The White Mountains, in California and Nevada, feature the highest mountain range totally within the Great Basin of the western United States. While the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west have conventional mountain scenery of the type familiar in advertisements and calendars, the White Mountains offer a less clichéd experience.
A north-south fault block range about 60 mi (100 km) long. On the south it begins as an elevated plateau about 20 mi (30km) wide at Westgard Pass where the lower but geologically related Inyo Mountains end. Northward, the plateau gradually narrows and rises in elevation to a 'prow' above 13,000' (4,000m) at Montgomery and Boundary Peaks, then the range drops and ends at Montgomery Pass. However the high point of the range -- White Mountain Peak (14,252'/4,344m) -- is essentially an extinct volcano piled on top of the triangular plateau some 15 miles (25 km.) south of the prow.
The Sierra Nevada range along this basin's western border has two slightly higher summits, making White Mountain Peak California's third highest, or the twentieth highest peak of the U.S. outside Alaska.
The White Mountains are separated from the Sierra Nevada by downfaulted Owens Valley. On the east side the California-Nevada state line nearly parallels the range and crosses the crest near its north end so that Boundary Peak (13,147 ft, 4,007 m) is Nevada's highest summit while all other high summits are in California.
Viewed from the Owens Valley the lower southern part of the White Mountains has a gentle aspect contrasting with the precipitous spectacle of the facing Sierra Nevada. Evidently these are desert mountains with a sprinkling of pine trees but no dense forests. Then heading north through an upper valley (Chalfant) the range's crest rises from 10,000-14,000 ft, becoming an intimidating wall reaching far into the alpine zone. At the northern end, Boundary and Montgomery Peaks are perfectly satisfactory mountains: cliffy, sharp-peaked and often snowcapped.
Around to the east in Nevada's Fishlake Valley departed glaciers have left a dozen cirques separated by massive ridges. Except for steep cirque headwalls, slopes on this side are gentler and the range has a wide alluvial skirt traversed by green ribbons that turn out to be thickets of birch along permanent streams. Dirt roads follow many of these across the alluvial fans up into canyons above, invited exploration. In fact most of the cirques can be hiked to the crest, given enough fortitude to push through brush or clever routefinding to circumvent it. South near the town Dyer, the eastern slopes of White Mountain Peak assume the contorted look of desert mountains, until the upper cirques and summit finally break clear.
Driving into the range via Westgard Pass, the state highway climbs steeply through sage and boulder fields to a plateau with fairly dense stands of Pinyon Pine and Juniper. This is the pass and the state highway continues down the other side, but a mountain access road heads north, climbing past Grandview Campground which offers expansive views across the Owens Valley to the Sierras, but no water. The road leaves the Pinyon/Juniper zone for brush - sage and Mountain Mahogany. Then it levels out at about 10,000 ft along a curious floristic boundary. The brush zone is confined to shaley brown rock. Off to the right the substrate turns white - dolomite, a carbonate rock like limestone, only with manganese and calcium, and it is thinly forested with trees growing to perhaps 30 ft (10m).
Flora and fauna
Semi-desert with sagebrush up to a lower timberline at 6,500 ft (2,000 m), then Single-leaf Pinyon Pine and Utah Juniper to about 9,000 ft (2,700 m), Mountain Mahogany brush for the next 600 ft (200 m), then Limber Pine and Bristlecone Pine to an alpine timberline at 11,000' (3,300 m). Sagebrush and grass reach 12,000 ft (3,700 m), scattered alpine plants reach 14,000 ft (4,300 m). Birch and Aspen, including some dwarf Aspen along streams. Small residual stands of Ponderosa Pine, Jeffrey Pine, Lodgepole Pine and Sierra Juniper.
Mule Deer wherever there is herbaceous browse, Bighorn Sheep on steep, rocky slopes, feral horses, Marmots, Pika. No native fish in mountain streams, but introduced Brook, Brown and Rainbow Trout have established reproducing populations. Rare Paiute Cutthroat Trout were introduced to parts of Cottonwood and Cabin Creeks, and have established limited populations, protected from angling.
Cold winters with storms from Pacific Ocean, rainshadow effect of Sierra Nevada lessens with elevation so snow cover increases. Subject to late spring storms called Tonopah Lows bringing snow through June. Dry and warm in July, with occasional thunderstorms in August and September caused by warm, moist airmasses from the Gulf of California. Clear, mild weather alternates with occasional high-elevation cold and snow through October. Increasingly wintry in November.
