Bristlecone Pine Forest

Distance: 46-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 6700 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

As with all the rides in Bestrides situated along Hwy 395, I encourage you to read the “Eastern Sierra” section of our By Regions page, to put this ride in context.

This is one of the Eastern Sierra rides I drove in my car. But I want to talk about it anyway, so you’ll know about it. For a lengthier discussion of the issue, see the By Region‘s “Eastern Sierra” section. Odd that there’s a “Best of the Best” ride I haven’t ridden, but there it is.

This is a huge ride, bigger than anything I could do in one go. It’s easy to break into two rides, either one of which is a major ride by itself. If you do it all, I’m willing to bet it will be the hardest 46-mile ride you ever do in your life. It has a ton of climbing, made much harder by the elevation, which tops out at 10,000 ft. Even though I haven’t done it, I think it’s the best ride in the Eastern Sierra, for a number of reasons:

1) It has the most interesting road contour. The other big climbs around Hwy 395 are typically straight roads with monotonously unvaried pitch—this one climbs and drops and serpentines back and forth.

2) It has the most varied landscape—not necessarily prettier than, say South Lake Road, but at least 4 distinct ecosystems, including the world-famous bristlecone pine forest;

3) It has the best vistas. Like the other big climbing rides in the area, it has jaw-dropping vistas of the Owens Valley below, but the other rides have as a backdrop the White Mountains to the east, which are unprepossessing heaps of brown, while this one has as a backdrop the incomparable Eastern Sierra ridges to the west;

4) The thrill factor is unmatched. The last 4 miles of the ride out plus the first 4 of the return may well be the most electrifying (read: terrifying) riding I’ve ever seen—without doubt, this rides goes to 11.

Before doing this ride, make sure that the roads are all open and the Visitor Center at Shulman Grove is open. Also, ask yourself about your threshold for acrophobia and fear of falling, because you’re going to be doing some steep descending on narrow, twisting roads with world-class drop-offs and no guardrails.

To see the good bristlecone pines (and you want to), bring walking shoes, because there are no visually striking pines right by the Visitor Center—see below for an explanation.

This is the only ride of any interest in the 395 corridor that is on the east side of the highway. Start at the intersection of Hwy 395 and Hwy 168E. There’s a parking lot there, by the little kiosk with information about the bristlecone pines and other features of interest in the area. I encourage you to read the literature to get your bearings. You’ll be guided by signage to the bristlecone pine forest all along your route.

Looking down on White Mountain Road and ridges to the south

The first 13 miles are on a highway, and because it’s a major artery running east from 395 you’d expect it to be a large, busy, characterless shoulder ride. I don’t know how busy it is in high season (I drove in on a weekday morning in late September and saw a few cars only), but as to the other fears, at first you’re right (see photo at end of post). The first few miles are a dead flat dead straight boring slog across the Owens Valley flats. Then it gets better, and better, and better… As always in such cases, I give you permission to drive those first miles and start riding when the terrain and road contour interest you.

Looking west at Bishop, California, and the Eastern Sierra—double-click to appreciate

After the flats, you enter a canyon that is at first fairly uninteresting—dirt hills with scrub brush. But the further you go the deeper and more dramatic the canyon gets and the more serpentine the road contour, until finally (and absurdly, considering this is a “major” highway) you’re riding between wonderful rock walls on what is essentially a one-lane road. Just before our turn-off you pop out onto a kind of mesa and the road goes big again.

At mile 13, turn L onto White Mountain Road—there’s a prominent Bristlecone Pine Forest sign there. What has so far just been a good ride is about to get cosmic. By the way I don’t know anything about Hwy 168 past the turn-off.

Bristlecone pine

There is much confusion among sources about how much of White Mountain Road is paved. The answer is: for 10 miles, to the Shulman Grove Visitor Center. The road continues on for miles and miles, but it’s dirt beginning at a few feet past the Center.

White Mountain Road is a small, winding, steep road. Immediately upon turning onto it you find yourself in a new ecosystem, the pinyon-juniper woodlands. There’s an informative board in a turn-off on your L a stone’s throw from the intersection explaining what that means. You can pass the time during the next miles practicing telling the two kinds of tree apart.

The pinions and junipers are thick in here, and after a while it becomes a bit boring riding between walls of them, so you’ll be happy when you leave them behind and break out into a open hillside that gives you staggering views of the valley below and the Sierra ridgeline to the west. I can’t think of another vista on Earth that can beat it. Soon you pass a formal vista point, Sierra View Vista Point (clever name), but there is no need to stop because you’re going to get vistas that are as good or better for the next 4 miles and you can stop anywhere. The vista point does have one of those boards identifying the individual peaks on the horizon, but I found it incomprehensible.

Near the top of White Mountain Road

The last 4 miles, from here to the end of the road, is a truly extraordinary, and potentially terrifying, stretch of riding. The road clings to the open sidehill, constantly climbing steeply and serpentining back and forth, with a 5,000-ft drop on your L side and no thought of a guard rail. This is a good time to ask yourself, Do I really want to come down this thing? If not, turn around. I wouldn’t do it without disc brakes, at a minimum. Remember, on the ride up you’re on the inside lane, on the descent on the outside—much scarier.

Ride to the Shulman Visitor Center. It’s a classic Visitor Center, full of all the information you could possibly want about bristlecone pines, the oldest living things on earth. It’s spanking clean, because the old Visitor Center burned to the ground not long ago and was rebuilt. There are three loop hiking trails, and you will need to walk at least 1/4 mile on one of them to see any good pines—(ironically) the bristlecone pines around the Visitor Center are too healthy to take on the famous gnarly look we all think of when we think “Bristlecone pine,” because they’re in too protected a spot. Bristlecone pines need abuse to get gnarly. So come prepared to do a bit of walking.

Descending the top of White Mountain Road

The Forest’s mascot is Meth- uselah, the oldest known bristlecone pine, checking in at 4700 years old and constantly referred to by the Center staff as the “oldest living thing on earth.” If you google “oldest living thing” you’ll see there’s some controversy about that, but anyway, if you want to see it you’ll have to walk 4.5 miles from the Visitor Center (with significant elevation gain, at 10,000 ft elevation). I contented myself with looking at photographs.

Starting the ride: doesn’t look like much

The return ride is hard for me to imagine—46 miles of almost uninterrupted descending, much of it steep, much of it serpentining on a narrow road with a world-class drop-off and no shoulder or guardrails. Don’t do this unless you have complete faith in your brakes. If you do it, drop me a note and tell me how it was.

Shortening the ride: Do White Mountain Road only. Or if you don’t relish the dangers of WMR, do E Hwy 168 only.

Adding miles: I can’t even discuss it.

2 thoughts on “Bristlecone Pine Forest

  1. Tom Kenney

    At one time, there was an organized ride which circumnavigated the White Mountains: US-6 north to NV-264 south to CA-168 west to US-395 and back to Bishop.
    I’ve ridden CA-168 East from NV-264 to Westgard Pass, which included crossing Gilbert Summit and Deep Springs Valley. Gilbert Summit is less interesting road-wise, but has great views. The grade up from Deep Springs to Westgard is through a canyon of shattered black rock, and is a bake-oven!

  2. James P Thurber

    I’ve ridden this magnificent road multiple times–on motorcycles. I intend to try it next Spring on my current bicycle, which uses a Rohloff hub and has an extremely low climbing gear (whew!). Thanks for a great write-up on this amazing trek.


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