White Mountain Peak Hike (California)

White Mountain Peak Hike (California)

In This Guide
  • The Spectacular Drive to White Mountain Peak Trailhead
  • Gear for the Hike
  • White Mountain Peak Trail Maps
  • Turn by Turn Hike Directions
  • See the Oldest Trees in the World While You’re Here
Distance15 miles (24.2 km)
Time7-9 Hours (Total Time)
DifficultyHard
Total Climbing3,623 feet (1104m)
Highest Elevation14,246 feet (4342m)
Dog FriendlyLeashed
ParkInyo National Forest
Park Phone760-873-2400

The White Mountain Peak hike brings you to the third highest peak in California, only a few hundred feet lower than Mt Whitney, and the highest outside peak of the Sierra Nevada. The hike is tough, but doable, and meanders through the White Mountains Wilderness section of Inyo National Forest: a rugged a beautiful mountain desert, tucked into the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. The summit of White Mountain Peak offers great 360 views from the Eastern Sierras to Nevada.

Hikers often call this the easiest 14,000+ (aka 14er) hike, but do not underestimate the hike to White Mountain Peak. You have to deal with some of the same challenges that you would in the high Sierras, including extreme weather and altitude sickness. It’s great altitude prep to hike Mt Whitney.

How to Get to White Mountain Peak Trailhead

First, don’t confuse the White Mountains Wilderness (California) with White Mountain National Forest (which is in New England). The White Mountains Wilderness is part of Inyo National Forest, which also encompasses Mt Whitney. Getting that wrong will add about 3000 miles to your drive.

The trailhead address is: White Mountain Rd, Bishop, CA, 93514, USA.

The Drive to White Mountain Peak

The drive to the trailhead is half the fun – the last 16 miles are on a dirt road called the Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway. It’s doable in a car, but you’ll enjoy it more in a high clearance vehicle. Beware of sharp stones, flats are common, and tow trucks are far away. The scenery along the way is jaw-dropping. Plan on 60-90 minutes (one-way) to tackle the dirt road.

There are no facilities even remotely close to the trailhead, so make sure you fill your tank and stock up on supplies on Rt 395.

You don’t need a permit to hike White Mountain Peak or park at the trailhead (according to a call to the ranger office). I left my National Parks Pass on the dash, just in case.

In the winter the road is not plowed and could be gated. If in doubt, call the ranger station and see what the deal is. This hike is best attempted in the summer or early fall.

white mountain peak drive
The first section of the drive into the park is paved until you get to Schulman Grove Visitor Center. There are a ton of overlooks as you drive up to the trailhead at 11680 feet.
white mountain peak drive
The White Mountains lie in between the Eastern Sierras and Death Valley, and offer great prominence and 360 views. Here the sunrise is illuminating the Sierras, which you look straight across at, not up to.
white mountain peak drive
Keep your eyes open for wildlife. I saw dozens of mule dear and even a wild horse. The horse was a first for me here.
white mountain peak drive
Eventually White Mountain Peak will come into view, and you only have a few miles to the trailhead.

Dealing With Marmots at the Trailhead

Here’s a fun one. When you park at the trailhead, Marmots might chew through the cables and hoses in your car. Yea. Anti-freeze has a sweet taste, and somehow they can eat it without dying. Evidently it occurs mainly in the spring, up until mid-July. The NPS recommends you wrap a tarp around the bottom of your car. It’s a hassle but worth it. You are literally in the middle of nowhere and a tow will be expensive. I’ve always hiked White Mountain Peak later in the season and have NOT wrapped my Jeep, and have been okay. If you’re in doubt, call the ranger station and see what they recommend.

marmot proofed car
This is the recommended way to marmot-proof your car. It looks like a hassle but realistically would only take a few minutes. Photo NPS

Camping At the Trailhead

white mountain peak hike tent
There’s some basic camping and fire pits to the right of the trailhead.

You can camp at the trailhead. It’s first-come, first-serve, and free. The area exposed, but there are some rocks and a gully you can shelter from the wind in. The campsite is primitive with a bathroom and some fire pits. Grab a campfire permit in Bishop or Lone Pine.

If you want something less primitive, you can try the Grandview campground which is on the road to White Mountain Peak, but pretty far away still.

Stopping to See the Ancient Bristlecone Pines

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Hike

The Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway, which is the road to the trailhead, takes you past some Ancient Bristlecone Forest groves, the oldest living trees on earth. Some of the trees are up to 5000 years old, shaped and gnarled by thousands of years of wind and desert conditions.

Here’s how I’d recommend you plan your trip if you want to see the trees:

I generally do White Mountain Peak early, take a nap, and then do the hike at Schulman’s Grove. It’s a long day but I can’t get enough this area.

Gear for the Hike

Although the trail isn’t technical and you go by some settlement, this is definitely a backcountry hike. You are miles away from almost everything and you should prepare for that.

The climate on White Mountain Peak is that of a mountain desert. Winds can reach over 160mph, and there is no real cover to shelter in, as you are above the tree line for the entire hike. There can also be lightning if a storm passes through. If you see the weather deteriorating, just turn around. You can check the weather station at the summit for real-time conditions.

