The White Mountains are, without doubt, the most obscure and unknown of all the 14,000 foot ranges in the United States. This elite group of ranges includes the well-known Colorado Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and Mounts Rainier and Shasta in the Cascades. And, also, the obscure White Mountains in the Great Basin. Many people, even in California, think of New Hampshire's White Mountains when the name is mentioned, unaware of the giants hiding behind the Sierra in the desert north of Death Valley.
These are some of the driest mountains for their height in the world. The towering wall of the Sierra Nevada just to the west blocks clouds and moisture, making the Whites the only 14,000 foot range in the U.S. in a rain shadow. Although in winter snow does collect on the crest, and can last well into summer, in general the White Mountains are usually not that white.
These dry desert mountains support the sparsest of forests, but the White Mountains' one true claim to fame rests in the gnarled old Bristlecone Pines found at elevations of 9000 to 11000 feet. These trees are considered to be the oldest living things in the world: 5000 annual growth rings were counted in one core sample from an unidentified tree in the groves on the southern slopes of the White Mountains. Even though Bristlecone Pines grow in many other Great Basin ranges, in the Whites they reach their greatest age.
Topographically, the White Mountains are not that steep, but they present simply appalling vertical rises from the surrounding valleys. Both on the east, from the parched alkalai flats of Nevada's Fish Lake Valley, and on the west, from California's Chalfant and Owens Valleys, it's a devastating 9000 feet from the the flatlands to the top of White Mountain Peak. (The Owens Valley, incidentally, is one of only two in the United States with "14ers" on either side: The Sierra on the west, and the Whites on the east. The other is the Arkansas Valley in Colorado.) Despite this enormous relief, the Whites are quite gentle mountains, with a dirt road running up to its crest to a research station at 12,470 feet near Mount Barcroft. As a rough jeep trail, this road even continues all the way to the very top of White Mountain Peak.
The White Mountains begin in Nevada at Montgomery Pass on U.S. 6, and head south over low Mustang Mountain (10,320') before rising to Boundary Peak (13,143'), the highest point in all Nevada. Wheeler Peak (13,063'), the dominant summit of the central Great Basin, on the other side of the state, probably deserves this honor, but loses out to Boundary by a mere 77 feet. To add insult to injury, the White Mountain crest enters California immediatly south of Boundary Peak and then rises higher to Mount Montgomery (13,441'), a much more rugged and impressive summit, leaving Nevada with a high point that isn't even dominant in its immediate vicinity.
Although the crest of the White Mountains heading south is often gently rounded, it is quite rugged class 3, even class 4 in a few spots from Boundary Peak, over Montgomery and down to the 12,000' pass between Montgomery and the Jumpoff (13,480'). From this pass up to the Jumpoff it's class 2 boulder-hopping. The bounders end at about the summit of the Jumpoff, where the crest widens out and the substrate changes to gravel. Next in line is the second highest peak in the range, Mount Dubois (13,559'), and then the crest descends to an expansive high area called Peeliser Flats, at about 12,500 feet. Heading south, there is an 11,000' saddle between Mt. Hogue and Headley Peak. This saddle is watered by Cabin Creek, flowing east into Fish Lake Valley, and by Birch Creek flowing west toward the Owens Valley, making it a logical overnight stop or base camp for exploration along the crest.
South from this saddle, the crest continues gentle class 1 until a short but rugged arete between peak 13,980 and White Mountain Peak. This stretch has a succession of towers with at least one class 4 pitch. Traversing scree slopes below the crest may offer a class 2-3 alternative. Just beyond this arete there is a switchback on the jeep road, and from that point on it's all class 1 to White Mountain Peak (14,246'), third highest mountain in all California and 19th in the 48 states. A little hut marks this rounded summit, over 9000 vertical feet up from the valley floor less than 7 miles away to the west. The views, especially of the nearby Sierra Nevada, are predictably awesome from this desolate, dry, and windy summit.
Also worth mentioning are a series of canyons leading up into cirques on the eastern (Fish Lake Valley) side. Many of these canyons are entered by moderate jeep roads, and the upper cirques are mostly (class 2) hikeable to the crest. From these ad-hoc trailheads, elevation gains to the crest are about half of those from the Owens Valley to the crest and not unremittingly steep.
The White Mountains south from White Mountain Peak are no longer much of a wilderness, since a road closely follows the crest south from the Peak all the way to the end of the range, at Westgard Pass on CA 168. The first few miles of road are extrememly rough, though, and now closed to vehicles. Near the gentle summit of Mount Barcroft (13,040'), the first summit south from White Mountain Peak, the road becomes passable as it passes the Barcorft High-Altitude Research Laboratory of the University of California. Although still only open to vehicles on laboratory business, this is the highest road in California, at 12,470 feet.