trail first, which left from the west side of the parking lot.
Almost immediately, I got to the Patriarch Tree, which is the largest bristlecone pine in the entire world. I will say, this was a massive tree, and it looked a lot less gnarled then some of the others along this path.
You can walk around and look at it from all angles as the terrain is mostly just loose rock with little else growing on it.
The pathway is relatively easy to follow as it is rock lined, and every 150 feet, there is a small plaque that talks about the area and the plants.
I found this to be informative, and I looked forward to each one, which is rare for me with these types of discovery trails. These trees and how they live in this landscape was just fascinating.
The path continues along on a mostly flat walk, and around each bend, there are more and more unique trees. I, for one, liked the trees that didn’t have many leaves and had gnarled limbs spiraling out of them.
This trail ends at the bathroom after about .3 miles, and from there, you can head over to the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail.
Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail
This trail is a half-mile round trip, but it does gain a little elevation. This incline might not seem like a lot, but remember that you are at 11,300 feet, so altitude like this can be tiring. Just take your time though, and it will be fine.
The trail heads out from the parking lot, and after about 100 feet, it starts to head up.
Along the way up, there are a few more twisted trees that stick out of the landscape, and that provide fantastic photo opportunities as you are walking below them.
The view back towards the parking lot and the other trail is nice as you continue gaining elevation.
After about a quarter of a mile, you will reach the top and receive some grand views of the surrounding basin. I found the views to be a little anti-climactic, but that is most likely due to the hazy sky, and cloudy weather was moving in when we were there.
From here, the trail heads down the other side of the hill as it is a loop trail. I found this section to have the best collection of trees in the area.
My favorite tree was located right at the base of this hill. It must have been a favorite for others as well since there was a bench situated right next to it that I took full advantage of.
You can see the parking lot from this location, so you simply take the trail back to the lot. Do remember that from this spot, you are a good hour and 45 minutes from Bishop, so note that when planning other adventures in the area.
I loved my time at this grove. It was a beautiful spot and one that is not visited very often for a national forest. It is a stark contrast from the landscape you see even 1,000 feet below at the visitor center. Do be sure to research the road conditions before setting out as you don’t want to risk any car issues just to see the grove. Let me know if you have been in the comments and what you thought.