4x4 4WD four wheel drive eastern sierra nevada california wheeler inyo mono rock creek

RECONNOITERING IN THE EASTERN SIERRA NEVADA & GREAT BASIN
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4x4 Trails:
Wheeler Crest 4WD Trail
(Inyo National Forest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, California)

Trail Difficulty:

Moderate to Difficult

It is not recommended that long or wide 4WD vehicles take the Wheeler Mine Road portion of this route, as the trail is narrow in places; with boulders and downed trees impinging on the trail.

Season:

Summer, Autumn.

Elevations:

  • Access to route @ Lower Rock Creek Road and Swall Meadows Road – 6,169'

  • Start of trail – 6,562'

  • Start of Wheeler Ridge Mine Road – about 9,810'

  • Crest of Wheeler Ridge – about 10,920'

  • Snowmelt pond atop Wheeler Ridge – 10,810'

  • End of Wheeler Ridge Mine Road – about 11,285'

Cell phone Signal:

NONE-WEAK-FAIR-GOOD

There is a repeater atop Sherwin Summit, which is in view along much of the lower portion of the trail. Climbing the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road, the signal may disappear in spots, but anywhere Owens Valley or the Sherwin Summit area can be seen one can pick up a cell phone signal.

Running Surface Water?:

In places. Filter or boil before consuming.

Trail Travel Density:

Light.

Nearest Supplies/Emergency Aid:

Bishop, Mammoth Lakes.

Maps Needed

  • Inyo National Forest (not a whole lot of detail but will give one a general idea of the route).

  • USGS: Mt. Morgan 7.5” (southern half of the trail, entire Wheeler Ridge Mine Road route); Tom's Place 7.5” (Swall Meadows, northern half of route).




Click on Image to Open Full Size
Overview map showing the location of the Wheeler Ridge 4WD Trail.

The Wheeler Ridge trail is filled with high mountain peaks, wonderful alpine views, somber Great Basin desert views, boulders and tall conifers and cool aspens.

While the masses huddle in the bottom of Rock Creek Canyon less than a mile away, the traveler over this byway crawls along generally alone and out of sight.

Once the main route enters into Rock Creek Canyon there are a couple of options – continue south in Rock Creek Canyon to its end at the John Muir Wilderness boundary; and there is the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road, which climbs its way to the top of Wheeler Ridge, then crawls across its eastern face to end at the wilderness boundary.


As with any backcountry byway, road conditions can change considerably in short periods of time as a reflection of weather conditions and travel by others.

This page is laid out in three sections – Getting to the trail's start at Swall Meadows; the trail into Rock Creek Canyon and to the beginning of the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road; then the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.

Part 1: Getting to Swall Meadows

The Wheeler Crest 4x4 trail is accessed via the small community of Swall Meadows, located off of Lower Rock Creek Road; this road was the old alignment of US395 until the late 1950s.

To reach Swall Meadows from Bishop: Starting at the junction of US395 and US6 (next to the fairgrounds), drive north on US395 to Pine Creek Road, located 9.8 miles from the starting point at the US395/US6 junction. A few miles out of Bishop, the highway turns to a northeast direction and the view ahead is dominated by Wheeler Ridge. Turning onto Pine Creek Road, immediately turn right onto Lower Rock Creek Road, which is called Old Sherwin Road on many maps. This is the old US395, and it's shady two-lane is a tranquil drive compared to the often frenzied traffic driving along current US395 nearby. The traveler is here passing through Round Valley, its lush meadowland drew Inyo County's first Caucasian citizens here as early as 1860 for its rich farming and ranching potential. The road will soon pass out of Inyo County and into Mono County, and in 5.0 miles will make a sudden turn at the mouth of the canyon of Rock Creek and the historic Paradise Lodge resort (cabins and restaurant). A community of expensive homes – known as Paradise Estates – has sprung up above the resort and about 250 people live here. The road will now begin climbing in a gently zigzagging pattern up the sagebrush covered slope, and at 8.7 miles after turning onto Lower Rock Creek Road will now come to its junction with Swall Meadows Road. Turn west on Swall Meadows Road, and after seven-tenths of a mile turn right on Sky Ranch Road. Follow Sky Ranch Road for a half mile to a dirt road that takes off to the right (north). This is the beginning of the 4x4 trail.

