Exploring the White Mountains

The White Mountains live in the Eastern shadow of their taller, but younger sibling, the famous Sierra Nevada. While millions of visitors flock to parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon every year, only a handful outside-the-box thinkers venture into the Whites, and their journey is greatly rewarded.

Unparalleled night skies, breathtaking views (including of the Sierra Nevada Range), peace and quiet, as well as the chance to see some of the planet’s oldest organisms are just some of the activities.

ancient bristlecone pine forest; inyo national forest; schulman grove; sunset; trees; white mountains Waited for quite some time for the pinks to sohw up behind this tree.

Waited for quite some time for the pinks to sohw up behind this tree.

Methuselah

One of the major draws to the White Mountains are the forests of Pinus longaeva, a.k.a. the Ancient Bristlecone Pines. While the trees are not as tall as the coastal redwoods, nor as massive as the giant sequoia of the Sierra, their age is a marvel. At 5,065 years old, a member of the species is the oldest non-clonal organism on the planet.

The bristlecones moved into the area as the last ice age receded about 11,000 years ago; in fact, some deadfall has been dated to that period.

The trees can most easily be viewed from two locations. The first, and more popular, is the Schulman Grove; home of Methusela which is famous for being the oldest at 4,846 years until the aforementioned elder was discovered in 2013. The Methuselah Walk is a 4-mile loop with approximately 800 feet of elevation gain. Plan to spend plenty of time as you’ll surely want to pause and reflect upon many of the trees. Not only are they very old, but their shapes are aesthetically pleasing.

ancient bristlecone pine forest; inyo national forest; schulman grove; trees; white mountains These two handsome trees stood along the Discovery Trail at the Schulman Grove.

These two handsome trees stood along the Discovery Trail at the Schulman Grove.

inyo national forest; white mountains These are the seed bearing cones of the bristlecone. Purple is the more common color though a small portion of them are green.

These are the seed bearing cones of the bristlecone. Purple is the more common color though a small portion of them are green.

IMPORTANT: While these trees have survived time, fire, drought, snow, and storm, soil compaction can kill them. Please stay on trails to allow future generations to view the trees.

There are two shorter trails in the Schulman Grove area; the Discovery Trail loop, where some of the most picturesque specimens can be found, and the Cabin Trail.

Make sure to check out the visitor center and view the 19-minute film about how important the bristlecones are to science. You can also pay your visitor fees here ($3 per person or $6 per vehicle) which help protect the groves.

12 unpaved miles further up White Mountain Road lies the Patriarch Grove. At 11,000 feet of elevation, where little grows, this grove is another testament to the resilience of the bristlecones.

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Where to Stay

inyo national forest; sierra nevada; sunrise; white mountains Split Mountain with pink-ish light cast by the sunrise. Viewed from near our campsite just above Grandview Campground.

Split Mountain with pink-ish light cast by the sunrise. Viewed from near our campsite just above Grandview Campground.

If you’re looking for the comfort of a pit toilet, then the Grandview Campground, located along the White Mountain Road, is where you’ll want to head. The site is designated as a dark sky campground and is frequented by astronomers. They are attracted to the area with good reason. The campground is located at 8,600 feet of elevation and multiple mountain ranges stand as a buffer for the light-polluting urban centers of California and Nevada. Make sure you stay up at night to view the Milky Way and possibly catch a few shooting stars.

To maintain this as a sky watcher’s paradise, please keep generator noise down and only use lights at your site when absolutely necessary. The campground is free, but there is a donation box. Remember, the forest service does maintain the site and provides toilet paper.

IMPORTANT: While the area is inside of a National Forest, and dispersed camping opportunities abound, campfires and camping within the Bristlecone Forest are prohibited. Please do your part to help these ancient wonders by following the rules.

Winching Practice

There’s a reason why hikers and backpackers don’t flock to the Whites. The mountain range lies in the Mojave Desert. There is little water to be found so making anything more than a day-hike or an overnighter would require food and water caches. Much of the area can more easily be explored with a 4×4, high-clearance vehicle.

