The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

View of Owens Valley from the road to Patriarch Cove

View of Owens Valley from the road to Patriarch Cove

Discover one of California’s most pristine and fascinating landscapes. High above the Owens Valley in the White Mountains you can find the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a place so special that I get goose bumps every time I think about it.

Defying the harshest climate, the Bristlecone Pine thrives in a location hostile to life. Growing extremely slow due to the lack of nutrients and water, some trees are nearly 5,000 years old. Wind twists the wood into alien shapes that seem to scream at you. Most trees still stand hundreds of years after dying, as sentinels overlooking the valley to the west.

The forest is one of the few locations in California where you could experience complete isolation. We were completely alone at Patriarch Grove and all I could hear was my heart pounding hard due to the high altitude (nearly 11,000 feet). Not even birds dare to chirp up here.

If you ever had to find your spirit guide, this is where you should start looking, not that I ever would. This remote location inspires such feelings in visitors.

Photographically the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a pure delight. Twisted trees, clear air, blue skies and the thin air robbing your brain of oxygen can bring out the artist in anyone.

How to get there

Your car navigation and even Google Earth may try to send you to Patriarch Grove via Silver Canyon Road, which is a high clearance 4×4 road. Instead, take Highway 168 south of Bishop and about ½ mile north of Big Pine. Follow it for about 12 miles until you reach White Mountain Road (about 13 miles from the turnoff). Take the road to Schulman Grove.

GPS position

Schulman Grove:

Patriarch Grove:

How to photograph the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Giant at Patriarch Grove

Giant at Patriarch Grove

The air is clearer up here and the colors are more vivid. Do not overuse your circular polarizing filter. It tends to be too strong in this kind of atmosphere.  You can get nasty color gradients, especially with the wide field of view of a wide-angle lens.

In the picture above, I am using the shadow of the tree to lead to the main subject of interest, the tree. I had to get very low on the ground and hold my camera nearly level to achieve this effect. Use a very small aperture to enhance the depth of field of your photograph while focusing roughly at the hyperfocal distance (wide-angle shots actually require a little modification of the rule). It may be a good idea to read my article on diffraction as well to know the limits of pushing your depth of field. If all that seems a bit technical, simply take many pictures and change the focus between each photograph. Choose a single focal point if you wish to use auto focus.

If you are in doubt, simply focus on the tree itself (select a proper focal point) and use an aperture of f/16 to get a quality shot without having to get too technical. After all, technical thoughts often distract us from the art itself.

Composition

The most outstanding quality of the image above is its simplicity. Many pictures suffer from overcrowding with no clear definition of the subject. We see a fabulous tree and immediately take a photograph. Slow down and think about your composition first. What caught your attention? How can you isolate it from a busy background to make it stand out? Our mind tends to isolate subjects. We are often unaware of the surroundings. However, when we take a photograph, our camera does pack everything into the two-dimensional space of the picture, and suddenly our image looks too busy.

bristlecone-pine-twisted-wood

Wood of the Bristlecone Pine

The placement of the tree in the upper left quarter of the image and the sun at roughly the intersection of the rule of thirds creates dynamic tension. The shadow of the tree works like tentacles that reel the viewer into the picture and towards the tree and the sun as the center of attention. At the same time, the relative balance between the tree and the shadow, the sky and the foreground create harmony.

While it is important to notice “rules” of graphic design in the field to know what works and what doesn’t, photography often relies on trial and error. Take as many photographs as you can and just select what works on your computer. Let your imagination and your style guide you and pay less attention to the laws of composition that everyone seems to obsess about these days.

The twisted wood of the trees makes a great subject for close-up studies and black and white abstracts.

Best Time of the Day and Best Season

You have better chances of having Patriarch Grove all to yourself when you arrive during the off-season. The White Mountains only receive a fraction of the snow that the Sierras get, but due to the high altitude, the snow may be here for a while. Check the Inyo National Forest website (below) for conditions.

With the sun lower on the horizon, you will get warmer light on the wood and longer shadows that you can use to your advantage. Late afternoon or mornings are best.

Time required

Coming from Bishop, you can reach Patriarch Grove in about 90 minutes. However, there are some scenic vista points along the route and I recommend planning at least 2 hours just for the drive.

Plan one hour or more for photography at Patriarch Grove and up to two hours at Schulman Grove. If your travel plans permit it, I recommend planning at least ½ day for this great location.

Equipment

  • Wide-angle lens
  • Macro Lens
  • Water – my headache may have been due to the very dry air and dehydration
  • High clearance vehicle recommended but not necessary to drive to Patriarch Grove

Fees

The entrance fee was $5 per car in 2006 during my last visit.

Difficulty Getting There

The drive to Schulman Grove is steep and windy. Small RVs should be o.k. The road between Schulman Grove and Patriarch Grove is unpaved but passable in summer even with a passenger car.

Close Locations

  • Mt Whitney
  • Cerro Gordo Ghost Town
  • Owens Lake Bed and Charcoal Kilns
  • Horseshoe Meadow
  • Onion Valley
  • Big Pine Canyon
  • Hot Creek Geologic Site
  • Convict Lake
  • Mammoth Mines
  • Devils Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls Trail
  • Trona Pinnacles
  • Alabama Hills
  • McGee Canyon

Useful Resources


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11 Comments

  1. Rick
    Posted 2009/08/20 at 04:44 | Permalink

    Your article is right-on-target for a near spiritual experience in this ancient forest especially when the extra time and effort are made to visit the Patriarch Grove.

    Very humbling to be in the presence of life that pre-dates the birth of Christ be nearly 3 millennium. Here is just one attempt to capture a moment there.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhorn2/3802995022/

  2. Posted 2009/08/20 at 23:24 | Permalink

    an awesome location with those trees – i bet you could build up a nice series of photographs here

  3. Frank DelValle
    Posted 2009/08/21 at 03:08 | Permalink

    Great photos; especially love the first one. Good tips on composition too. Again, another great post Andre. Thank you .

  4. Posted 2009/08/24 at 08:49 | Permalink

    Looks like a fascinating location. As always, your images are fantastic.

  5. Posted 2009/08/24 at 22:48 | Permalink

    Such dramatic landscape, I especially like your second photo. Beautiful!

  6. Posted 2009/08/26 at 03:09 | Permalink

    I really liked this post – just learning to think about composition myself, and this was helpful.
    regards–ted

  7. Posted 2010/07/15 at 06:37 | Permalink

    hey there,
    great site!
    headed to Ancient Bristlecone to do some time-lapse photography there in mid August.
    any ideas on the weather and whether there will be any clouds or is that time of year flat? best locations/trees or any useful info would be GREAT as we will only have 48 hours tops there and want to get as much as possible in a short time.
    i assume it’s best to photograph at magic hour?
    thanks so much in advance!
    jc

    btw — what is the best hotel you’d recommend if any?

  8. Posted 2012/06/07 at 20:51 | Permalink

    Cool website you have here, and it’s greatly appreciated!

    Hello! I’m a photographer, and have some questions since I’m intending on going to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest some time during the summer, and was thinking of going up to Schulman Grove or Patriarch Grove or elsewhere. Open to suggestions.
    - Where would you say is the most picturesque place to photograph the night sky with the beautiful gnarled bristlecone trees in the foreground?
    - Are there any issues with photographing at night logistically or in terms of curfews?
    - Where’s the best place to stay that’s nearby? I can either camp or stay in a motel…I’m okay either way. Related to that, if I show up on a weekday in the late morning, what are my chances of getting a spot in Grandview Campgrounds?
    - How cold does it get in the evening up that high?

    Thank you very much! This sort of help is greatly appreciated!!!!

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