Mainly by road. From the northern outskirts of Los Angeles via State Route 14 and U.S. Route 395. From the San Francisco area via State Route 120 over Tioga Pass (summer only), or other passes via California routes 108, 4 or 88 further north. U.S. 50 alongside Lake Tahoe is the southernmost pass open all year. Usually you will need to take U.S. 395 south for an hour or more. 120 east from route 395 at Lee Vining to U.S. Route 6 at Benton offers a shortcut to the north end of the range, or to the eastern canyons via Nevada route 264.
California Highway 168 leaves U.S. 395 at Big Pine and crosses Westgard Pass at south end of range. A Paved access road from the pass reaches Schulman Grove at about 10,000 ft, then a gravel road climbs past the higher Patriarch Grove into the alpine zone. It is carefully driveable by most cars to the Barcroft Labs research complex at 12,500 ft but is usually gated two miles below.
U.S. 395 follows Owens Valley from Big Pine to Bishop. U.S. Highway 6 begins north of Bishop, following the Chalfant and Queen Valleys immediately west of the range, then crossing Montgomery Pass at the north end of the range. Just north of the Nevada State Line, a gravel road departs and can be driven by ordinary cars to Queen Mine at about 8,000 ft (2,400 m). A rough extension requiring 4wd reaches the crest at about 10,000 ft (3,000 m) elevation north of Boundary Peak, a recommended trailhead for climbing Nevada's high point.
On the eastern (Nevada) side of the range, paved Nevada route 264 crosses Fish Lake Valley, but gasoline and services are only found in the town of Dyer. Gravel roads branch off into most eastside canyons. They can be carefully driven fairly high by 2wd vehicles with reasonable clearance, and somewhat higher up by 4wd vehicles. Topographic maps should be consulted before setting out and getting local opinions never hurts. Travel in convoys is a good idea, and iffy stretches should always be scouted on foot.
Fees and permits
While much of the White Mountains can be accessed for free, as of 2020 there is a $3 per person (max $6 per vehicle) fee for entering the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (children under 18 free) that is collected during summer months. Interagency park pass holders do not need to pay an entrance fee.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 18, 2021
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 17, 2021
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 25, 2021
- Veterans Day (November 11)
- 1 Schulman Grove. The Schulman Grove is the most accessible of the park's bristlecone groves, featuring a visitor center, trails, and bathrooms. It is home to Methuselah, the world's oldest known tree at more than 4800 years of age, and offers views of the Sierra Nevada mountains and Northern Death Valley from its 10,000 feet (3,000 m) elevation.
- 2 Patriarch Grove. Located 12 miles (19 km) beyond Schulman Grove on a graded dirt road and just below the timber line at 11,200 feet (3,400 m) elevation, Patriarch Grove is home to the Patriarch Tree, the world's largest bristlecone pine, and is a favorite with photographers (light is best in the morning). While increased precipitation allows the trees to grow larger, they are not as old as those found in Schulman Grove. You will pass several other groves of bristlecones on the road from Schulman to Patriarch, some highly photogenic. This grove has restrooms, picnic tables, and two short trails.
- 1 Bristlecone Cabin Trail (0.5 miles (0.80 km) one-way), Starts from Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The Bristlecone Cabin trail is a relatively easy trail that visits historic mining cabins built from bristlecone and pine logs. Signs provide information about early mining attempts in the area. The mostly flat route can be done as an out-and-back route from the visitor center, or you can make a 1.5 miles (2.4 km) loop by traveling up and over a ridge and following the Methuselah Walk trail back.
- 2 Discovery Trail (1 mile (1.6 km) loop), Starts from Schulman Grove Visitor Center. This short loop trail visits the portion of the grove where Dr. Edmund Schulman discovered the world's first known 4000 year old tree. The interpretive trail offers exhibits and benches, as well as views of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Allow about an hour to hike the short trail due to hills; you will gain and then lose 300 feet (91 m) of elevation during the loop, which can be more strenuous than expected due to the altitude.
- 3 Methuselah Walk Trail (4.5 miles (7.2 km) loop), Starts from Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The Methuselah Walk trail is an extremely scenic route that passes through dense portions of the grove. Methuselah, the world's oldest known tree at more than 4800 years of age, is located along this trail but its location is kept secret by the Forest Service to protect it. Portions of the trail provide a view into Northern Death Valley. The trail loses and then re-gains 900 feet (270 m) of elevation, which can be a strain given the thin air at the 10,000 feet (3,000 m) elevation; bring extra water and sunscreen and plan for 2-4 hours of hiking time. Mile markers are located every half mile to help hikers track their progress.
