Mt Tom

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | California hikes
Mt Tom (4161m) is a relatively easy High Sierra mountain to climb located near Bishop.

Via Pine Creek

Mt Tom is drained on the southeast by Horton Creek, on the west by Gable Creek and on the north by Pine Creek. The easiest route if you don't drive on dirt roads is the one from the Pine Creek pack station. Gable Creek has a trail from the Pine Creek stables (where Pine Creek Rd is closed). Make sure you take the correct trail: there are two trailheads here, and the one you want is the Gable Lakes trailhead (the other one goes to Pine Lake). From the parking lot look east (left of the stables, towards Mt Tom). The sign is barely marked on a tree. Needless to say, the biggest advantage of this route is that you have water till about 3000 meters, and some of the hike is in the shade. The first steep part of the trail heads south. Once the view of the parking lot disappears, the summit is already visible. In front of you is a steep canyon that comes down from the plateau of the mine. It is usually covered with snow and ice. Then the trail bends right (west) and coasts the creek gaining little elevation. It finally begins the switchbacks that take you to the lower Gable Lake. The outlet of this lake (100 meters upstream from the abandoned house) is narrow and usually passable without much trouble. The trail continues on the other side to an abandoned mine (from here you have a view of the upper lake as well). It then climbs to the other side of the hill to another lake. Coast the lake to the east (left). If you look carefully you will find an easy way to cross its outlet without getting wet. From here you are faced with the only dilemma of the hike. In front of you (south) is a crest that blocks your view. You can head for the left corner (southeast) and take any of the class-3 chutes up to the lowest point in the crest (the saddle), or you can head for the right corner and heard for the lowest point of all, which is the Four Gables Pass. Once at the pass, you have to follow the crest all the way to the east. From the crest you will see Mt Tom clearly. Either way, when you reach the saddle, descend into Hanging Valley. The road that comes up from Buttermilk is now very visible. Take the road and ascend to the upper mine (a lower mine is in the valley itself). There is usually snow and ice on the road near the mine (in the northern side) so you may have to leave the road and scramble up to the upper portion of the mine. You are now right under the summit. Climb the class-3 chute to the top.

  • Pine Creek Rd
  • The trail bends west 1h30'
  • Lower Gable lake 3h
  • Four Gables pass 5h
  • Hanging Valley 6h
  • Upper mine 7h
  • Summit 8h

Via Horton Lakes

The most popular route to Mt Tom is the southern route from the Horton Lakes trailhead, following the old mining road to the tungsten mines, but this entails driving on a dirt road for about one hour (see the directions in the right column).

The trailhead is at 2456 meters of elevation (coordinates 37.31223 & 118.62489). The "trail" (it is obvious that it used to be a road) climbs a little ridge and then (after crossing the creek on a bridge) turns left and ventures inside the valley between Center Basin and Mt Tom. It does not gain much elevation until the second lake. Then a series of long switchbacks take you to the plateau called "Hanging Valley". The road here is in excellent conditions. It basically makes a sharp U-turn and proceeds towards the northern side of Mt Tom. In early season there is likely to be snow in shady places. Here the road is not gaining elevation at all. You will see two mines on the left (going inside the mountain on the other side of Hanging Valley) and one on your right. Resist the temptation to climb to this mine. The road dead ends at another mine. There is lots of vintage equipment left. Climb above the mine and you'll find the use trail. This very sandy use-trail is more useful downhill than uphill. Best for climbing is the ridge to the left, which has long stretches of solid rock. Unfortunately you are climbing in the wrong direction. As you look up, you see a lot of peaks. It is virtually impossible to aim for the right one unless you are very familiar with the mountain. When the ridge ends, you want to move two chutes to the left. There is a very visible monolith that is a good reference point: that is the chute that goes straight to the real summit.

There are three peaklets that are almost the same height, and from down below they all look the same height. The real summit has the USGS marker and the register. Coming down don't forget that you have to move two chutes to the left or you'll end up too low into a rather dangerous avalanche chute on the Pine Creek side of things. This last climb (the only part without a trail) is far from easy. The slope is almost never more than class-2 but the amount of scree, loose rock and assorted obstacles is quite annoying. It take more than one hour for very experienced climbers. It can take several hours if you are a casual hiker who thought the trail from the Horton Lakes was steep. By far the most annoying part is not knowing where the real summit is. I hope these pictures help:

A more direct but also more adventurous way to get to the top is to climb towards the east ridge. When you reach the bridge, the road makes a sharp left. Instead of making that left, go straight for a few minutes and you will hit another road (visible from the bridge). This road starts climbing much sooner and eventually reaches a high-elevation mine. The road continues west (and then dead ends in the middle of nowhere). From the mine, instead, head straight up. You have already gained quite a bit of elevation and you gain more rapidly. On your left you will start seeing the chutes full of sand and scree that come down from Mt Tom. Getting here is relatively fast and easy, but the ending requires climbing skills.

  • Horton Lakes trailhead (2456m)
  • Abandoned house 30'
  • Bridge 40'
  • Firt lake 2h10'
  • Second lake (cabins) 2h 20'
  • Hanging Valley 4h20'
  • Dead end mine 5h
  • Summit 6h45'


Directions to Pine Creek trailhead:

Take the turnout to Rovana off hwy 395 bout 14kms north of Bishop. The road goes through the tiny town of Rovana and then continues. Just before the dead end there on your left if the Pine Creek packing station. You can park and camp in the large parking lot. Another popular place to camp is a bit down the road. From the Rovana turnoff count 12 kms or (if you still use the silly imperial system) 7.3 miles. Just before a group of tall trees the main road is intersected by another road. Turn left (fully paved) and you'll find a number of good parking spaces by the creek.

Directions to Horton Lakes trailhead:

From Bishop go west on 168 (called West Line in Bishop). After about ten minutes (13 kms), turn right into the unpaved Buttermilk Rd (if you get to Starlite Dr, you missed it). Buttermilk Rd is marked as road 7S101. Great views in front of you of Mt Humphreys, Basin Mt and Mt Tom.

Continue on this road ignoring all the sub-roads (that are called 7S017 till 7s01I) until you get to the small sign (hard to see at night) pointing to the right for "Horton Trailhead", 8 kms from the start of Buttermilk Rd. This takes about 30-40 minutes depending on how much damage you want to cause to your car. The road gets considerably worse beyond this sign (more rocks and running water) and it's unlikely you'll go very far with a regular car. Most likely you will want to park in a small opening at 37.32166 & 118.61001. You are just one kilometer or 15 minutes of walking from the Horton trailhead. You can follow the switchbacks of the road or just head up straight through the low brush parallel to the creek (keep the creek on your left). The Horton Lakes trailhead (10 kms from where you left 168) is a gate: the road used to continue all the way up to the Mt Tom tungsten mine at 4000 meters. The "trail" is in fact the old road.