By Todd Vogel
As a mountain guide, outdoor educator and (nearly) twenty-year resident of the Owens Valley I’ve had the privilege to explore many of the area’s fine mountain places. Of the many of exceptional hikes and ski tours I’ve done in the Sierra and environs a hike that stands out as truly exceptional – in a land defined by spectacular hikes – is a walk that is not in the Sierra at all.
Across the Owens Valley from the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains receive much less attention than their big brothers to the west. From the valley floor “the Whites” appear to be dusty, brown, dry and desolate. A veritable wasteland. There’s little fishing (though there are fish) and you need to work hard to get wet there, much less go for a swim. Travel is mostly rugged, high, and off-trail and access is via poorly maintained dirt roads. There are no outhouses at the trailheads. Why go at all?
Perhaps best known for the Bristlecone Pine, one of Earth’s oldest living things, the Whites are full of mystery and surprise, not to mention the best views of the Sierra obtainable with your feet still on the ground. A surprise: there are nearly 40 named streams in the Whites, a range barely sixty miles in length. And a mystery: many Native American artifacts remain there including remnant trails and ancient hunting blinds at over 13,000’; what was it like to earn part of your living in such an inhospitable place?
After years of looking at the Whites from “across the street” and countless day hikes up the streams and canyons on their west side I gave in to temptation and decided to take a hike along the length of the range.
The route finding is easy enough: with the exception of some options at the start and end there really aren’t many ways to go. It’s one long ridge top after all. But, as they say, the devil is in the detail. One big challenge of the hike is how best to deal with the extreme elevation. Hikers and mountaineers have long known that too fast a trip to high altitude can lead to illness. After studying the map a sequence of camps that fit with a cautious approach to the elevation became apparent. Ideally we’d position ourselves so that our first night’s camp was at 10,000’, the second at 11,000, and so forth. So we decided to begin near White Mountain Research Station’s Crooked Creek facility, placing our first camp comfortably near 10,000’ in the northern part of Cottonwood Basin.
Cottonwood Basin is one of those surprising places. Granite rock formations dot the landscape and dense groves of aspen trees line the edges of vast sagebrush covered meadows. Cottonwood Creek is too big to easily jump across in many places and in the North Fork fearless endangered Paiute Cutthroat trout wait their turn for insects to float by. The fish were stocked here decades ago but that’s another story (sorry, no fishing!). Here the trail follows the creek through dense riparian thickets alive with birds and other critters. This is the arid wasteland I mentioned before?
A day later the crest of the mountains are gained near Mcafee Meadow. A brief but welcome stint on the old White Mountain road leads to the top of the Range’s namesake peak which at 14,246’ is higher than all but two of California’s “fourteeners”. Most travelers turn back here but this trek is just getting into high gear!
Just past White Mountain Peak is a bit of interesting terrain. In guide speak that means challenging stuff ahead… Travel here is not technical but at 14,000’ it’s hard enough. It takes a couple of hours to weave through the snow patches and loose rock that guard entrance to the north half of the Whites. The day ends at a camp at the saddle between Birch and Cabin Creeks, a fitting end to a marathon day. Another interesting place: though 500’ from each other at their headwaters, one creek flows to the west, the other to the east. Arrowheads and obsidian chips are abundant here.
The northern end of the Whites rise to the spectacular Pellisier Flats, a five mile long rolling plateau at 13,000’. Stunning views are plentiful: it’s possible to see the peaks of Lake Tahoe to the north and the peaks of southern Death Valley in the opposite direction, a distance of nearly 300 miles. More unexpected discoveries: Just south of Mt. Dubois, the high point of Pellisier Flats, a spring emits a steady flow; others have found this spot, an ancient hunting shelter is nearby.
What goes up must eventually come down and the end of the White Mountains hike is something to be prepared for. A descent off the top of the Whites is a strenuous (some would say brutal) initiation to hiking in the range. It seems that up and over Boundary Peak is the best way as most of the elevation is lost on steep trails and an old dirt road. Other options exist but whatever way you choose you’ll have earned your end of trip beer!
Floating above the Great Basin desert sea it’s easy to imagine these mountains as islands. As the hike unfolds so does the mystery; questions answered but, reason enough to return, many more occur.