Hiking White Mountain Peak, California

Introduction:



What? :

The 15 miles out and back White Mountain Peak hike will take you to the third highest peak in California (14,252 ft). The hike is tough (overall 3,500 ft elevation), but doable, and will take you through a rugged and beautiful mountain desert. The summit of White Mountain Peak offers great 360 views from the Eastern Sierras California to Nevada mountains. On your way to the hike trailhead, you will enjoy visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Forest groves, some of the trees are up to 5000 years old.





 

Where? : The hike trailhead is located at the end of Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway dirt road.

Google Map Link

 

When? : Summer only, the road is covered with snow at winter, it is close usually from late October through late June or early July (depending on snow).

 

Due note 1: Remember that you are at high altitude, and altitude sickness (AMS) can be deadly, as always listen to your body and do not push it.

 

Due note 2: This is a high mountain range, far from any service, bring enough fuel with you, nearest gas station is at highway 395 (Big Pine or Bishop).

 

Due note 3: Make sure you have a good spare tire and that you know how to replace a flat.

 

Due note 4: Bring enough water and food and watch the weather and potential storms. High temperatures in summertime at the mountain top are around 73f so you should plan for potential cold and windy situations, including summer thunderstorms with lightning.

 

Due note 5: Surprisingly, even though this is a remote mountain range far away from any nearby settlement you will find that you have a good cell reception in many locations along the ridge.

 

Due note 6: You don’t need a permit to hike to the White Mountain Peak or park for the night at the trailhead (end of the dirt road).

 


My thoughts: I visited here twice, I do not count my winter attempt as visit, and like it every time. It is amazing experience to walk among almost 5,000 old trees, everyone with its unique appearance. The mountain range landscape is also unique, open white and somehow rounded unlike the Sierra ragged range.

The hike to White Mountain, 13,000 ft summit, 3rd highest in California is highly recommended hike, I had a lot of fun doing it.


 

 

The visit:

 

No matter what your plans are and even if the hike to White Mountain summit is all what you want to do you can’t be here and not visit and see the oldest living trees on earth.

Along the road there are few Ancient Bristlecone Forest groves, some of the trees are up to 5000 years old, shaped, and gnarled by thousands of years of wind and desert conditions.

These Bristlecone Pines grow in the white limestone soil that gives the White Mountains their name. You can enjoy them even with doing shorts hikes in each location.

See the following blog posts:

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/05/ancient-bristlecone-pine-forest.html

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/10/white-mountains-california-ancient.html





 

Overnight visit planning that includes White Mountain peak hike:

- Plan to arrive around noon to the visitor center at the park entrance (end of the paved road), Methuselah Grove.

- Hike the short, 1 mile, Discovery Trail near the visitor center, many of the most beautiful trees are here.

- Keep driving on the dirt road to Patriarch Grove (plan for 40 min drive)

- Visit Patriarch Grove for some time (plan for 1 hour visit and short hiking)

- Plan to be before sunset at the end of the road 4 miles after Patriarch Grove (20 minutes’ drive from Patriarch Grove).

- Wake Up early morning and hike to White Mountain peak, plan for ~8 hr hike round trip.

- Drive your car back on the dirt road and if you want on your way back visit more places.

- if you have time another hiking option is the 4.5 miles hike at Methuselah Grove near the visitor center.

 


 

The White Mountains extend for approximately 60 mi as a greatly elevated plateau above Owens Valley from it east.

The highest point in the range is White Mountain Peak (14,252 ft) is the third-highest summit in California. This peak is an extinct volcano rising about 1,600 ft above the plateau surface of the mountain ridge.

 

The round-trip hike from the gate to the summit is about 15 miles with total elevation gain during the roundtrip of over 3500 feet.

 

The drive to the trailhead:

From Big pine on highway 395 head east on highway 168, after 13 miles turn left into White Mountain Road, taking this road up the mountain ridge for 10 miles will bring you to the visitor center and end of the paved road.


After arriving to visitor center the last 16 miles are on a dirt road called the Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway. Driving this dirt road doable in a car, but you need to drive slowly not to get a flats tire, 4x4 is much faster and safer.

Plan on 30-40 minutes (one-way) drive from the visitor center to Patriarch Grove and additional 15-20 min to the end of the road parking lot.

 

You can camp at the end of the road parking lot trailhead. It’s first-come, first-serve, and free. The area exposed to wind. The campsite is primitive, but it has a bathroom.


 

My Oct. 2021 visit to the White Mountains and the hike story:

 

This time it will be a long story, you need patience to read it, or you skip and enjoy the pictures ...

