The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is my favorite non-national park. It’s located in a National Forest, so the hype is approximately 1% of a National Park. But it’s no less amazing, and in fact the lack of crowds make it a more sublime experience, especially in the evening light. See my photos here.
The national park system is a quintessential example of the double edged sword. Most of the most amazing natural places get made into National Parks. But then the crowds come and it’s impossible to have a nature experience, even if you can get a campsite.
The National Parks crowds seemingly are unaware that there are a lot of cool places that are not National Parks. The Eastern Sierra, Adirondaks, Green Mountains, San Jacinto, the PCT (the AT is actually a NP), Austin’s Hill Country, the San Juan Mountains, etc– stuff that’s on par with the quality of National Parks but just a bit more obscure. Even Joshua Tree has only been a National park for 20 years now. So lack of National Park Status does not mean the place isn’t amazing.
So go ahead, find a park on the NPS website, an awesome resource. Just remember places like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest will never turn up there. I only heard about it in May, even though I’ve driven right past the turnoff a bunch of times. But once I saw some pics of the Bristlecones, and learned they were the oldest trees on Earth, I just had to go. And it’s hard to believe I’d been missing out on this place…
National Parks do have some advantages. Indeed if the Bristlecones had been in a National Park, they couldn’t be cut down, something that actually happened to the oldest known tree a few decades ago by an unlucky and now infamous researcher… and it happened with forest service approval. In fact that event led to that grove of trees in Eastern Nevada being designated a part of a national Park- Great Basin National Park.
Why do I love the Bristlecones so much? First off, Ancient is one of my favorite words. I love to say it. Also, I really like old things: old cities, old cultures, etc. So trees that are almost 5000 years old? Yes, I like that. Add to that the White-Inyo mountain range is one of the oldest in the world, and you have all of the criteria for a righteous non-park.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pines are gnarled old ugly trees. However, they are the toughest living things on earth- survivors of the inhospitable dry White Mountain climate and its poor soil, and what is more, they are the longest lived things in the world. Tough.
Bristlecone pines are not huge- they are just old. They live so long because their wood is so hard- basically making them impervious to bugs and fires. Picking up a piece of deadwood is shocking- it’s so heavy. The dead wood never decays either, so the rings of dead Bristlecone wood have been used to make a climate record going back almost 10,000 years.
Not only does the wood not decay, but sometimes the dead trees don’t even fall over. It’s kind of ridiculous. Half the trees in the Biistlecone forest are dead, and may have been dead already thousands of years. Also some trees are half alive. Bristlecones can cut off nourishment to parts in dire circumstances-like say an ice age. So when you see a tree, it’s maybe half dead, but the other part is totally alive. And 5000 years old.
Like an alpine climber, Bristlecones don’t love the poor weather (and soil)- it’s just that they can deal with it. And so they climb (live) where no one else can. Sure they’d like better conditions in the valley. It’s just too crowded down there.
Though the Whites are so old, White Mountain Peak is the 3rd highest in California-it’s big due to volcanic uplift. It’s also the Easiest California 14er to summit, only a 14 mile round trip and 3000′ gain. But easy doesn’t mean it’s not amazing or beautiful.
The topography is so different from the Sierra that it’s striking. The Sierra are just across the valley clearly visible- the best views are indeed from the Whites. But while the Sierra is full of steep valleys, granite and hard rock, the Whites are mild, dusty, volcanic and even drier as the Sierra catches all of the ocean precipitation before it makes in inland. But while the lack of weather means the range is not so rugged, the colors in the Whites are way more beautiful. And the rolling hills mean a less dramatic, but a more pleasant vibe. Photographers take note. And start planning your trip.
p.s. The Owens valley in the Eastern Sierra does have 2 spots managed by the National Park Service: Devil’s Postpile (where I’ve not yet been) and Manzanar, which is an incredibly sobering monument at the location of the Japanese Internment Camp. See my decently long string of thoughts on Manzanar from the first time I visited here (search Manzanar- it’s about 3/4 of the way down).