A Day Photographing The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I’ve always wanted to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, it’s a maze of some of the oldest trees on Earth and the shapes and colours are a photographer’s dream. I spent a day in the Schulman Grove, and like all forests for me, found it a challenge to photograph trees and do them justice.

Discovery Trail

A long dead tree in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest backdropped by the Eastern Sierras in early summer

I took the Discovery Trail in the early afternoon, the shortest of the trails, and found some awesome trees, but struggled to really find a composition I was happy with. Fortunately for the first time on that trip, there were clouds rolling off the Sierras and these helped make the sky more interesting.

Cabin Trail

Storms passing through the White Mountains from theCabin Trail, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I started to think about where I wanted to shoot the sunset, and couldn’t see anything on the Discovery Trail which took my fancy, so headed up the longer Cabin Trail. I’m so glad I made this decision, as it led me through a quieter trail, where I only saw two other people in the 4 hours it took me to get around. The trail itself isn’t too strenuous, it’s the fact you’re stopping every 5 minutes to check out a composition which drags the time on.

Toward the end of the trail, a big thunderstorm rolled over the White Mountains to the north and gave me a perfect atmosphere. I scrambled around trying to find something to complement it in the foreground, as I was in part of the trail where the older, larger trees weren’t as abundant. I found a couple of smaller trees clinging on to the white cliff tops and their shapes worked really well in the photos. After the storm, sunset gave me another treat, with some amazing light rays piercing over the forest to the south east. These ended up being a couple of my favourite shots from the trip.

As I arrived back to the car park just before dark, I started to deliberate what I was going to do that night. I really wanted to get a famous shot of the dead tree at the end of the Discovery Trail with the Milky Way rising next to it, and the time of the year was perfect for it. The longer I waited, more clouds and thunderstorms started to roll in from the west, and I became doubtful I was going to get a shot. I started to drive back along White Mountain Road toward Hw 168 and stopped over at a view point, spending some time watching the thunderstorms develop over the Eastern Sierras and Big Pine to the north. I had a change of mind, I thought “I’ve come thousands of miles here, let’s take a risk”.

Night Photography

A long dead tree stands guard on the hills of the Inyo National Forest

I made the drive back to the car park and decided to make the short hike to the Methuselah tree. The rain started to fall as I was walking, and I began to debate my decision to return. On top of that, I was pretty nervous about being in that area so late.

My RV was the only vehicle in the car park, I was potentially miles away from the nearest person, and I was in Mountain Lion territory. I do a lot of night photography and fishing in the dark back home, so being out at night is never intimidating for me, but this particular place made me feel uneasy being there alone.

I arrived at the tree and the rain started to clear. I stood there for a good half an hour watching gaps in the clouds teasing and frustrating me, and then for a 5 minute period, I had a large gap allowing me to take the shot. Worth it!

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Photo notes:

  • Just like the Sequoia National Forest, these large trees are challenging to photograph. They grow on sometimes 45° mountain sides, so scrambling around trying to find a composition is hard, not to mention you really shouldn’t be going off the trails (at the request of the National Forest Service). When I visit a country, I always respect these rules and therefore only came off trail a small amount on a couple of occasions, but that limitation does make composition harder. The forest is more open than others though, so you can get more distance to the trees and compress them into some nice scenes.
  • I only visited the Schulman Grove, but it’s worth paying attention to what the light and the sun are doing at different parts of your day and planning your trips around it. The forests are spread over different hill sides facing various directions, so you need to plan to avoid shooting when certain trees are in the shade. Saying that, you can shoot this location during the day with harsh light or shade, you can get some great results without waiting for that ‘magic light’. From what I gathered from a couple of other photographers on my trip, the Patriarch Grove to the north is best for sunset, as more of the grove faces west.
  • Doing all three trails in the Schulman Grove is doable in a day assuming you have reasonable fitness, but be prepared to stop a lot as you’ll see trees and scenes you’ll want to try and capture. For this reason, you may want to limit yourself to two of the trails and take your time more.
  • Going for a longer focal length can allow you to capture some great detail in the twisting trunks of the old pines, I took a lot of shots at 70mm of shapes and patterns in the trees, and they offer a nice change to try to make sense of the maze of trees if you go for a wider angle.
  • The White Mountains look awesome around golden hours, but you need to be in the right place to avoid being in shade, so it’s good to pay attention to direction while walking the trails and make note of compositions to return to at golden hours.
  • As with other places at night, take care if you’re looking to shoot astro. Try to go with a friend, and carry protection if you’re going alone. It’s Mountain Lion territory and you’re miles away from help.

3 Responses

  1. I absolutely loved your photography and fell in love with these ancient Methuselah trees. I am from London but I am planning to visit Sequioa National Park and Bristlecone Pine Forest after the COVID-19 crisis subsides. Will be grateful if you share more about your journey, the cost and the living arrangements. Are these tourist and photographers friendly spots? What kind of mountain lions were you referring to? Was the Milky Way visible to the naked eye?

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