Road Trip

Lone Pine & Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Friday, September 8, 2017

We finished some errands we had to do in the morning and packed a picnic lunch and the car with our camping gear. By about noon we were on the freeways, heading north out of the San Fernando Valley on I-5. We ate our sandwiches on the windy CA-14 and made it through Mojave, CA and onto the US-395 N.

We decided to stop at Fossil Falls, a place we had driven by in the past several times yet had not stopped. (This is, or was, a stop on the Caltech Undergraduate Ge 1 Field Trip.) Despite the heat (about 93 º F) we hiked the short distance from the gravel parking lot to the edge of the ‘fossilized’ dry falls, a carved cascade of smooth basalt descending perhaps fifty or one hundred feet, and admired the view of the dry riverbed below, stretching out hundreds of yards before us. It was too hot to clamber down the rock face, and we had better things to do than risk a broken leg, so we got what photos we could and switched drivers and were back on the road.

We made it to Tuttle Creek Campground, a BLM campground about 5 or 7 miles from Lone Pine. (If you use Google Maps, do not take Granite View to get there because there is a false road in their map data and Granite View does not connect to the campground. Instead go back to Horseshoe Meadows Road and go north a block to the sign designating the entrance to Tuttle Creek Campground (left or west). Also getting into town via Horseshoe Meadows Road and Whitney Portal road is more direct and easier to follow than the goofy robo-directions Google Maps provided when it said to take the Tuttle Creek Road "directly" (scenic route) back into town through the Alabama Hills.)

We selected one of the 83 sites near the rushing creek and set up our tent, while the heavy wind felt nice on a warm day, and we enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of patches of cumulus clouds sweeping into the majestic Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains on the slope above us, and the light of the setting sun coming through shifting clouds above the mountains across the valley from us, the Panamint Range, which forms the west side of Death Valley, and the east side of this part of Owens Valley, where we were staying.

We endeavored to stake down our tent as best we could (we guess about seven stakes total), with the air mattress filled and the sleeping bags and blankets placed in the tent to weigh it down, and then dressed up nice for a dinner at Seasons, a collared shirt ("rustic formal") cloth-napkin restaurant with good service and great food. This made it (short of about six weeks) ten years since we ate at Seasons to celebrate the beginning of our honeymoon in October of 2007. It felt very fitting and—to us, after a decade of saving lots of money and practicing frugal travel on trips—quite fancy. (Seasons is pretty reasonably priced, compared to typical sit-down fare, but quite pricey compared to our usual dollar per person per meal when we plan and cook our own meals.)

They served us fancy fresh bread and butter, while I gazed out the window at the clouds caressing Mt. Whitney, and ordered the special of the day (the french name escapes me): a sampler of three 3-oz. fillet mignon medallions (normally single 8 oz. steaks with one sauce for roughly the same price) with different sauces (bearnaise, black peppercorn, and a red wine sauce) with broccoli and a fancy swirl of real mashed potatoes, while Royal ordered the Pasta Seasons with alfredo sauce: a grilled chicken alfredo dish with sauteed fresh squash, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. The food was delicious, very filling and expertly prepared.

After brushing our teeth and taking out contact lenses (Tuttle Creek has no running water and just pit toilets) we took a lovely evening stroll through the heart of the town to the Western Film Museum (closed) before we got back on the road and returned to our camp site. The wind had blown our tent to the side several yards, stopped by a few of the stakes that had not been ripped from the gravelly ground, a rock, and a thorn bush! We determined that the heavy gusts of wind had snapped the short cord on one corner of the rain fly and sent the small plastic hook flying into outer space (or into the creek?). Luckily the tarp, tent, and rain fly on top all seemed to be in good enough working order for us to untangle from the bush and slide back into place and re-stake, and the air mattress had not been punctured. With our added body weight and calmer winds in the evening, we figured it might make it through the night just fine.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

We clambered out of the tent and ate a breakfast of apples, chocolate chip oatmeal raisin walnut cookies, and frosted shredded wheat biscuits. We packed the tent and enjoyed the gorgeous views of the Sierras and the patchwork of blue and white sky and headed a few miles to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Since we had the brochure we also had a map, which showed us how to get to Movie Flat Road, a gravel road leading to the loop trail for Mobius Arch. That hike was great, and the lighting on the hills around us and the mountains behind us was astonishing. At one point, we turned a corner and there it was: the iconic Mobius Arch (famous to us as the image on the Annual Parks Pass some years again). The granite arch itself is small enough to feel personable, but big enough to want to climb on. It neatly frames a view of Mount Whitney.

