White Mountains (California)
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.
This is the highest mountain range totally within the Great Basin of the western United States. 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 the California-Nevada state line nearly parallels the range and crosses the crest near its north end so that Boundary Peak (13,147'/4,007m) is Nevada's highest summit while all other high summits are in California.
While the Sierra Nevada to the west have conventional mountain scenery of the type familiar in advertisements and calendars, the White Mountains offer a less cliched experience. 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' to 14,000', 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' 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 as well as calcium, and it is thinly forested with trees growing to perhaps 30'/10m.
Flora and fauna
Semi-desert with sagebrush up to a lower timberline at 6,500' (2,000m), then Single-leaf Pinyon Pine and Utah Juniper to about 9,000' (2,700m), Mountain Mahogany brush for the next 600' (200m), then Limber Pine and Bristlecone Pine to an alpine timberline at 11,000' (3,300m). Sagebrush and grass reach 12,000' (3,700m), scattered alpine plants reach 14,000' (4,300m). 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', 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' 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' (2,400m). A rough extension requiring 4wd reaches the crest at about 10,000' (3,000m) 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.
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.
Venomous rattlesnakes are never found about 10,000 feet (3,000m) 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' (3,700m), 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.