Hiking White Mountain Peak in California

Notes by piero scaruffi | See Travel resources | See Other California hikes

White Mountain Peak (4344 m), the highest point in the White Mountains range, is the third highest peak in California, just 80m lower than Mount Whitney. The hike to the summit via the regular trail is a relatively easy 12km (by far the easiest to hike of all the 4000m mountains in California) because the trailhead is already at 3.800 meters of elevation.

Scroll down for the much tougher route from Jeffrey Mine canyon.

Trail Route

The trailhead is at the closed gate before the White Mountain Research Station, at about 3,800 meters of altitude. The elevation gain is therefore only about 600 meters (compared with the almost 2000m of Whitney and more than 2,700m of Mt Williamson). The hike can be strenuous because of the altitude, not of the grade.
The hike to the summit is about 12 kms from the closed gate. First you hike to the research station (45'), then you hike to the observatory (the dome). From the observatory the trail goes down and then up again with a very mild grade. After this second pass (2h), the trail plunges down and crosses over to White Mountain Peak itself. At this point the house at the summit is clearly visible. This last part of the hike is a series of switchbacks that feel steeper than they are.
Expect about 3-4 hours to go up and 3 to come down. My 2006 time:
  • Station: 46'
  • Dome: 66'
  • Second Pass: 2h10'
  • Summit: 3h 11'
  • Station: 5h15'
  • Gate: 5h45'
This is rather lame hike for a 4000+ meter peak, so you may want to add a little adventure to it. The lower western peak is clearly visible from the top and can be reached in two hours. Walk to the western window of the cabin (if you are at the summit register box, it's the left side of the cabin) and look down. It looks steep but it is not. Downclimb those boulders and then coast the first subpeak to its right. This will take you to the ridge that connects the summit with the west peak. Just follow the ridge to the obvious saddle. Then you have to climb the west peak, which is easier than it looks but does require a few class-3 moves. From here you have a much more epic view of the real summit cabin.

Directions from Bishop:
Travel 23km south on hwy 395 to Big Pine, then, just before entering town, turn into hwy 168 for 21 kms. Turn left onto White Mountain Road (in 2006 the sign said "Bristlecone Forest"). Drive 11km up to Schulman Grove ranger station/ visitor information (3048m). Drive 21km beyond Schulman Grove to reach the gate. After the ranger station, the road is bad gravel and steep, and requires a high-clearance car or a lot of patience. It takes about one hour to do the unpaved section to the gate/trailhead.

Western Route

White Mountain can also be hiked from the west (the Jeffrey Mine route). The trailhead is located at the dead end of a dirt road (forest road 4S135) that is not easy to reach with low-clearance cars (neither impossible though). The total elevation gain is almost 3,000 meters.

Take highway 6 from Bishop and drive north about 20 minutes. Turn right into White Mountain Ranch Rd. As of 2014 this road is paved only for a bit while you are coasting a ranch. After about 2 kms from the highway this road splits. Take the left branch (which basically takes you back towards the ranch) for about 300 meters and then the first right (forest road 4S135, but as of 2014 there was no sign). Continue as far as you can. The road dead-ends after about 5 kms.

If you car cannot make it, park your car anywhere on White Mountain Ranch Rd, and walk in the desert following the above directions towards 4S135, and look for the very wide canyon (dug by Chinese workers a century ago) to the right of 4S135 that heads east: it parallels the road all the way. Needless to say, don't do this on a hot summer day: it's 5 kms to the dead end.

The 4S135 road turns into the trail (or, better, disappears and all is left is vestiges of it). The trail/road winds its way up into the canyon, and it may occasionally be difficult to figure out where it goes. But you won't get lost as all little canyons lead to the same place. Pay attention when, after about one hour, you see the sign "Upper Mine". Turn right to visit the cabins of Black Eagle Camp (2301m), which are quite a sight. One is a museum. One is a kitchen. Retrace your steps to the trail and ascend towards the Upper Mine. When the trail deteriorates and heads straight north into the northern ridge, leave the trail and start walking parallel to the creek (which at this point is about 200 meters away, but deep down into a gorge), gaining elevation but not too much. The rule of thumb is to stay low enough that you avoid the vegetation (and the rocky formations) but not so low that the slope gets too steep. You may find cairns (and even rusty pipes) marking the route. If you are bushwhacking, you are probably too high; if you are slipping all the time, you are probably too low. After a couple of hours the slope of the gorge gets much more reasonable and you can easily enter the creekbed and cross to the southern side of the creek if you want to. (I did and noticed absolutely no difference between the two sides).
Note: i don't think it is a good idea to climb too high on either side of the drainage. Descriptions that send you to the top of the southern ridge probably make you waste a lot of time. The top of the northern ridge is equally not ideal. I found that halfway on the northern side is a good compromise. After a while it also becomes relatively easy to walk into the creekbed itself.
Whichever way you went up, the two ridges and the drainage eventually meet at a saddle. On the other side, starting from the left/northern tip of the saddle, is a spine that leads to several false summits, one after the other. The last one is the West Peak (4023m). There is no need to climb these false summits. If you can, bypass them to the right or to the left. Alas, this gets progressively more difficult to do. The outlook of the real summit has been visible all the time up ahead to the left whenever you are walking on the spine or to the left of it. You still have to gain 300 meters of elevation.

The route from the west peak to the real summit:

From the West Peak you have to downclimb to the saddle connecting the two peaks and then climb straight up. The only technical section is actually the downclimb which requires a couple of (easy) class-3 moves. If you do it along the ridge, you also have some exposure.

Looking back at the West Peak after the downclimb:

Once at the saddle you have to start climbing towards the real summit and this is as straightforward as it can get: just stay near the ridge and scramble over the loose rocky terrain. It is tedious but not technical at all. Leave the ridge only when you are in sight of the summit: the very last subpeak is better bypassed to the left.

Follow the ridge to the top:

Finally the cabin of the summit is in front of you. You have multiple choices, all of them easy. There's an obvious chute to the left of the cabin. It is rocky and slippery but it is class-2. You can also climb straight up, easy and firm class-3 boulders. Or you can move slightly to the right and take a less steep class-3 route. Either of these options are quick and easy compared with what you have done to get near the summit.

The chute to the left and the class-3 route in the middle:

  • Trailhead (1694m)
  • Black Eagle Camp (2301m): 1h30'
  • Almost at the upper mine, leave the trail: 2h15'
  • Easy slope, crossed to foresty south slope: 4h
  • Saddle connecting the two ridges (3474m): 5h45'
  • West Peak (4023m): 8h
  • Saddle connecting the two peaks: 8h30'
  • Summit (4344m): 10h


Pictures of these hikes
Weather forecast for White Mountain
National Parks
Bishop chamber of commerce
Highway 395

The White Mountains

The White Mountains receive very little rain year-round because the Sierra takes the majority of moisture from the Pacific storms. Most of the times, only strong dry winds reach the White Mountains. Annual precipitation is less than 30cm (mostly in the form of snow in winter). The White Mountains have the lowest amount of moisture in the air ever recorded anywhere on earth (0.5mm in the summer).
The mountains feature some of the oldest trees in the world, surpassing the giant sequoia of the Sierra by more than a millennium. August is the best month to see the wildflowers.
The White Mountains are mainly made of quartzitic sandstone and granite bedrock, with extensive outcrops of dolomite (limestone). The White Mountains are studied by geologists because of rocks as ancient as 500 million years. Fossils abound.

Camping is free at the Grandview campground (2621m), on a first come basis (36 sites), open may through october. There is no water. You can also camp right at the gate.

For the record...

Check how White Mountain compares with other mountains