We also did the Eye of the Alabama Hills hike and we were not sure exactly what small hole in the rocks we were looking for, and we think we found it (smaller than we expected?), but that did not stop us from appreciating the scenery in all directions, and enjoying the strenuous climb to get up the hill.

Since it was getting a bit sunny, we headed back down the dirt road to Whitney Portal Road and decided to drive west, up Whitney Portal road to see the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, where many people arrive to attempt high altitude hikes in the area, especially Mt. Whitney itself (tallest peak in 48 states, over 14,000 feet). The altitude at the parking lot is around 8,000 feet and even on an otherwise warm summer day (warm in the valley), the air is quite cool. The tall pine trees and damp earth tell you immediately how different this place is from the desert valley below. We took a short trail from the south side of the parking lot, near the picnic area, trying to see if we could get out beyond the trees to see the view of the valley below, but we were unsuccessful. We did enjoy the waterfalls, streams, even glacier-water colored (turquoise) pool, and the beautiful, apartment-building sized boulders that we had to climb on or under to make our way through the area.

Having thoroughly built up a wonderful hunger, we decided to just turn around and head back to the car. We took Whitney Portal road back down the mountain/hill, which leads right into the heart of town, and to Pizza Factory. We had been to Pizza Factory in Bishop on a hot day years ago and were glad to return and try every kind of pizza they could muster during the lunch buffet. (We estimated about a dozen kinds of toppings and sauces in total—not all at once.)

Having filled our bottles with ice water, we got back on the road for Big Pine, less than an hour north of Lone Pine. Royal napped the whole way while I listened to an audio book and she only awakened when we stopped at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Information Center, an unimpressive little covered kiosk or glorified information sign in a parking lot, at the place on the road where US-395 intersects CA-168, which heads into the White Mountains and eventually leads to Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Turning the corner for CA-168, we saw the sign designating the giant sequoia tree (a "Big Pine") planted over one hundred years ago. As a big, beautiful, bushy Christmas Tree (maybe fifty feet high), it was first rate. As a big pine tree in a desert valley of sage and creosote, maybe some poplar, it was a large prominent, cone-shaped landmark. As a giant sequoia however, it was actually pretty small!

We took CA-168 and went through the narrows (a short harrowing stretch of one-lane road with sheer walls and blind turns) and got onto the even more winding mountain road that lead us to Grandview Campground, run by the National Forest Service, with no running water and just primitive (vault or pit) toilets. Along the way, we enjoyed endless varying and astonishing views of the hills and dells of the White Mountains, which we were in, and the valley below, and the Sierras across the valley, and the clouds and skies above that. Words and even images fail to convey the three-dimensionality and physicality of the space itself.

At one pullout, we took a breath in the cool mountain air and listened to the birds in the pinyon and Utah juniper forest, for we had magically been transported from California, jumped over Nevada, and landed in Southern Utah! We think we heard several juniper titmice, with a different song to their counterparts, our Southern California oak titmouse—previous thought to be a single species, the plain titmouse, but split in two in the last decade or so.

The Grandview Campground was mostly empty, so we skipped pitching a tent and reserving a site and drove the five miles to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The facility (recently rebuilt in 2008 after an arson burned down the previous building) could not have been more pleasant nor the nineteen minute Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest video more informative: we learned about dendrochronology and how counting the rings in the core samples from the multi-thousand year old trees first showed that they are one of the oldest living things on the planet, with a certain (unmarked or unspecified) tree reaching over four thousand years—“Methuselah,” still alive in the vicinity. In addition, the scientists can align and compare the wide and narrow rings which allows different core samples (from dead trees too) to create an overlapping map of atmospheric conditions of the past ten thousand years—going back the last ice age!