- Hike or drive (4wd) down into upper Cottonwood Basin and explore it on foot. This area has an interesting mixture of carbonate and granite geology. Besides subalpine Bristlecone and Limber Pines, the basin has extensive groves of Aspen and a few large Sierra Junipers looking like miniature Sequoias. Streams have abundant trout populations. Fishing is prohibited in the North Fork because it is a refuge for rare Paiute Cutthroat Trout.
- Drive to the access road summit above Patriarch Grove, then climb 12,000 ft (3,700 m) Paiute and Sheep Mountains. The easiest way to hike into the alpine zone in lunar dolomite barrens.
- Park at the locked gate and hike 2 miles up to Barcroft Labs at 12,500 ft. This is a large high altitude research station operated by the University of California.
- Hike the jeep road 5 more miles to the top of White Mountain Peak, where there is a smaller research station. This is an easy hike, but for the altitude, potential snow on the trail near the summit, and the possibility of getting caught in a storm a very long way from shelter. Camp overnight at the locked gate (11,700 ft) to acclimate to the altitude. A permanent pit toilet is at the locked gate.
- For an acclimation hike, you can hike around the upper headwalls of four different cirques: the North and South forks of Perry Aiken Creek which are northeast of Barcroft and involves hiking up the summit jeep road to about the 13,000-ft level. Or the North and South forks of McAfee Creek which are east of Barcroft. The south fork has an interesting stand of dwarf aspen.
- Backpack north from Barcroft Gate or Lab, over White Mountain Peak, across a short class 3-4 knife-edge ridge to the broader ridgetop beyond, and on to a saddle with streams in it about 10 miles north of Barcroft, which is a pretty long day. The next day continue north over Mounts Hogue and Dubois, the Jumpoff above a narrow pass, and then (class 3-4) scramble up to Montgomery Peak, perhaps with rope and protection, then over Boundary Peak. Pack water or plan on melting snow from semi-permanent snowfields at the tops of eastside cirques. Plan on a second night out, then on the third day exit via Trail Canyon (where you have left a vehicle) or continue along the crest to a 4wd road just north of Kennedy Point around the 10,000-ft level. West down this road, you arrive at Queen Mine which is the roadhead if you don't have 4wd.
- Climb Boundary (and Montgomery) Peak via Trail Canyon or the road up to the crest from Queens Mine.
- Afternoon backpack up Middle Canyon. Unless there are enough snow patches above, get 2 gallons from creek at bottom of Mountain Mahogany Ridge, then climb this ridge to top at 11,000-ft level and camp. Dayhike up to narrow pass, then south along crest to Jumpoff and Dubois. Continue S of Dubois to viewpoint overlooking Mt. Hogue and lower parts of Pelissier Flats. Backtrack and return to camp via top of prominent ridge S of Middle Canyon, descending sandy slope into Middle Canyon and back to camp. Exit via Middle Canyon next morning.
- Drive 4wd to roadhead near cowboy cabin on Chiatovich Creek and set up camp (not too near cabin -- it looks snakey). From here you have three cirques to explore
- N Fork Chiatovich, due west hikable to crest near summit of Mt. Dubois
- S Fork Chiatovich - take cow trail SW up old moraine, then west into cirque. Headwall is a little steep, but can be climbed on left. This brings you out on lower Pelissier Flats between Mts. Dubois and Hogue
- Davis Creek - as for S Fork, then on top of moraine look for cow trail to left. Follow it up to a saddle, then climb over steep but not very high ridge on right (west). This brings you into the Davis. It can be followed up to the crest near Mt. Hogue.
- Indian Creek - rough road can be driven in 4wd nearly to headwall. Hiking SW brings you up to Chiatovich Flats overlooking upper Birch Creek. This stream is probably permanent. Go upstream to climb Mt. Hogue and Dubois or downstream to reach a curious saddle drained west by Birch Creek and east by Cabin Creek.
- Branch road off Indian Canyon goes SW to a mining claim. The road may be gated, but it ascends to the top of a high, brushy ridge west of Chiatovich Flats. A better route up to the flats is to follow a prominent gully departing to the right from this road, which leads straight up to the flats.
- a rough road up Leidy Canyon can be driven within about 1/2 mile of a cow trail up to Perry Aiken Flats. This broad ridge can be hiked to the crest in the vicinity of peak 13,908 (feet) north of White Mountain Peak. From a point just below treeline on this ridge it is possible to contour south into the Northwest Fork of Perry Aiken Creek, a scenic glacial cirque with a rock glacier and small tarns east of White Mountain Peak.
