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California’s White Mountains

“The Three Sisters”, Patriarch Grove, White Mountains
(Bristlecone Pines)

Photos from 2004, and July 5, 2007 (photos from 2007)

See also cycling coverage of this area.

California’s White Mountains are one home to the ancient Bristlecone Pines [1, 2, 3, 4], the oldest known trees on earth (or any other planet!). Located across a deep valley to the east of the better known Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains are at the fringe of the Great Basin, so named because all water drains inward, with none escaping.

I offer photo tours to the White Mountains.

Getting to the Bristlecones and environs

Silver Creek Canon Road

An awesome route up into the White Mountains is via a steep 6000' climb up Silver Creek Canyon Road, out of the town of Bishop. Don’t try it with a passenger car or minivan though. If you are afraid of heights you might want to take the long way around via the paved state highway to Schulman Grove. Note to a friend of mine with a distaste for heights: bring a blindfold, I’ll drive, and I’ll tell you when we’ve reached the relatively flat summit.

The 6000' climb up Silver Creek Canyon road (click for larger image).

The drive to Patriarch Grove

After summiting Silver Creek Canyon (at about 10,000'), turn left and follow the road for about 20 miles to Patriarch Grove (or just a few miles to the right to Schulman Grove). Typical terrain towards Patriarch Grove is broad open meadows. The road is gravel and rock, with significant “washboard”.

Typical view along the top of the White Mountains—about 10,000' elevation

Along the way, many wonderful bristlecone pines (alive and dead) can be found in isolated pockets along the way, with none of the human presence seen at the official groves. In fact, one can be quite satisfied photographically never visiting the official groves, as some of these “strays” are every bit as wonderful as their more frequented compatriots. Take the time to explore!

In about 10 miles, you’ll arrive at Patriarch Grove (more below). Never heavily visited, it exists at about 11,000' in elevation. The quiet and peaceful feel cannot be underestimated; the trees grow patiently for thousands of years, and that feel permeates the place.

White Mountain Peak

Continuing beyond Patriarch Grove, the UCSC Barcroft research station is a modest hike beyond the locked gate, and the first waypoint of a strenuous effort to the summit of White Mountain Peak.

Locked gate just prior to the research station with pre-bonk buddy

Had my riding buddy not “bonked” that day, I would have likely completed my valley-floor-to-summit “hard man” mountain bike ride in 2004. As it was, we turned around at about 13,500 feet, and by the time we’d hamstered back to Big Pine, we had ascended (biked) a total of 14,500 vertical feet, worth a few beers, and a damn site harder than the Death Ride, because pedaling a heavy mountain bike up rough roads is much harder than a road bike on pavement (and we were at much higher average altitude). That’s Terry Morse feeling his low blood sugar shortly before the bonk, give his tours a try.

The 14,246' (4342m) White Mountain Peak
(about 3 miles before the Barcroft research station)
14,246' (4342m) White Mountain Peak, from about 13,500'
Cyclists—bring your own beer—none up here at 12,000'

Patriarch Grove

The key thing (!) is to arrive well before dawn for the best photographic lighting (bring a headlamp!). As there is no camping in Patriarch Grove itself, one must be flexible as to lodging. An overnight stay in Big Pine or Bishop is possible, but either of these entails a 90 minute drive (at least) to Patriarch Grove, meaning a 3:00 AM breakfast or lack thereof. There is a campground off the paved highway most of the way up to Schulman Grove, which can shave off 45 minutes or so. Any other alternatives are between you and the US Forest Service. From bishop, taking the Silver Creek Canyon shortcut can also shave off 30 minutes or so from the paved road alternative (well, at least if you drive like me).

Morning Light

Rise early for the best light
Very early morning at Patriarch Grove—warm alpenglow light

Mid-day light

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that all mid-day light will be poor; thin clouds can yield soft and relatively diffuse light.

The northern end of the large Patriarch Grove, about 11,500' in elevation

Evening light

Plan on staying past sunset; the lighting becomes very pleasing in the evening, and the rising of the earth shadow at 11,500' elevation is not to be missed (morning or evening).

Ancient Sentinels at sunset

Dusk and night

Don’t give up once the sun sets. Shoot using artificial illumination as one option; see Headlamps and Flashlights. Or just experiment with long exposures—that’s one major advantage of digital over film; keep trying till it works!

Patriarch on blue / Life’s sunset

Eastern glow at sunset


Abstract forms

If you’re intrigued by animals or “spirit forms” in natural formations, you’ll want to take an abstract eye to things—and there is ample material in this high lonely place (Patriarch Grove and environs). And that’s better than another tired and literal and over-saturated shot of an old tree.

I’ve had little chance to explore such things with the Bristlecones so far, but I plan on indulging in the future. The duck below must have flown up from the Bishop municipal flock near Schott’s Bakery, and run out of food.

Nesting Duck

The warm light of morning doesn’t last long, which is why an early start is important, together with pre-scouting the day before. However, the shot below was taken before sunrise, and so it has a very cool look, refreshing as an alternative.


Wood and weather

The Bristlecones are constantly weathered throughout their lives (weathering all sorts of weather). After their death, they can take multiple centuries to disappear. The resinous wood weathers in very interesting ways, with strong grain and pleasing form. One could photograph dead wood alone for a week, alone.

Weathered Monoliths
Ancient Swirls
Weathered Monoliths

Weather and Wood

Timeless Companions


The White Mountains lend themselves to shooting in infrared, with magnificent vistas in which a black sky stands out against white clouds, weathered wood, and broken rock. See for yourself.

Rock Splitter
Millenias past
White Mountain Vista, looking south from Patriarch Grove


Don’t rush through the White Mountains—there is a huge amount to see, but it’s both obvious and subtle. Plan on 3 days at a minimum to get a feel for places like Patriarch Grove, and don’t forget to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise!

Solitary riser

See also: Death Valley

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