 

The goal of my October weekend trip to the eastern part of the Sierra Mountain was to visit North Lake near Bishop California and take fall color photos. Last year I arrived two weeks too late, and the Aspen tree leaves were already down so this year I came on time.

My original plans were that this will be one overnight trip, drive east, see the fall colors, and drive back home.

The cold and magical early morning I spend at Bishop North Lake surrounded by fallen trees was great fun and I really enjoyed it.

Few blog links to Bishop North Lake and fall colors in the eastern Sierra:

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/10/bishop-california-north-lake-2021.html

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/05/bishop-and-highway-168-west-into-bishop.html

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/09/fall-colors-in-california-trip-to.html

 

 

Story name: One thing leading to another

 

This is a story about how without any planning I climb one of the highest mountains in California (14,300 feet).

 

Changing my plans

After my North Lake visit, I decided to change my original plans and not to drive back home that day but rather to continue for additional day.

Now I need to decide what to do here.

On the one hand there are many more places I have not visited in this area of ​​California and many other places where you can see fall colors, on the other hand I thought that if I am already in this area near Bishop I can visit the White Mountains and the oldest tree in the world, trees that live about 5000 years !!!

Think of something that was already 1500 years old at the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. I just can’t understand how trees, living organism, can live so many years. You can actually see their old age, scarred, convoluted twisted and full of “character”.

I already visited the White Mountains a year ago, but it was a very short visit, I did not have time ack then.

Well, I decided to drive to the White Mountains and see the ancient trees.

I thought to visit there during the afternoon and evening, go back down to the Bishop valley to sleep at night and at the next day visit many others fall colors locations on the way back home.

 

Driving to the White Mountains:

After a short drive to an area near Bishop that included a nice off-road drive (photos in another blog post), I headed up the road that leads to the White Mountain.

Driving for about an hour up the mountain (starting with highway 168 and then turning left into White Mountain Rd.) brought me to the first section of the White Mountains.

When climbing up the mountain, at a road bend, there is an observation point over the Owens valley, when I came here the valley below and the Sierra Mountains to the west were fully covered with fire smoke. Shortly after the observation point you will reach the ancient tree visitor center (Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest).

 

Visiting Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest:

I parked in the parking lot near the Methuselah Grove Visitor Center and walked for a short walk among the amazing trees. I was here before, so I knew which round to choose and what I want to see.

It's hard to convey the feeling I had in words, walking near something so old, the trees are beautiful, and every tree looks different, almost like humans everyone has his unique personality. I took so many pictures, to engrave the sights and feelings in my memory.



My plans were to take some pictures at night, the old trees with background of stars and after that to drive down back to Bishop and sleep in the valley.


The day was quite smoky, there are still fires near Sequoia Park, think of a fire 60 miles away and its smoke is still noticeable. I did not know if I will have at night a clear sky with visible stars and it was still early, around 3pm in the afternoon, so I have a lot of time to wait until 8-9pm.




I decided to continue driving additional 13 miles into the mountains to visit another ancient tree grove location. I never visit that remote section of the ridge and I thought to myself that it would be interesting to explore. 


After the visit I will return to the visitor center at sunset to photograph the trees.

From the visitor center towards the mountains the road is a dirt road. The dirt road is maintained in good condition, after driving for about half an hour in beautiful mountain landscape I reached a junction with a clear sign indicating to turn right to the Patriarch Grove. Soon after turning right, I reached the second place of the ancient trees, Patriarch Grove.

See link for Patriarch Grove blog:

https://www.yiftahshahar.com/2021/10/white-mountains-california-ancient.html

In this forest grove I did two relatively short trails that start at the parking lot.

Follow the trail and it will take you between the trees and ascend to a nearby observation point.

There were not many people when I got there so it was fun. I took my time, walking slowly and enjoying the short hike in this area. When I finished the hike the parking lot was full of jeeps that arrived while I was hiking, my visit timing was excellent.



 

Driving to the end of the road:

I left the Patriarch Grove area and then I reached back to the T junction. Left will take me back down towards the visitor center where I wanted to photograph at night and if I turn right the road will lead me deeper into the mountains, the signed say that road ends after 4 miles.

I thought to myself: “drive another 4 miles to the end of the road and then drive back down”, it is only extra 30 minutes’ drive. If I’m already here, I will see the end of the road and still have time to get back to the visitor center before sunset.

At the T junction I turned right.