To Reach Swall Meadows From Mammoth Lakes or points north: Take US395 southward to the vicinity of the resort of Tom's Place and community of Sunny Slopes across the highway; both located about 14.8 miles south of the turnoff of CA203 to Mammoth Lakes. Tom's Place is located at the mouth of Rock Creek, where the 4x4 trail will soon enter but high above the paved road into the high country of Rock Creek Canyon. Continue south on US395 for another eight-tenths of a mile and turn onto Lower Rock Creek Road. Lower Rock Creek Road will share the narrow canyon bottom with Rock Creek, and many inviting places are found along the creek. One will notice that on the western side of the road that fire has recently visited this region. In July of 2002 a large fire burned a couple thousand acres; this 4x4 byway will visit the upper side of this same fire. Lower Rock Creek Road will cross and re-cross Rock Creek several times, then suddenly climb out of the canyon and onto the same tableland that Swall Meadows is found. In 4.3 miles after turning off of US395, one will come to Swall Meadows Road. Again, turn right onto Swall Meadows Road and follow it for seven-tenths of a mile to Sky Ranch Road. Follow Sky Ranch Road for a half mile to a dirt road that takes off to the right (north). This is the beginning of the Wheeler Crest 4x4 trail.

The images below are those taken en route to the start of the trail from Bishop. Click on any image thumbnail to open full size.


Traveling north on US395, entering Round Valley, Wheeler Ridge dominates the landscape.


Wheeler Ridge from Round Valley.


The junction of Lower Rock Creek Road (old US395) and Swall Meadows Road. Turning into Swall Meadows will allow access to the Wheeler Ridge Mine road 4WD trail.


Immediately after turning onto the Wheeler Ridge Mine 4WD trail in Swall Meadows, a borrow pit allows a wide open space in which to air down one's tires. Or to air them back up before resuming pavement travel.



Part 2: Swall Meadows to the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road


Click Map to Enlarge
Map showing Swall Meadows and the start of the trail.


Click Map to Enlarge
The trail from Swall Meadows to near the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road junction.

A few yards after beginning the Wheeler Ridge trail, the path crosses a gravel pit. This is a good place to stop and air down tires, if that is your habit. If one plans to run this route with a quad carried on a trailer or in the back of one's truck, this is a good place to park and unload them.

Continuing north along the byway, the 2-track route crosses gentle and relatively level land. It is primarily open sagebrush country punctuated by a few thin stands of Jefferey pine trees. View south into the Mount Tom and Bishop Creek country are photogenic.

In a half mile, the route will turn a sharp left to the west and drop into Witcher Creek. Two-tenths of a mile after the sharp turn, shallow (or dry) Witcher Creek is forded. Immediately after crossing the creek, there is a fork in the road. Stay to the left, the route obviously following Witcher Creek.



The route up Witcher Creek is open sagebrush country, with occasional Jeffery pine trees and dense willows along the creek. The route is a well traveled 2-track with no particular obstacles or bedrock protrusions. A road branches off at the 1.2 mile mark, but continue ahead. Just past this point, one will enter the forest of dead trees killed during the July 2002 fire. The area of burned trees is punctuated by dense stands of healthy trees spared in this fire and the route alternates between the surrealistic and idyllic as it traverses between the burned and unburned forest. About the 1.7 mile mark is a nice view to the north, which covers the forested tableland of Casa Diablo and beyond to the White Mountains. In the foreground is a mix of burned and unburned trees.

