Few places will magnify your sense of time and space quite like the rugged White Mountains. A part of Inyo National Forest, this remote, seldom-visited range along the upper Owens Valley features epic vistas of the Sierra Escarpment, ultra-dark night skies, exposed metamorphic rock, and—oh yeah—the oldest living things on earth! At over 10,000 feet in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, you can walk amidst the oldest-known—and hands-down gnarliest—trees alive on the planet. Among them? “Methuselah,” a roughly 4,800-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine that predates the pyramids of Egypt. (The tree is not marked in order to protect it, so you’re going to have to give it your best observation, and guess!) Trails wend through two ancient groves. Park at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center and hike the one-mile Discovery Trail to loop up a hillside of interspersed bristlecone and limber pines before veering down a barren talus slope of red quartzite rock. The dense metamorphic shards clang faintly, musically, underfoot, like muted pots and pans. Interpretive signs along the way explain facets of this rare geography.
GO LONG: For an extended foray, take the Methuselah Trail, a strenuous 7.6-mile out-and-back hike from the visitor center, or drive 12 miles up a dirt road to the higher-elevation Patriarch Grove, whose namesake tree is the world’s largest bristlecone pine and where an even more alien landscape awaits at tree line (with eastward views of Nevada’s Great Basin).
CAMP: Want to see deep space at a deep discount? Stay overnight at nearby Grandview Campground (camping is free; $5 donation urged); 23 well-spaced campsites with fire rings and tables are nestled amongst pinyon pine and juniper at the foot of a low hill. At night you’ll see why the area’s so popular with stargazers. The 8,600-foot elevation and the absence of light pollution create ideal dark sky conditions—and the adjacent sagebrush flat gives you a wide window on the stars.
Take US Hwy. 395 to Big Pine. Turn east onto CA-168 E. After 10 miles, turn left onto White Mountain Rd. You will pass the entrance to Grandview Campground (at left) before arriving at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center parking lot (at right). The road to the White Mountains closes in winter. Call the White Mountain Ranger Station (760) 873-2500 for information. Dog-friendly!