At 14,252-ft, White Mountain Peak is the third tallest peak in California. It is located in the White Mountain range, east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono County. The peak is often considered California’s easiest 14er. A dirt road goes all the way to the summit. Some people reach the top on mountain bikes. The hike is a long one though – 14 miles roundtrip with approximately 2000-ft of elevation gain. Hikers are often defeated and turned back by extreme winds or the high altitude. It is by no means an easy walk.
Directions to Trailhead: From Highway 395 in Big Pine, follow signs for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Head east on CA 168 for 13 miles. Turn left on White Mountain Road and follow it to the Schulman Grove (approximately 10 miles). From there, the pavement ends and it’s another 16 miles of winding rough dirt road. Cars can make it- we saw a Volvo at the trailhead, but it helps to have high clearance. It takes about an hour to drive those last 16 miles.
Camping Options: Dispersed camping is allowed all over the White Mountains except for near the bristlecone groves. There is a pit toilet located at the trailhead; some people set up camp there. Alternatively, Grandview Campground is located 5 miles up White Mountain Road. The campground is large, but they do not take reservations and there is no camp host. This becomes problematic when people arrive after dark and try to find sites in an already completely full campground. We witnessed some angry exchanges and saw a few people pitch tents in the camp amphitheater. Perhaps in the future, the ranger district will implement a reservation system. To avoid the whole mess, arrive early, or simply bring backpacking gear and camp somewhere with a little more solitude (perhaps along the dirt road between the Schulman Grove and the White Mountain Peak trailhead).
Trail Description: Perhaps it would have made more sense to hike White Mountain Peak before Mount Williamson – as acclimatization for the more difficult climb. Instead, we climbed the more difficult mountain first, then relaxed and enjoyed our hike up this one. The night before our hike, we set up camp at Grandview Campground around 8,700′. We awoke early and took the paved road to the Schulman Grove, then followed the dirt road up to the locked gate at the trailhead. The drive in, (and the drive out for that matter) seemed like the longest hour of driving ever – somewhat boring but you still have to pay close attention to all the rocks, ruts and bumps in the road.
Upon finally reaching the trailhead, we saw two cars and a tent. There were only two other people hiking the mountain on this quiet Thursday in late summer. They had a head start but we would eventually catch up.
The trail is a dirt road…. the whole way! It’s frustratingly well graded and you lose some elevation in two places on the way to the summit.
After a little less than an hour (2 miles in) we passed the UC Research Center and it’s pent up flock of sheep.
Fun fact: the research center was originally built to study high altitude physiology in pilots, flora and fauna (hence the sheep). In the 1940’s, Nello Pace, an assistant physiology professor at Cal, hoped to turn the Mount Whitney summit hut into a research laboratory. When the Sierra Club found out, they fought this plan and suggested the White Mountains instead. The Navy had already built a station here with a road up to 13,200-ft. The Barcroft Laboratory was completed in 1951 and opened up for a variety of research in the high altitude environment. In 1955, a small stone hut was built at the summit of White Mountain Peak for additional studies.
From the research center, a few switchbacks took us up to the dome of the observatory. From there, we could finally see the mountain we had come to
climb walk up.
We didn’t see any bighorn sheep, though they apparently frequent the area. No trees either. We just continued along the road and watched for a couple hours as the mountain got closer to us.
The road goes over and down another hill before it ascends in wide switchbacks up the mountain. The hiking was easy – it’s a road not a trail and it won’t let you forget that. A couple sections of road were pretty much flat, but when you’re breathing heavily due to the lack of oxygen, a walking rest is welcome I guess.
After about an hour of switchbacks, we made it to the top! We sat next to the Summit Hut where they study air pollution, high-altitude physiology, astronomy, and cosmic radiation. We found the benchmark behind the hut.
The only other two hikers out there that day reached the summit shortly after us. We were very lucky with the weather – sunny, cool, and not very windy. A max wind speed of 162.4 mph was recorded on December 19, 2008, but even in the summer the winds can be strong. We spent some time admiring the view, signing the register and eating lunch before making our way back to the trailhead.
All in all, it took four hours to go up and three hours to come down. The drive in/out was the worst part. If there’s ever a next time, I’m bringing a mountain bike.