- Perry Aiken Creek's north fork is the largest glacial cirque in the White Mountains. It is possible to hike up it from Fishlake Valley near the town Dyer, but the canyon is brushy and with no access road into the canyon the elevation gain to White Mountain Peak is about 10,000 ft (3,000 m).
This is no route des gourmands. Rural cafés serving a western version of country cooking and local ethnic specialties may be the most interesting gastronomic opportunities.
Along U.S. 395, Big Pine has rustic cafes. Bishop has a wider selection of eateries, including fastfood chains and limited ethnic food such as Mexican, Chinese, and possibly Basque.
On U.S. 6, there is a cafe in Benton, California where U.S. 120 ends. Benton has a Paiute population so it may be possible to try fry bread and other Native American specialties, and to mingle with local folks -- ranchers too.
In Fish Lake Valley, cafe food may be available in Dyer, Nevada. Another chance to mingle with local people.
Up in the mountains you must be self-sufficient. Selections are limited in local grocery stores, with the possible exception of Bishop. Most visitors will want to bring along groceries and backpacking food.
At bars and taverns in Big Pine, Bishop, Montgomery Pass and Dyer. These are important social centers in the rural west, except where Mormon influence is strong. A good way to meet local people.
- 1 Grandview Campground. Located at an elevation of 8,600 feet (2,600 m) just 5 miles (8.0 km) from Schulman Grove, this 23-site campground has a policy of minimum lights and generators, which combined with its elevation and open space makes it a tremendous spot for stargazing. Vault toilets, picnic tables and parking for 1-2 vehicles are provided, but there is no running water available. Collection of wood for fires is strictly forbidden, and all sites are first-come, first-served. $5 per night (2020 rates).
Venomous rattlesnakes are never found about 10,000 feet (3,000 m) and seldom found at high altitudes. However, in desert areas they are common and should be treated cautiously - in general they won't strike unless startled. Wild horses and domestic cattle should not be approached or harassed. Bears and mountain lions are extremely rare but possible to upper limits of subalpine zone.
Gentle slopes give way to narrow ridges advising ropes and protection along the crest immediately north of White Mountain Peak and on Montgomery Peak at north end of the range. Hikers in the alpine zone should always be prepared for cold and snow, except in the summer.
Most canyons have permanent streams, but water can be scarce along the crest by late July, except in a saddle midway between White Mountain Peak and Pelissier Flat that is drained by Cabin and Birch Creeks. There may also be semi-permanent snowfields above 12,500 ft (3,700 m), but this should be confirmed visually from Fish Lake Valley east of the range before relying on them for water.
CA State highway 168 should be driven conservatively. It is narrow with steep grades and sharp curves.
Off-highway drivers should carry enough water, food, tools, parts, towlines, gasoline, and warm clothing to weather minor mishaps. It is prudent to travel in groups of at least two vehicles. Gravel roads must be driven slowly and carefully to avoid damage from flying stones, skidding off the road, and sudden appearance of washouts or large rocks. Although 2wd vehicles can go fairly far on poor roads, those with low clearance are probably too vulnerable underneath. Lastly, be conservative about descending steep downhills on the way in. You might discover you can't get back up them on the way out.
How much more out do you want to get? OK, you could explore the SilverPeak Range on the east side of Fishlake Valley; views of the White Mountains should be memorable. At the south end of Fishlake Valley just inside California near the intersection of California routes 168 and 266 a dirt road heads southeast and descends into Eureka Valley, famous for large sand dunes. From there you can drive over the next ridge to the northern part of Death Valley. Or you could continue east on Nevada route 266 to U.S. Route 95, then head south to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Do this after sunset and you will begin to see the neon at such a long distance that it blurs into a fantastic mirage, or even a visitation by space aliens. If you are a confirmed desert rat, you may find the White Mountains a little too conventional, so the drier Inyo Mountains to the south may be more your cup of tea.
- Benton, California - town near Nevada state line. Gas, cafe, small motel. Small reservation for Paiute Indians. Junction of U.S. 6 and State Route 120 to Mono Lake and Yosemite.
- Big Pine, California - Gas, stores, fast food, and cafes. Junction of U.S. Route 395 and State Route 168 to Westgard Pass, Fishlake Valley and U.S. 95.
- Bishop, California - Largest town in Owens Valley. Fairly wide choice of gas stations, fast food and local restaurants and stores. Ranger station for White Mountain district of Inyo National Forest. Junction of U.S. Routes 395 and 6 on north side of town.
- Dyer, Nevada - only town in Fishlake Valley east of White Mountains. Gas, general store, cafe/bar, post office.