White Mountain Peak is the crowning jewel in the White Mountains of California. At 14,246 feet, it is the third highest mountain in California and looks far more impressive from a distance than it’s taller, more famous brother Mt Whitney, which is just down and across the valley. You really can’t miss White Mountain in the winter, it is the highest point on the whitest mountains in the region. Even in summer, it dominates its little corner of the world.
Even though the peak itself is very impressive, it is the lowly Bristlecone Pines that really make this place special to me. In fact, they were the first reason I ever came here. On this barren pile of rock, the oldest trees on the planet have quietly lived their lives for thousands of years. And I don’t mean the species either – some of the actual living trees are thousands of years old. They are not the most handsome of trees with their scraggly limbs and bent trunks, but you can’t help but be impressed by their sheer will to live. Do yourself a favor and make the time to visit them, but respect their space. They have been doing just fine since long before the first human ever laid eyes on this place. All they need from us is to be left to do their thing in peace!
From Bishop, you can drive to the trailhead at close to 12,000 feet on a dirt road that will shake your fillings out. It is off of Hwy 168. If you are not used to altitude, take advantage of every foot. Once at the trailhead, you are looking at a very scenic 7 miles to the summit with a pretty tame elevation gain of around 2,500 feet. If you are acclimated to high places it is a walk in the park, if not it can be a real grind. Being above tree line, you are completely exposed to the elements. Be sure to slather on the sun screen and bring a lot of water as you will shrivel up like a raisin without it. It should go without saying that you should turn around at the first sign of storm clouds anywhere within your field of view. Up there, you are nothing but a lightning rod in hiking boots.
The walk begins pretty easily and even has some downhill sections before delivering you to the summit push. From there it is a series of switchbacks up to the top up the scree slopes. Being so high, the views are outstanding for most of the walk even though White Mountain itself is total desolation. You pass a couple of small research stations along the way but otherwise it’s you, rock and sky. I hear there is some wildlife to be seen on the mountain, but all I have ever encountered are the yellow-bellied marmots that often seem to choose these inhospitable places to live.
There is a small hut on the summit and a life-altering view. Under a cobalt blue sky, you can see a huge swath of the Eastern Sierra, a good-sized chunk of Nevada and even Death Valley. I was struck by how different the Sierra looks from the summit until I realized that this is one of the few really high places where you can see it, without being in it. You get a whole new perspective.
For hikers with some experience at these altitudes, White Mountain Peak is a pleasant half day hike. However, regardless of your fitness level I suggest leaving very early in the morning, especially in summer when storms can be an issue. You will also avoid the worst of the intense direct sun on your ascent. I find the light on the Eastern Sierra is best in early to mid-morning so if you plan to snap some photos, the earlier the better. From 11 am on, the light is pretty harsh for photography.
If you are looking to bag your first 14,000′ mountain, White Mountain Peak is a great choice. I recommend it whole-heartedly!