Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bristlecone Pines, California

A visit to the White Mountains in California to see the bristlecone pines is sure to be an unforgettable experience.  Everything about them is amazing; their spectacular location, their strange shapes, and the statistics about their age.

There is a good, paved road to the visitor’s center, but I was on my annual spring camping trip and we like to find more adventurous routes.  We took the 4WD Silver Canyon Road from Bishop to Patriarch Grove.  The road has four stream crossings and switchbacks up the mountain from 4000’ to 11,000’.

At the top this sign announces the entrance to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, but there aren’t many trees around, and several more miles of driving on a dirt road will finally get you to Patriarch Grove.

This is a typical scene at Patriarch Grove.  The Bristlecone pines survive in incredibly harsh surroundings.  They grow in alkaline soil that discourages competition from other plants.  They thrive at the tree line in extremely cold, windy conditions, and the area is closed in winter.  Their surreal shapes often include a mix of dead wood and living tree.  Sometimes a narrow strip connecting a root to the crown is all that remains alive in a tree that looks like it died centuries ago.

Great Basin bristlecone pines are the oldest living single organisms on earth!  One recently dated tree here in the White Mountains is 5064 years old.  Its location is secret.  Think of that… many of these trees have been alive for thousands of years before the birth of Christ!

The trees grow extremely slowly because of a lack of water, dry soil, cold temperatures, and short growing seasons.  Their wood is extremely hard, and after death the exposed wood does not rot.  As a result, snags can stand for centuries and their fantastic shapes are created by wind erosion.  The wood is sandblasted and eroded like rock.

This tree took my breath away when I saw it.  I found myself talking to it as I walked around it with my camera.  “You’re beautiful – gorgeous!  You have incredible curves!”  I think I had been out in the desert too long.

Photography is so much fun with these amazing trees.  Their fantastic shapes are irresistibly surreal.  The best days for photographing landscapes of the area will have good sunlight and fluffy clouds, but exposure can be tricky.  HDR is a good tool to pick up detail in the bright clouds while balancing exposure on the trees.  A wide angle lens can be used to exaggerate the bizarre shapes and angles of the eroded snags.
When the fluffy clouds obscure the sun, it is a great time to look for closer photos of wood grain and twisted branches.  A macro lens and tripod is a good choice if you want to get really close.
Black and white is also a great choice to show the wood grain or to show the trees against dramatic high elevation sky.

If you decide to visit the Bristlecones, it is best to be acclimated to the high elevation, especially if you are coming from very low elevation.  So, spend a couple of days in the Bishop area before trying the White Mountains, and don’t overdo it until you are sure you are acclimated.  Be sure to stop at the new visitor’s center at Schulman Grove.  There are more bristlecones to see there and on the strenuous Methuselah Trail.

Please note that all photos are copyrighted and must not be used without my permission.

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