The road continued into the mountains, here it is an open landscape with no trees at all, it is already above the height where trees can grow, and there were almost no other vehicles in this remote section. The dirt road wind through the white exposed mountains, it wasn’t uphill climb but rather the dirt road stays almost at the same level.

After 4 miles drive, I reached the end of the road and there to my surprise I saw a many cars and people getting organized for a night sleep.



I asked people what they are doing here, and they told me that from this parking lot begin 15 miles out and back (with total of 3500 ft elevation gain) hiking trail that is leading to the summit of the White Mountains peek, a 14,300 ft mountain. The third highest point in California.

Some of the groups that get organized for a night's sleep just finished the hike and told me that most of the hike is not so difficult and only the last section is challenging uphill climb.

 

Now, I need to decide what to do:

If I want to hike, I will need to stay here for the night. Hiking 15 miles with a serious ascent can take around 7-8 hours. I did not plan to hike at all on this trip, so I did not bring hiking gear (I only had my cameras bag with me). In addition, to sleep at 11,000 ft may give me headache and my original plans were to photograph the trees near the visitor center at night. On top of all the above reasons sleeping here will add 1 hour to my driving time home, from this point it will be at least 8 hours of continuous driving ....

As you can guess, I stayed.

I chose to stay for the hike, this place is quite remote and less likely that I will be here again soon where at the area of ​​the trees near the visitor center I for sure visit again.

I’m in a good shape, just finished 4 days, 70 mils long backpacking hike in the Sierra and running 4 times a week. This hike looks like as a doable one, and not less important this will be my first 14000+ ft summit….

 

Decide to do the hike:

I start thinking when I need to start my hike: My hiking past is around 2.5 miles/hr (when I’m not stopping for taking pictures 😊) and here there is also a 3500 ft climb, so I planned to hike about 7-8 hours (take into my plan one hour spare). Another 8-9 hours to drive back home. If I want to be at home by 9pm in the evening the following day I need to start walking early, really early.


Meanwhile it started to get dark, and it started to get windy, the temperatures dropped quickly, and it got cold. The sun sank quickly into the cloud of smoke in the west that covered the entire Sierra ridge.

Despite the remoteness of this location, because of its height there is probably a relay station on one of the peaks, there was a good cell phone reception. At night I downloaded the hiking route to my phone app + notify family on my plan change.


I organized myself a light dinner and prepare a coffee in a thermos for tomorrow morning.

I arranged the bag I had with me so I will carry only what I needed for the hike and no more. Emergency kit including a satellite phone I always carry with me, enough water for half a day hiking, few power-bar for food and all my photo equipment (I have a lot). I want that my bag to be fully prepared for the morning so I will not forget anything.


As in most of my long road trips, I went to sleep in the back of my Toyota 4runner, it is very organized and comfortable and much better than a tent.

It was quite cold that night, about freezing point but it was OK in my sleeping bag, and I did not have any headache (good for me).




The early morning hike:

I got up at 5 am in the morning using alarm clock, it was cold and complete dark, I immediately saw from the vehicle window all the stars, there was no smoke in the sky at all, the night wind clears them away.

It took me about 5 minutes to get out of the sleeping bag, after that I got dressed quickly, I did not have gloves or a good walking jacket (as explained, I did not plan to hike) but luckily, I had a good wool beanie with me.

I pack my bag and immediately start the hike at complete darkness. I wanted to start walking and get warm-up a bit, I just wanted to start moving and I even forgot to drink the coffee I prepared the previous night.

For the first dark hour despite the brisk walk and the ascent up the mountain it was quite cold, mostly from the face wind, it is what it is, I kept going.

The entire hiking route is on an old 4x4 road so there is no chance of making a navigation mistake on the route even in the dark. After walking for about 2 miles from my starting point I reach few buildings. This is a research station that belong to University of California, this is the highest research facility in North America. Half a mile later I passed the small star observatory on the top of the hill.


About an hour into the hike, I start to see a light at the east, just after 7am it was sunrise, the sky was completely clear of cloud or any smoke.




The trail keeps ascending and with the first light I can see the top of the high mountain rising above the ridge in front of me.

The whole area looks very special, completely exposed and with relatively round mountains, unlike the jagged mountain ranges that you used to see in the Sierra mountains.

After sunrise it started to get warm up a bit but there was also a cold wind. I continued up the trail, getting closer to the last steep climb section on the mountain side. The climb of the last hike section to the summit looks steep but the trail ascends and winds in a zig zag, so it seems OK.



Throughout the walk so far, I have not seen anyone but at that viewpoint before the last ascent section I saw someone about half a mile in front of me, he was already in the steep section and seemed to be walking quite slowly, he probably starts to hike very early.