We did the one-mile-loop Discovery Trail in the Schulman Grove, up the dolomite hill and through stands of old and young trees. Many of the young trees are very tall and bushy like a fir tree or Christmas tree, and core samples from these trees would show that they have been growing fast. The really old ones have grown remarkably slowly, creating dense, hard wood immune to parasites and fungus and with only a small strip of living bark and few green bristle branches. We also learned that you can look down at the trees’ root systems and can approximate the age in thousands of years by how much gravel and soil have eroded in these harsh, dry, 10,000-foot elevations: each vertical foot of exposed root might be a thousand years of weathering!

We enjoyed trying to guess how old some of the trees were and if we thought they were practically infants (less than a century or only a few centuries old, perhaps no taller than a human!) or if they were perhaps millennials or multi-millennials. We found a (presumably) multi-millenial dead tree with no green bristles on a plant-free quartzite-rock-covered hill that we called Cthuselah (Cthulhu + Methuselah) due to its twisty appendages reaching to the sky, like tentacles from a giant, ancient cephalopod.

On this loop trail we saw a family of squawky Clark's nutcrackers, gray with black wings and white heads. These stunning, social corvids can store and remember thousands of seed- and pine-nut locations in their territories, using the landscape itself and their genius hiding places as a secure pantry to make it through the winter. We also saw a rock wren hopping on its rocks, and heard numerous mountain chickadees in the trees.

The looming cumulus clouds swept in and joined the sunset in ushering us out of the mountain tops and back down the windy five miles to the 8,500-foot-elevation campground, where we found a quiet spot and set up our tent. The night was cool and we enjoyed the scenic sunset over the sage meadow between the two pinyon- and Utah-juniper tree-covered bases of hills where the campsites were located. Another chickadee greeted us from the tree above our tent and impressed us with a flash of black on white. We slept great that night and were prepared for the cold, a low in the forties Fahrenheit.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

We woke in the cool morning to find some hoarfrost on the picnic table, so we ate a stand-up picnic breakfast. Royal ate some oatmeal raisin cookies and started packing up the bedding inside the tent and when I returned from the bathroom she started handing me folded blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, etc. which I packed into the car. We walked across the campground and deposited our $5 campsite fee, took down the tent together, and headed back on the road.

We switched the wide lens out for the long (telephoto/wildlife/birding) lens, relying on my iPhone for wide-angle photos and tree photos on this four mile hike. The Methuselah Grove Loop took us on a mostly level loop at around 10,000 feet altitude across sparse dolomite hills with almost nothing but the bristlecone trees filled with chickadees and jumping clickety-clack locusts, and through chaparral landscapes where we met a green-tailed towhee, a sort of large sparrow.

The heart of the hike was through the section of ancient trees (at 2–2.5 mile markers if you go in the “forward” direction) where Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlan discovered Methusaleh in around 1957. According to Wikipedia, “Methuselah is a 4,849-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).... For many years it was thought to be the world's oldest known living non-clonal organism, until it was superseded in 2012 by the discovery of another bristlecone pine in the same area with an age of 5,067 years (germination in 3050 BC).”

I forgot to mention that we learned about how the study of these long-lived trees helped scientists calibrate and adjust carbon-dating to be much more accurate. We found all of this to be so amazing and inspiring. The grace and sturdiness and perspective just emanates from these gnarled and hardy trees. We did the best we could to capture some of the beauty of their large shapes against the contrasting mid-day light, but we did end up using the wildlife lens to capture cute chickadee photos, as well as to identify a Williamson’s Sapsucker, pygmy nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, canyon wren, and the green-tailed towhee, so that felt like a win, a reasonable tradeoff in not having the wide lens on the camera.

We were pretty exhausted and a little sore from a long weekend of hiking, but felt refreshed and hungry as ever. Royal closed her eyes as I drove us down the winding mountain road back to civilization, where we found Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, a mostly open-air operation with prominent smokers out front. We ordered the Big Pine Platter, a sampler of different meats: 5 oz. sliced Tri-Tip, 2 ribs, and smoked chicken breast, served with a Barbecue sauce, three dinner rolls (Kings Hawaiian), Sprite, and a side of Fire Roasted Green Chili with Beans. Just the hearty meal we needed to fill us for the four hour drive home, which Royal achieved with maximum gas efficiency in our ultra-efficient Chevy Cruze—about 50 MPG average on the way home! (Once we unpacked the car we were still so full from lunch that we just had cookies and ice cream for dessert and showered, transferred the photos, and went to bed.)