IMPORTANT: Owning a Jeep is not enough. Please make sure you have the proper equipment and experience (or are accompanied by someone with experience) before heading out on any off-road adventure.

inyo national forest; sierra nevada; white mountains The view includes Split Mountain, the Thumb, and Middle and North Palisades among others.

The view includes Split Mountain, the Thumb, and Middle and North Palisades among others.

The idea was to take a shortcut from Grandview to CA-168 through a scenic canyon then head up another dirt road to explore the Mollie Gibson Mine. The 4×4 road (not present on all maps) we had in mind was forest route 35E313. The rocky, windy, often narrow, unmaintained road made for slow going. Though the road is quite short, maybe 2 miles in length, it took us several hours to navigate half the length.

A dry waterfall and a narrow passage wait just a short distance down canyon; we were unable to pass.

Going back the way you came can be harder than expected. I’ll just say that I got some experience using my winch to pull two trucks up a steep section.

Mollie Gibson

Though Mollie Gibson Road is not as scenic as others in this area, the mine-site itself is rather interesting. You will see several tailings piles as well as the typical rubble heap, consisting mainly of rusty, discarded food and beer cans from the mining times. Please do not add your own garbage to the pile.

inyo national forest; mines; white mountains One of the shafts at Mollie Gibson Mines.

One of the shafts at Mollie Gibson Mines.

A short hike will take you to the mine shafts. A couple are large enough to enter. Bring a flashlight and common sense. Do not enter the shafts if they seem dangerous, and make sure that someone stays behind. In case of a collapse, someone needs to be able to go for help. Cellphones typically don’t work underground.

White Mountain Road

White Mountain Road runs from CA-168, past Grandview Campground, to Schulman Grove, and beyond to the Barcroft Research Station and to the summit of White Mountain Itself.

ancient bristlecone pine forest; cottonwood basin; inyo national forest; panoramic; patriarch grove; white mountains Looking down from nearly 12k feet along the White Mountain Road. Below us lie Cottonwood Basin (left), and the Patriarch Grove (center).

Looking down from nearly 12k feet along the White Mountain Road. Below us lie Cottonwood Basin (left), and the Patriarch Grove (center).

The first 9.5 miles to Schulman Grove are paved. When the pavement ends, 4WD is highly recommended. Though you may be able to get your sedan further along the road, there are some steep, dusty sections, and I’m fairly certain that getting stuck in the middle of the deserts is not on most people’s bucket lists.

A locked gate stops vehicles about 17 miles after the pavement ends. From there it’s hiking only.

Along the road you will be rewarded with constant views of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. As you gain elevation (approx. 12k feet) the landscape becomes more alien. The white-ish dolmite gravel and the ability to look down on the Patriarch Grove will fill you with wonder.

Wildlife; inyo national forest; white mountains Our last treat were these bighorn just sitting in the middle of the road as we made our way down Silver Canyon. They were not disturbed by our loud trucks or the noise we made taking pictures. Guess they know they

Our last treat were these bighorn just sitting in the middle of the road as we made our way down Silver Canyon. They were not disturbed by our loud trucks or the noise we made taking pictures. Guess they know they’re protected in CA.

You may choose to drive down to Cottonwood Basin and explore it on foot. The area, a granite intrusion into otherwise carbonate rock, is a geologist’s heaven.

Instead of heading all the way back down on the return trip, you can take the scenic Silver Canyon down to Bishop. The road is very steep and 4WD low-range is required. Drive slow and watch for bighorn sheep. We came across a family of four sitting in the middle of the road.

Climbing White Mountain

While we did not gain the summit on this trip, you may want to work climbing White Mountain into your itinerary.

White Mountain Peak, which is actually reddish in color, is the 3rd highest of California’s 15 “fourteeners”. It is one of only two such mountains not in the SIerra Nevada (the other being Mount Shasta in the Cascades). From the locked gate, the peak can be gained over 7-miles by hiking along the White Mountain Road. The elevation gain is just over 2,000 feet, but be aware that your body will act much differently at this elevation.

For details about the route, and alternatives, read here.

For more national forest adventures, visit our U.S. Forest Service Agency Guide.