And it’s dry. In fact, the lowest recorded air moisture ever recorded on earth was here in the White Mountains. So bring more water than you think you need. I went through 4.5 liters, but brought 6 liters

Here’s what I would bring:

Garmin inreach review

If you want hiking gear recommendations, check out my full gear list. I only recommend and review gear that I actually use. No company pays me to push their product. Everything on my gear list is battle tested on the trails, and should work well for you too.

See The Gear I Use

White Mountain Peak Trail Maps

This guide follows the popular South Face route, which is a dirt / rock road, and not a pristine single-track. Don’t let this deter you, the hike is absolutely beautiful. Although it’s only miles to the Eastern Sierra, it feels like you’re hiking on Mars.

There’s also a 20 mile, 8000ft, Class 2 West Ridge route, which you shouldn’t even think about attempting unless you have serious mountaineering experience.

This trail also passes the highest research facility in North America, Barcroft Station, run by the University of California.

Fenix 5x Hiking Review

I highly recommend bringing some form of paper map with you, and then using it in conjunction with a GPS device. You can see the navigation gear that I use here (I’m currently using the Fenix 5x and love it). Just download the GPX file below and load it onto your GPS.

Download the Hike GPX File

View a Printable PDF Hike Map

white mountain peak 3d map
The trail makes its way up toward White Mountain with some gradual climbing. The last stretch to the summit goes straight up. The prominence from the summit is great, with views 7000 feet down into the valley below.
white mountain peak elevation
It’s only about 3600 feet of climbing up the extinct volcano of White Mountain, but the altitude will make it feel much harder. The hardest part of the hike is the last 2 miles or so, which go straight up to the summit. Save energy for the uphill sections on the way back.

White Mountain Peak Hike Directions

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Turn by Turn Hike Directions

Before you start, remember that you are at altitude, and altitude sickness (AMS) can be deadly. If you’re not familiar with how to handle AMS, read about it on my Mt Whitney hike post.

white mountain peak hike
There’s plenty of parking at the trailhead. You can also see the primitive bathroom.
white mountain peak hike trail
Start by hiking at the well-marked gate. The gate opens for traffic to the research station.
white mountain peak hike trail
The trail is easy to follow and climbs from the beginning. There really aren’t many side trails. Anything to the side that you see will likely be an animal run.
University of California Barcroft Facility
After about 2 miles, you’ll reach the University of California Barcroft Facility at 12,470 feet. Just follow the main trail through the camp. The camp is full of experiments, instruments, and facilities for the researchers. It’s all private property, so steer clear. There are no public bathrooms or water sources here.
white mountain peak hike
The trail to White Mountain Peak is marked well through the research facility. Keep your eyes open for marmots that try to eat food meant for the research livestock.
white mountain peak hike
At the end of the research facility there are some signs blocking the trail to traffic. Just go past the signs and keep hiking u the dirt road.
white mountain peak hike
The trail starts to climb again after the research facility.
white mountain peak hike
Shortly after that, you’ll reach Bancroft Observatory. After this the trail goes downhill for a stretch.
white mountain peak hike
After you pass the observatory, the trail is pretty level and you can get nice views of White Mountain Peak in the distance.
white mountain peak hike
Keep your eyes open for wildlife. I saw a ton of marmots up here, and also saw some coyotes and hawks looking to eat them.
white mountain peak hike
Eventually the trail slopes upward again and you start to climb. Avoid any smaller side trails.
white mountain peak hike
There’s a White Mountains Wilderness sign in the middle of nowhere, off to the left of the trail.
white mountain peak hike
As you approach the saddle, you’ll start to see the trail snake up to the summit in the distance.
white mountain peak hike
After the saddle there’s a steep downhill section. This will be painful on the way back, prepare yourself.
white mountain peak hike
The bighorn sheep blend in well the terrain. Keep your eyes open, there are two herds that roam these parts.
white mountain peak hike
Okay, here’s the start of the business end of the hike. After the downhill, you start the last uphill stretch to the summit.
white mountain peak hike
It’s still a dirt road, and it meanders up some switchbacks as you hike toward the summit.
white mountain peak hike
As the trail winds around the east side of the mountain, you’ll be able to get great views of the north into Nevada.
white mountain peak hike
It’s steep and you’re at altitude, so take your time and take plenty of breaks. If you have acute AMS symptoms, turn around and head back down.
white mountain peak hike
As you get closer to the summit, the trail heads north of the summit. Avoid any of the shortcuts to the summit and leave no trace.
white mountain peak hike
Finally the trail twists back south and you hike to the summit. Notice how high you are compared to the Eastern Sierra peaks in the background
white mountain peak hike
Here you are, the summit! The stone shelter is there if you need to take refuge from the weather. I actually had great cell reception here, and was able to video call my wife. Who knew?
white mountain peak hike
Sign the trail register. There’s also some basic supplies in there in case you’re in bad shape.
white mountain peak hike
The views are incredible. To the west, you’ll be able to look straight across to the Sierras.
white mountain peak hike
To the east, you have Nevada and the peaks of Death Valley.

From here, just head back the way you came and that’s the hike!

You can help other hikers. If you do this hike and something has changed, snap a few photos and email me the details. I’ll update the guide so that others can do the hike safely.

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