2012 Trip Report - White Mountains
July 21-22, 2012
By: Jay Lawrence
On Saturday morning, our first surprise was Ted Kalil appearing at our campsite in Big Pine and announcing that everybody but Allan Wicker was already here, having coffee and ready to head for the hills! Sylvia and I had pulled in late the evening before and (ever observant) I hadn't recognized any of their vehicles. Joining Ted was Homer Meek, Mignon Slentz and Nelson Miller. Our daughter Ariel, her husband Nick and eight month old granddaughter Alice had rolled in and set up camp next to us in the wee hours of Friday night. So everybody said hello, Allan showed up and we all signed in, anxious to move out.
Normally, the Big Pine, Bishop and the Owens Valley area in summer is an oven, 90-105 degrees, but we lucked out with some light overcast and the start of some clouds, temps in the 70s. A perfect start to the trip. We left Big Pine (4200') a little after 9:00 a.m. and headed east on Highway 168, past the remnants of Zurich Station of the Carson and Colorado Railroad, over the Owens River, past the toll station site and over the Westgard Pass into Deep Springs Valley, about 25 miles of pavement total.
At the junction of Wyman Canyon Road, near Deep Springs College (20-25 students, established 1916 with a celebrated roster of cowboy/scientist/statesman graduates) we headed off the pavement toward the remains of an old 1860s vintage smelter chimney. Nearby we saw the foundations and stacked stone walls that are all that remain of White Mountain City, a mining town that blossomed there in the mid 1800s. If you are a Mark Twain fan, you may know of the spot, since he spent some time there in its heyday. We also found a sizable boulder covered in petroglyphs. Several others are reported in the area, but they would have to wait for another day to be rediscovered.
Everybody mounted up and up the canyon we went. By this time we were at about 6500 feet, so even though the sun was out in full strength, temperatures were comfortable. The trail was generally good, dirt, shale and loose rock with many stream crossings. Meadows were a bit drier this year, but still beautiful with Indian Paintbrush, Blazing Star, and Penstemon. We encountered three motorcyclists on large bikes struggling with a rocky section who asked if this was what the rest of the trail looked like. I assured them they were through the worst of it, then motored on a half mile, past a beautiful little waterfall and around a blind left uphill corner to be surprised by a steep, rocky, loose piece of trail with running water (!) that took every bit of 4WD our vehicles had to get up and over. Oh well, so much for my great advice to the moto guys. They would have to catch me before they could kill me…
Past cows, then a cowboy on horseback, we pressed on. We lunched at the remains of Roberts Ranch, a site with two old cabins and a side road to dozens of mine sites. Exquisite planning put us there with the sun directly overhead and shade in very short supply.
Once back on the trail, the scenery changed from granite, basalt, low scrub and creekside bushes to dolomite limestone, Limber Pines and the start of the Bristlecone Pine Forest at the timberline. Now we were getting some altitude! We made our way up the last switchbacks toward White Mountain Ridge Road and the overlook above the Chalfant Valley and the Sierras to the west was kind of spectacular.
Now at 10-11,000 feet, the low grasses and the Bristlecone Pines were the only vegetation around. It may sound stark, but the 4,000 year old trees are uniquely beautiful and are not easily forgotten.
It was just as we were approaching the Patriarch Grove that Mignon's big Chevy Suburban decided enough was enough. Big electrical gremlins had stopped the engine cold. Trying to start it didn't even make the starter solenoid click, even though the battery was still charged… The idiot lights on the dash went on and stayed on even when the key was turned off and removed! Fooey. This was a problem with a modern computerized electrical system none of us had the ability to outwit.
Noting that it was mid afternoon and there were still some miles to go to camp, we elected to "towstrap" Mignon and Chevy to the Schulman Grove Ranger Station, the nearest paved road stem and possibly a location with cell service or a phone. I pulled and Allan and Homer accompanied us over hill and dale. We made it without incident and Mignon was able to get AAA on the phone and make arrangements. Homer was heading down the hill from there, so he stayed with Mignon until the tow arrived and Allan and I beat feet to meet back up with the rest of the crew (Ted, Nelson, Sylvia, Ariel, Nick and Alice) who had been to visit the Patriarch Grove and hiked a little while we were off fooling around.
After a quick head count, we headed toward Crooked Creek, past the high altitude research station to Cottonwood Pass. The shadows were getting long and we had some 'interesting' trail sections to cover. Down switchbacks through the pines and aspen, first we hit Poison Creek, then joined Cottonwood Creek at McCloud Camp, then continued on to a beautiful creekside camp spot, complete with an old, old, old campfire ring and firewood!
All was right with the world. Beautiful setting, good friends, no flat tires. We set up camp - Allan, Ted and Nelson in tents and the rest of us in our rolling hotels - and got right into potluck prep, just in time for a few heavy raindrops, thunder, lightning, then a real firehose blast of a rain. It stopped, we dried out as the sun was hitting the horizon, campfire was started and the potluck was excellent. Again, no casualties, just a little unexpected water.
It should be noted that this was Nelson's first trip down this trail, and Nick's first time driving it in his 4WD Vanagon (!). Even though there are several 'attention getter' segments and questionable off-camber steep turns on this descent, Nick and Nelson made it to camp without incident. Everyone agreed that Mignon's Suburban picked the right place to stop working. Towing it back up the trail we had just come down would have been a significant challenge.
Sunday morning was gorgeous, clear skies, hot coffee, a casual breaking of camp and the discovery of a very loose skid plate underneath my Tundra. On closer inspection, it turned out that the thoughtful folks at Toyota had stripped out the bolts using their air tools when changing the oil over the years. Ted Kalil came to the rescue with baling wire! A couple of wraps through each bolt hole and we were ready to hit the road.
Up we went, with only minor disagreement on whether the trail is scarier going down or coming back up. All arrived at Cottonwood Pass and off we went toward the ridge road. We enjoyed the scenic overlook above Laws and Bishop (11,400') and rolled on to the Schulman Grove where we lunched and got a look at the new Ranger Center being built, due to open in September. (The old one was burned down several years ago by a fellow who was taking the voices in his head way too seriously.)
We headed up to Silver Peak and switchbacked down Silver Creek Canyon, dropping 7,000 feet in six miles. The roadside geology is pretty outstanding, and sometimes we have seen Bighorn sheep on the way down. Once past the final water crossing, we were back on level ground and joined the pavement near the Laws Railroad Museum just down the road from Bishop. Allan and Ted said goodbye and headed on home, but Nelson, Alice, Nick, Ariel, Sylvia and I had a good look around the museum grounds. There is a lot to see!
We all said our goodbyes as lightning and thunder announced another batch of showers on the way. It was an excellent trip with great folks. Later, Mignon let us know that she made it home safely and her mechanic sorted out the loose (and also previously repaired) wire that threw her truck's electrical system into a tailspin.
Special thanks again to Axel Heller, who originally showed us this trail and camp about 25 years ago. Cheers, Jay