Bristlecone pines, marmots and research centres

White Mountain CaliforniaThe Last Adventurer

If you have ever wanted to visit a place in the world that appears to be ruled by marmots, White Mountain is the place for you. At this point, you, the reader are likely wondering what a marmot is; and where the location is in North America that they rule with a small paw. In case you’ve never encountered one, a marmot is a basically a large squirrel that weighs five to eight pounds, and lives in rock piles or underground burrows. Marmots are usually only found above 6,500 feet of elevation; and are interesting creatures that usually hibernate through winter, and let out high pitches chirps to communicate with their fellow furry rodents. In my opinion, while there are many great alpine spots to see marmots, where they reign supreme is White Mountain. 

At 14, 152 feet, White Mountain is the tallest peak in the White Mountain Range of California, which is a remote mountain range on the Eastern border of the state. It is an area of California that not many people visit; and it is an area with a number of things to explore. Most people visit the White Mountains of California to do two things: see the ancient bristlecone pines; and to climb White Mountain.  As I found out, both of these goals can be accomplished in a single visit to the White Mountains; but it is an adventure that takes a great deal of time, and although the climb is not the most technically challenging, it is a fourteen mile roundtrip hike through high alpine conditions.

White Mountain SignThe Last Adventurer

One of the toughest things about visiting White Mountain is addressing its remote location. The nearest town to the White Mountains is Big Pine, California, which is located twenty-three miles to the South; and in order to get to the White Mountains, one must traverse single lane mountain roads which become unpaved after the Schulman Grove of bristlecone pines. Further, as this is a remote area without people, it is inaccessible during the winter by car, as the roads are not plowed. What this means is that if you are planning to visit the White Mountains, or White Mountain like I did, you will have to go in the summertime, after most, if not all of the snow has melted.

When I went, I left Big Pine early one morning, and drove up to the White Mountain Road. When I reached the Schulman Grove, where the pavement ends, I pulled out, and took a quick break to explore the bristlecone pines, which are the oldest trees in North America. Once I was done, I got back in my car, and slowly drove down the remainder of White Mountain Road to the White Mountain Trailhead. Although the road is graded, it always will be unpaved, so although the distance is short, it is a long drive that does require an AWD or 4WD vehicle. I drove to the end of White Mountain Road, which is clearly marked by a gate – the Barcroft Station Gate. Right before the gate, there is an area with a pit toilet, and numerous spots to park your car. While the entirety of this trail is pretty straightforward, I found the first two miles particularly easy to follow as it is the road leading up to Barcroft Station, which is the highest research laboratory in North America.

Barcroft StationThe Last Adventurers

From Barcroft Station, the road ended, and I found myself on the actual trail that leads up to White Mountain. While there had been some elevation gain along the first two miles, the beginning of the third mile of trail has a lot of elevation gain over the course of a half mile and a number of switchbacks. However, the payoff was worth it, as I found myself on a broad, flat, high alpine plateau with nothing but amazing views of the White Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada mountains to the West. At this point I was at 12,900 feet, and even though I was alone – I was not alone. I soon found that the broad, alpine plateau with the stunning views was the heartland of the marmot kingdom.

MarmotsThe Last Adventurer

As I crossed the plateau, I passed marmot holes, and marmots, some of which chirped at me and took flight, others of which surveyed me imperiously from boulders and other rocks. During this portion of the hike, between the gusts of wind, the mountainous views, and the marmots, I felt like I was the only man left on the planet. At the North end of the plateau, I left most of the marmots, and headed up a number of small saddles to the now very visible White Mountain. At the top of the last saddle, the trail became challenging as it headed steeply up the remaining elevation to the top of the peak. This part of the trail was not for the faint hearted as it was steep, with a few spots where a fall could have seriously problematic; but the payoff was worth it. After the grueling climb, I found myself on top of the world of marmots and men, with great views, a stone cabin, and nothing else. Once I had seen all I could see of California and Nevada, I headed back down the trail for a great fourteen mile

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