White Mountains Bristlecone
by Jay Lawrence
July 19 - 20 2008
Things looked promising for an outstanding weekend in the Eastern Sierras when we arrived in Big Pine on Friday. Clear skies, mild temperatures (mid 80’s instead of high 90’s) along the Owens Valley floor, plus a nice breeze. The only question left was when our fellow Desert Explorers would arrive. We didn’t have to wait long. Cyrus and Azi Sarange arrived later that evening with dog Roxy, camping with us at the three flagpoles campground, then Anne and George Stoll, Malcolm and Jeanne Roode and Glen Shaw (in from Nevada!) in the morning. All in Toyotas, too.
After a head count and radio check, we headed east on 168 through Westgard Pass and Batchelder Spring, where the Inyo and White Mountains intersect, then down into Deep Springs Valley, home to the remote (and tiny -- only 15 to 20 students per year) Deep Springs College.
We tossed around a little shared knowledge on the history of the area, including background on White Mountain City (just foundations and smelter chimneys now). At the small rock chimney that marks the outlet of Wyman Canyon we took a break to find a few petroglyphs and trade stories with some campers that had just spent a week being rained on in the Whites. So much for the weather predictions.
We wound our way up through granite rock gardens with house-sized boulders and back down to the creek bed with wildflowers at the road’s edge and greenery everywhere. We learned later from a ranger that despite the droughts everywhere else, the Whites had a wet year, and it showed. We celebrated with a lunch break next to a small trailside waterfall. Two cowboys from Deep Springs stopped by on horseback to let us know they would be running cattle through the canyon later in the day.
On up the canyon we crossed the stream half a dozen times, ducking wild rose branches and enjoying the changes in the terrain and plant life. Rocks and scrub turned to meadows and stands of pine as we rose from 7000 feet toward the Bristlecone zone above 10,000 feet with roadside wildflowers the whole way. We eventually switchbacked out of Wyman canyon to join the graded dirt road along the spine of the Whites at 11,000 feet, above the timberline. Broad, sweeping grassy mountaintop meadows were now mostly treeless, with spectacular overlooks to the west and north to Owens Valley and Fish Creek Slough, with a backdrop of the Eastern Sierras. Just kinda spectular.
We ran out along the ridge to the Patriarch Grove, just short of the trail to the mountain research station and puttered around the Bristlecones on the area trails. Every weatherbeaten tree is a picture, ancient and majestic against the stark, bare rocky soil. Cyrus, Glen and Mal decided they needed to be even higher(!), so they hiked to a nearby peak overlooking the Cottonwood basin. Cameras were clicking and everybody was moving slow due to the distinct shortage of oxygen.
Onward! The afternoon was tapering off so we headed to our overnight spot, Cottonwood Canyon. After scrubbing off a thousand feet of altitude, we headed east a couple of miles to a small saddle with a big “4WD vehicles only” sign. Well, that describes us, so everybody was up and over, then took a hard right on three wheels over a rocky cap to descend into the canyon. Through pines and over tight switchbacks, we scrubbed off another thousand feet of altitude. The trail had degenerated significantly due to the recent rains, so some parts were more ‘eroded dry creek bed” than trail. As we neared the dish of the canyon, we were greeted with aspen on one side and alpine meadows with running streams on the other. Down past two abandoned log cabins and an old corral, and we were officially there.
The campsite had it all - stands of wild roses, winding stream with trout, pine, aspen, great rock formations and only one other vehicle besides our group of five. Do I have to tell you we had a great cocktail hour and potluck? How long have you been a Desert Explorer? We did. Told some stories, found about the secret past lives of our band of gypsies and generally enjoyed ourselves and the setting.
Since we were in a bowl, the morning sun took a while to find us, so coffee was consumed, and we putzed around at a leisurely pace. When everybody was moving we headed up the canyon and had a photo op and home tour at the cabins, plus some group photos for the record.
This road seems easier going up than coming down, but it still requires attention and there is some pucker involved. Definitely uses the 4WD and illustrates the handiness of having lockers in several iffy places. All made it up and out safely, so on we went to some Owens Valley overlooks along the spine of the mountains then down to the ranger station to see the Methuselah Grove of Bristlecones. This park office can be reached by pavement from Highway 168 for the less scenically inclined. After seeing the movies and talking to Ranger George, the star of the flick, we counted heads and checked on everyone’s timetable.
Anne and George were going to stay and admire/draw/photograph here, then head down the pavement, and the rest of us would press on. After goodbyes, we backtracked two miles to Silver Peak and the top of the Silver Creek trail - 11,400 feet to 4,200 feet in about seven miles, most of the drop in the first four miles. Everybody picked a gear they could live with and motored down the canyon, alternating between admiring the view and picking their way around rocks and tight switchback corners.
After several hub-deep water crossings and photo stops we found our way into Laws and the railroad museum there. Though this was the official end of the trip, everybody was hungry, so we hustled into Bishop for a great group lunch at Whiskey Creek. Air conditioning, running water, and somebody else was cooking! Everybody ate well and between mouthfuls expounded on their favorite part of the trip.
Though it was a long way for most of us to come, the pace was very relaxed, and we had a chance to enjoy lots of different aspects of this unique area. We’ll do it again, so come along next time.
by Jay Lawrence