The Trail and the Plants
The drive to Schulman Grove from Big Pine features several exciting plants. First as you begin to climb into the mountains look for the bright yellow flowers of Prince’s Plume. The tall spires (4-5’) really caught my attention when I made the drive late in June. As you go higher pines begin to appear. When you turn onto White Mountain Road you enter a forest of Pinyon Pine and Utah Juniper. It’s a gorgeous forest with very useful plants. The Pinyon Pine of course holds the delicious seeds of this well known pine, and the Utah Juniper provided the wood used in the best Native Indian Bows.
At Schulman Grove both trails begin at the east end of the parking lot, the far end as you drive in, the Discovery Trail on the left and the Methuselah Trail on the right. The elevation is 10,050 ft. I’ve hiked here in June and late October, wearing shorts both times. In October there were small patches of snow on the ground and the air was crisp indeed, so it’s best to carry some extra layers.
The Methuselah Trail travels gently downhill at first and you quickly come to a junction, which is the return segment coming back up the ravine on the left. A common shrub here is Black Sagebrush, with its gray green, 3 notched leaves. This is a smaller form of the more widespread Big Basin Sagebrush, which is generally taller and with somewhat longer leaves. Also common is Rabbit Bush with its yellow flowers and narrow gray leaves. There is a number of ground hugging Buckwheat’s clinging to the rocky Dolomite soil. From the junction you climb moderately up the north side of a ridge covered with the Bristlecone Pines. This short-needled pine is of moderate height but with underlying great age. You pass a few wind-sculpted specimens on the right, there are many more ahead.
At the top of this first climb is your first stellar view to the east. This is the highest point of the trail at 10,129 ft. Now you descend into a steep sided valley with grand views to the east. The forest is notably open with the bare rocky ground dominating the picture. At the lower end of this section is a trail junction; the right side goes to an old mining site while our trail continues on to the left.
The trail makes a moderate climb to a saddle in the next ridgeline. There are some great stands of gnarly trunked pines here. At the top of the saddle is another great vista framed by a trio of ancient, wind swept pines. Then you descend into whole new plant community, a Mountain Mahogany forest. There are also Pinyon Pines here and a few Bristlecones but the Mahogany takes the stage now. And these are also very old plants. Mt. Mahogany is a large shrub with small dark green leaves. The largest and oldest I have seen before had trunks up to 12” in diameter, but here there are plants up to 24” across. The trail winds east then northeast on a south facing slope with views of the desert basin beyond.
After wandering through the Mt. Mahogany forest, being dazzled by their size you come to a sharp turn to the left. We switch from a south facing to a north facing slope and the plants change almost entirely. The Mt. Mahogany is gone and now Bristlecones of weathered texture blanket the hillsides. There are hundreds of these ancient spires in this area. They don’t tell you where the oldest tree is but it could surely be here, there are so many aged and weathered specimens it is hard to focus on any one individual.
The trail continues to descend and then at the next ravine turns right and almost due north. This section is relatively level with the lowest point on the trail just ahead. A surprise plant shows itself on the left, with the ground hugging, tight mounds of Mat Rockspires, a curious member of the Rose family with 6-8” white flower spikes. After a short half-mile the trails jogs sharply back left and begins to gradually climb. You enter another south facing ravine, jog right and head due north again to a spectacular viewpoint with a bench.
There is about a ¾ mile climb ahead, back to the parking lot. The pine forest fills out here with younger lush green trees. The Methuselah Trail is a walk back in time, or maybe a walk with time, high in the White Mountains of California.