At a point 2.0 miles from the start of the trail, a short spur turns off to the right (north) and goes to Witcher Meadow, which can make a nice base camp. The byway continues ahead, however.

At the spur to Witcher Meadow, Witcher Creek turns south to its source spring located up the hillside to the south of the road. About the 2.6 mile mark, the trail will top the saddle between Witcher Creek and Birch Creek, then contour over to meet Birch Creek at the 3.0 mile mark. Birch Creek runs along the bottom of Sand Canyon. Approaching Birch Creek, be watchful, for about three-tenths of a mile before crossing Birch Creek (or at the 2.7 mile mark), there is a large boulder well hidden in the dense willows and sagebrush that might catch your body side and do some bodywork of its own.

The route will continue upward along Birch Creek, the creek eventually disappearing. Before it does, however, dense brush and aspen trees impinge upon the route. The route then steepens and Sand Canyon takes a sharp upward path. As it climbs, it also swings from a westward to a southern direction. At 4.4 miles, the head of the canyon is reached and the route enters Rock Creek Canyon upon a shelf. The elevation here is about 8,858 feet, or about 650 feet above the floor of Rock Creek Canyon a short distance to the west.

The vegetation turns abruptly to dense thickets of mountain mahogany and sagebrush. Dwarf aspen tree also hem in the trail at various points. Views ahead take in the 13,000 foot plus Sierra Nevada peaks of Mt. Morgan, Mt. Julius Caesar, Mt. Abbot and Mt. Mills. Views to the north and northeast take in the southern Crowley Lake area, the upper Owens River Gorge, Casa Diablo and the White Mountains in the distance.

The route slowly climbs with the bench. Vegetation along the way continues to be dominated by mountain mahogany, but eventually scattered lodgepole pines will begin to take over. The pathway is littered with small and large stones, keeping speeds low.

At a point 7.25 miles after turning off onto the byway at Swall Meadows the road junction with the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road in a small meadow at an elevation of about 9,810 feet. There is a sign indicating the route up to the summit of Wheeler Ridge. The pathway will turn up this road.

The route ahead beyond the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road continues for another 2.25 miles and re-enters Inyo County, dead-ending at the John Muir Wilderness boundary at an elevation of about 10,180 feet. There are several small unnamed lakes within a short walk of the end of the road. Topographic maps also show another set of roads that head east to some meadows near the wilderness boundary. Another road is shown running down to Rock Creek Lake, but this road is closed.

The photos below follow the path from Swall Meadows to the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road junction. Click on any thumbnail to open a full size photo.


A short distance along the trail, view south. Mount Tom dominates the view.


A short distance along the trail, view north. In July of 2002, a large forest fire raged through this area, leaving a dead forest of scorched pine trees.


Traveling along Witcher Creek.


Traveling along Witcher Creek.


Traveling through dense forest near the top of the saddle between Birch and Witcher Creeks.


View in a northeasterly direction takes in the Casa Diablo region, as well as the northern end of the White Mountains.


Ascending Sand Canyon near its head.


View northeast as one descends Sand Canyon.


View east-northeast at the head of Sand Canyon.


The head of Sand Canyon. View is northeast over the gorge of the Owens River.


View southwest up Rock Creek Canyon from the head of Sand Canyon.


View up Rock Creek Canyon.


As the trail goes up Rock Creek Canyon, mountain mahogany predominates the vegetation.


Traveling the high bench in Rock Creek Canyon. Glass Mountain dominates the scene in the background.


In several places on the high bench in Rock Creek Canyon, small aspen trees crowd the trail.


Though usually tame, there are a few large boulders scattered along the trail through the high bench in Rock Creek Canyon.


The road soon enters into a gentler topography and tall pines take over the place of mountain mahogany.


Nearing the junction of the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.


Same area, but on the trip back down.


Closing in on the junction of the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road, view northerly.


The signed junction with the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.



Part 2: Wheeler Ridge Mine Road


Click on Map to Open Full Size
The Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.