I started to climb; this section of the hike is about 1 mile straight up to the mountain summit.

After about twenty minutes walking uphill, I stopped for arranging my breaths and saw something with a prominent brown color in front of the black color background of the rocks. It was quite far, and I did not see what it is exactly, but it looks like it is moving. I replaced the camera lens and put on my 150-600 zoom, with the camera zoom I saw it was a group of mountain goats, Desert Bighorn Sheep to be more exactly.


Without thinking too much, I cut straight off the trail and started to climb the ridge, it was easy to find a way on the exposed rocks, it was straight up the steep slope, it was a killer climb.

As I progress, they moved farther away from me, at one point only two young mountain goats stay still and looked at me.

Trying to arrange my breathing and not move like a leave in the wind, I finally managed to take some pictures, then the sheep decided it was enough and disappeared on the other side of the ridge.

I can’t chase the sheep, so I head back to the trail direction, once I was back at the trail I keep progressing to the top of the mountain.

On my way up I pass the hiker I sawn earlier, it turns out that this is an older woman who walked with her dog, she progresses quite slowly but consistently up the trail, she said she is fine, well done for her.

The ascent was quite challenging but a reasonable effort for such a climb and high altitude. In total, including my chase after the sheep it took me a little over three hours to get from the parking lot to the summit, it was just after 8am in the morning.

At the top there is a small area with big and locked research station stone house and nothing more than that.



I was at the summit alone, I rest drink and eat something, and after about 10-15 minutes I started my hike back, this time, most of the route is descent.

The pace on the descent was good and after about 1.5 miles of walking back I reached the level section of the trail. At some point I raised my head and saw a group of mountain goats at a distance of about 100 meters from the trail. I can't really explain what made me stop and look up and around at this specific point. The seep completely blends with the yellow/brown background, and they were in the direction of the sun but apparently something caught my eye.

I do not know if this was the same seep group I saw up in the mountain, probably yes.

This section of the trail was relatively flat, so I made a big circle and approached the goats from the direction of the sun.






The goats saw me but did not get too excited and continued to eat the low grass.

I stayed at a reasonable distance where they felt unheartened and looked at them for about 20 minutes. It was peaceful, the sheep, the mountains, the breeze, the hot sun warming my back and me, it was peaceful serene experience.


I would have stayed with them even longer, but I had to keep going.

When I got back home, I searched a bit, and it seems that what I saw are not goats but rather sheep 😊, probably the more common type, Desert Bighorn Sheep.

From the encounter with the sheep’s my hiking pace down was fast, I met about 3 other groups of people who were on their way up.

I went through the university research buildings, this time at daylight and reach my starting point where my car was waiting for me.



I arrived a little before 12 noon, i.e., six and a half hours, quite a reasonable pace if you take into account the serious ascent, and the chase after the sheep.

Overall, the hike is not so challenging except for the last mile ascent the summit, with beautiful mountain views to Nevada and the Sierra when there is no smoke, a highly recommended hike.

This hike is considered to be the easiest hike to a mountain peak above 14,000 feet in California and that is also my impression (even though this is my only one so far 😊).

 

The long way back home:

At the parking lot I quickly got organized, changed my shirt, eat something light, number 2, and then start driving back on the dirt road down the mountain ridge towards the road.

 

I did not stop at any point on my way, I did not have time.

I refueled in the first place I can (Bishop) and continued driving, passing east through the mountain pass that crosses Yosemite Park (Route 120 is an amazing mountain pass), I did not stop for anything along the road in the park, I have no time and it was smokey.

Four hours’ drive from the park, at eight in the evening I arrived San Francisco Bay area.

 

Story Summary:

It was a long day, 5am wake up, 7 hours hike, 15 mils and 3,500 ft elevation gain and additional 8 hours of driving back home, I was very tired but happy

I really glad things rolled out as they did, If I stick to my original plan, I was able to photograph few more places with yellow autumn colors, but this White Mountain summit hike was probably on-time opportunity.

 

Whoever read this story until the end of it deserves a prize ... more pictures from this day.

 

www:

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recreation/recarea/?recid=20264

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=70821

 

Map:

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd904026.pdf

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3849110.pdf

 

 

Pictures:



























































Comments

  1. Yiftah -- Great trip report and fanstastic photos too. This area has been on my list for awhile but honestly I didn't know about the hike. Now I want to go all the more. Looks like you had a great time and a very cool accomplishment making the peak. Next year, me, I hope!

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