White Mountain Peak Hike (California)
|In This Guide|
|Distance||15 miles (24.2 km)|
|Total Climbing||3,623 feet (1104m)|
|Highest Elevation||14,246 feet (4342m)|
|Park||Inyo National Forest|
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.
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.
Camping At 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
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:
- Get to the trailhead at sunrise and do the hike.
- If you have some energy left, drive back and do the 4.4 mile hike at Schulman’s Grove.
- If you’re feeling wiped, just do a stop at one of the smaller groves along the drive back and have a look around on a self-guided nature walk.
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:
- Good hiking boots
- Trekking poles
- Daypack with 4.5-6L of water
- Extra Layers
- Emergency gear to spend the night
- An emergency beacon
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.
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 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.
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.