The Wheeler Ridge Mine Road is best taken by smaller rigs, such as small trucks, Jeeps and similar sized vehicles. The problem lies with standing trees, old downed trees and boulders on the trail or impinging upon it. The trail itself is narrow and bedrock projects through much of the trail. In several places small to medium sized boulders in the trail are a problem. This is not a trail for stock, low slung pickup trucks and SUVs, unless the driver is experienced and potential body damage is not a concern. Vehicles with factory off road packages will fare better. Lifted rigs with large tires and experienced drivers will likely not encounter insurmountable problems. It is recommended that a vehicle is equipped with at least a rear solidly locking differential.



The Wheeler Ridge Mine Road takes off at the sign in the middle of the small meadow 7.25 miles from Swall Meadows. It crosses the meadow on a southeastern trend to the base of the abrupt uplift leading to the summit of Wheeler Ridge, crossing a small draw; which may or may not hold any running water. Crossing the draw, the road skirts the bottom of the mountainside for a couple hundred feet and affords some nice views to the Sierra summits, then turns abruptly northeast and begins to climb up a narrow canyon filled by a heavy forest of lodgepole pine. A switchback partway up takes the path out of the canyon bottom and to the side, allowing some very nice views of the Sierra peaks.

About three-quarters of a mile along this trail, one will encounter a large boulder outcropping that will pose some work to get over for stock vehicles. Even with a locking rear differential, it will likely required a bit of work to clear this obstacle due to trail width, obstacles on each side and the spacing of the boulders.

Above this obstacle, there are other boulder obstacles, but none of which posed any problem other than touching a skid plate down now and then.

At a point 1.3 miles up the trail, the route suddenly leaves the canyon bottom and turns southeast, contouring along the face of Wheeler Ridge. The gradient lessens somewhat, though boulders and large rock still cover the trail. At 1.8 miles a summit is reached and a small valley lies directly ahead; a substantial snow melt pond set into it. The elevation at the summit is about 10,920 feet.

At 2.1 miles after starting this trail, the small lake is reached, at an elevation of 10,810 feet. It shallow and is barren of fish. There is no running water inlet, but it is obvious that occasionally water runs out of the lake and down a canyon immediately to the east. The soil in the valley is primarily made up of soft gravels and the road smooth.

At 2.3 miles, a trail heads to the south, but soon peters out. The trail ahead leaves the valley and rounds the bend to run along the face of Wheeler Ridge in a nearly due south trend. Views of the northern Owens Valley begin, but soon the road enters a thick forest and the views obscured somewhat. The road slowly descends while traveling southward and is in pretty good shape with no large rock outcroppings.

At a point 2.9 miles after starting the trail, a spur runs straight down the face of Wheeler Ridge about 825 feet to a small flat with a low wall of boulders. The elevation here is about 10,580 feet. There is enough level ground for several vehicles to camp out here and a wonderful view ranging from down around Big Pine north to nearly Crowley Lake is afforded, along with views up the South Fork of Bishop Creek country.

As of this writing, the writer has not ventured further south along the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road than the short spur road mentioned in the last paragraph. The main road continues 3.1 miles southward, in which it ends at the boundary of the John Muir Wilderness boundary, atop a saddle. Along the way are several tungsten prospects.

Looking at the topo map, the road contours along the face of Wheeler Ridge for a ways, then drops into a small bowl shaped valley. Beyond it climbs up a bit, contours through some rugged country, and then at 1.3 miles past the overlook spur suddenly turns east and drops about 160 vertical feet over a distance of about 461 feet – a 34% grade. Beyond that the road contours again, then accessing a gentle appearing canyon and rising to a summit east of Round Valley Peak and stops at an elevation of about 11,285 feet.

An update received in this email September 8, 2009:

“I read your writeup of the Wheeler ridge trail, and I'd like to add a couple of comments.

We also stopped at the overlook of Owens valley, right past that snowmelt pond. However, I did attempt to drive the trail that continues south another few miles, along the eastern flank of Wheeler. I got about 200 yards, and the truck started to slip sideways, downhill. The soil gets very slippery (ball bearings), and the exposure is potentially fatal, so I very slowly and carefully backed out of there! It was quite scary. You mentioned that next time you're up there, you may continue along to the end. My advice is to be very careful.

2nd comments. As you, we did not continue along the original trail (paralleling Rock Creek) to the end, but instead turned uphill to the Wheeler Ridge. I've had a friend tell me, however, there are several beautiful campsites at the end of the road. He compares them to the nice ones at the bottom of the hill at the S[outh] E[east] corner of Coyote Flats (right alongside Baker Creek). Those are some pretty nice sites, so one of these days I'll go check the rock creek sites out.”



Returning back to Swall Meadows poses no problems other than occasional skid plate tapping on the larger boulder outcroppings. Gravity is a great aid on the way down through these spots that took some work to ascend. Regaining Lower Rock Creek Road, turn round and let your gaze sweep the summit of Wheeler Ridge. One can make out the road as it comes out of the small valley with the snowmelt pond and contour south along the face of the ridge. If one look sharply enough, one can even pinpoint the rocky outcropping that affords such a wonderful view.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to open the photos to their full size.


Looking north over the meadow at the start of the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.


View south to the summits of the Sierra Nevada at a point about 1475 feet in along the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road.


Soon after starting the Wheeler Ridge Mine road, the trail turns rocky – and stays that way the remainder of its way to the top of Wheeler Ridge.


The trail gets narrow in spots, making smaller vehicles ideally suited for this trail.


In addition to boulders, downed trees often restrict room on the trail.


About eight-tenths of a mile up the trail, there are some gorgeous views to be had of the upper Rock Creek country.


Lower vehicles will have trouble here. A stock, modern, low slung SUV will likely not be able to clear this rock outcropping without some rocker panel damage.


Working to get over this obstacle.


The driver of this truck tried a bit different path, but still ended up having the flat face of the rocks simultaneously blocking opposite wheels on each axle.


This shot gives some scale to the rock outcropping.


The same rock outcropping on the trip back down.


Next three images: Descending the worst of the rock obstacles.


Dropping over another set of small boulders. Climbing up over this set of rocks proved to be no problem, as there is plenty of room to pick a path best suited for one's particular vehicle.


The Sierra Nevada forms a beautiful backdrop as one is nearing the crest of Wheeler Ridge.


Near the crest of Wheeler Ridge.


After cresting Wheeler Ridge, the road drops into this small valley with a substantially sized snowmelt pond.


The snowmelt pond, elevation 10,810 feet, looking north.


The road climbs out of the small valley that holds the small lake, then rounds the bend and contours southward along the face of Wheeler Ridge.


Contouring along the face of Wheeler Ridge, the road also drops in elevation.


At a point 2.9 miles after beginning the Wheeler Ridge Mine Road, a spur runs a short distance out to a nice camp spot with a gorgeous view.


The Wheeler Ridge Mine Road as it contours its way south along the face of the ridge south of the spur to the overlook.


The view southeast across the green acres of Round Valley, to Bishop and down to near Big Pine in Owens Valley.


Sighting southward along Wheeler Ridge and beyond to the South Fork of Bishop Creek country.


A panorama that takes in the entire north to south sweep.



Further Reading

 

HIGH SIERRA SUV TRAILS: VOLUME 1 – THE EAST SIDE
by Roger Mitchell

The Wheeler Crest trails are covered between pages 150-153. Mitchell primarily covers the road in from Swall Meadows to its end at the John Muir Wilderness boundary in Rock Creek Canyon. The Wheeler Ridge Mine Road is only briefly covered without much detail.



Create Date: 2006

Page Revised: 08/26/2010