4x4 4WD eastern sierra nevada white mountains inyo mono silver canyon wyman ghost town deep springs valley bishop big pine
IN THE EASTERN SIERRA NEVADA & GREAT BASIN
White Mountain Crossing
Easy to Moderate Most truck based 4WD vehicles (body on frame) can make this trip. Two-speed transfer case highly recommended for low range for descent of Silver Canyon.
4,000 feet @ Big Pine; 4,147 feet @ Bishop; 10,490 feet @ the head of Silver Canyon; approx. 11,680 at closed gate south of Barcroft Station. Highest point on byway – approximately 11,870 on road to Barcroft Station.
Cell phone Signal:
None to Good depending on location. Only cell phone signal available is in Owens Valley and atop the White Mountains.
Running Surface Water?:
Yes – Wyman Creek, Silver Creek. Filtration or boiling recommended before drinking.
Trail Travel Density:
Moderate, higher densities in deer hunting season. Fairly popular route, although I generally encounter no one on most trips and at most only one or two other vehicles in the canyons. You will likely encounter vehicles on the Bristlecone Pine road along the crest of the White Mountains, although relatively few visitors drive the entire distance to the gate.
Nearest Supplies/Emergency Aid:
Big Pine, Bishop. Bishop has a hospital. Big Pine has EMTs and ambulance based at the fire station.
Miscellaneous: Inyo National Forest
The oldest trees on earth draws thousands of visitors to the top of the White Mountains each summer. The unique bristlecone pine grows at elevations of 10,000 feet up to timberline in the mountains of the Great Basin. The famous Methuselah tree is more than 4,000 years old. The vast majority of tourists access the bristlecone forest via CA168 to near Westgard Pass, then take the paved road north to the Schulman Grove, at the south end of the bristlecone territory.
However, for the backroad adventurer, the Wyman Canyon / Silver Canyon (or vise versa) roads offer dirt, rocks, water and vistas. And they don't suffer the effects of crowds. This writing will traverse the White Mountains from the east to the west, and includes a drive north along the spine of the Whites to the locked gate near the Barcroft Station of the White Mountain Research Station, at elevations up to nearly 12,000 feet.
Road difficulty varies from graded dirt road along the first mile or so of Wyman Canyon Road, the top of the White Mountains and the lower portions of Silver Canyon Road; to rocky and moderately rough in lower Wyman Canyon. In most cases, any body on frame, or truck based, SUV or pickup truck should encounter no difficulty on this trip. However, a 2-speed transfer case is highly recommended, especially for the descent of Silver Canyon. Wyman Canyon is a bit too rough and rocky for car based SUVs. Those vehicles will not have any problem at all taking the road along the spine of the White Mountains, which can be accessed via CA168 just west of Westgard Pass. Descending Silver Canyon would not be a problem for car based SUVs because it's surface isn't generally bad, but unless the car has a manual transmission with a reasonably low first gear, it is not recommend to descend Silver Canyon in a car based SUV because of safety issues related to overheating the vehicle's brakes.
This byway can be taken either direction, but is described here in detail as one progresses east to west (climb up Wyman Canyon, descend via Silver Canyon). The steep road in Silver Canyon, though not impossible to climb, is easier on a vehicle and driver taken downhill; Wyman Creek crossings are more fun climbing against the current. And a nice meal at your favorite restaurant in Bishop is better savored after your conquest of the White Mountains instead of a lengthy drive back from the end of the dirt.
This byway will be split into four parts, with thumbnail photos at the end of each section. These include the route from Big Pine to the start of Wyman Canyon Road, the ascent up Wyman Canyon, northward along the spine of the White Mountains to the locked gate below Barcroft Station, and the decent of Silver Canyon.
Roger Mitchell also covers the Wyman Canyon/Silver Canyon traverse in his book “INYO-MONO SUV TRAILS: A GUIDE TO 40 INTERESTING AND SCENIC FOUR-WHEELING EXCURSIONS IN INYO & MONO COUNTIES,” pages 151-160. Mileage figures here will differ – in some cases greatly – from that of Roger Mitchell's publication. Who knows why? Mileage contained within this page is based upon measurements on topographic maps and compared with observational notes taken on numerous trips over the route. But that does not discount Mitchell's excellent coverage and narration of natural and human history encountered on the trip. It is heartily recommend that you have a copy of his book sliding around on your dashboard to reference when necessary – along with a printout of this page, of course!
All photos in this page are thumbnailed and double clicking on them will open up a full size image, in most cases 674x514 in size. These are small enough that they will open up relatively swift for dial-up Internet users.
You will note that some photos show travel on these roads in winter with snow. Both Silver and Wyman Canyon roads are gated for wintertime closure. However, these gates are at fairly high elevations and those portions of the road outside these gates still can and often do get snow in winter – frequently several feet deep. Travel into this region during snowfall or when snow is on the ground is not defended or recommended. Supplies and clothing for cold and snow is recommended if you do venture in.
Part 1: Big Pine to Start of Wyman Canyon Road
The community of Big Pine is the starting point for this byway. If one is visiting from outside the region, the town offers three motels at reasonable cost ($40-$60 nightly, all three are listed in the AAA Tourbook). There are three restaurants in town at this writing – Country Kitchen (breakfast, lunch, dinner; typical café fare; reasonable prices, good food), Uncle Bud's (lunch, dinner; Italian, Mexican, American, salads, pizza, sandwiches; excellent food and ample portions), and Lorie's Lunch Box (breakfast sandwiches, lunch). There are three gas stations – Big Pine 76 (mini mart), Big Pine Mobil (market, fresh sandwiches available) and Big Pine Chevron (with a full kitchen serving Mexican food – excellent and ample portions). There is Carroll's Market, fairly small but complete with reasonable prices. There is camping in Big Pine at Baker Creek (run by Inyo County; located one mile west of town; signed at highway; tables; fire rings; restrooms; fishing in season) and at the Triangle campground (at the junction of CA168 and US395; a bit more than a half mile north of the center of town; water, electricity available; traffic noise due to location).
This byway begins at the north end of Big Pine, at the junction of CA168 and US395. It is easily found by locating the three large flagpoles with huge flags and there is a small campground. These are found about 0.5 tenths of a mile north of the main business district of Big Pine. Turn east on CA168.
In 1.5 miles from US395 the Owens River is crossed (fishing year round). In summer the river is a pleasant place for inner tubing or swimming. Currents can be strong, though, so caution is recommended. The river also has a deep channel. Look for a dim trail that runs through the willows upstream to a large, overhanging tree with a rope swing for added amusement; then swim with the river's current back to the beach near the highway bridge.
At 1.86 miles the site of Zurich Station is found. This was the crossing of the narrow gauge Carson & Colorado Railroad, which was built through here in 1882. The railroad once ran from Mound House, Nevada (near Dayton and Virginia City, east of Carson City), to Keeler (on the east shore of Owens Lake). Over the years the railroad changed hands to the Southern Pacific, which during WW2 started lopping off the northern end of the narrow gauge and finally abandoning the line in 1960. Zurich Station was the depot for the community of Big Pine. A historical marker is on the highway at the junction with the paved road running north to the Cal Tech radio observatory, visible to the north. The site of Zurich contains the depot foundation and platform, several livestock pens and ramps, as well as assorted twisted metal remains of tanks and other scrap.
At 2.3 miles, the junction with the Big Pine to Death Valley road is reached. Continue ahead on CA168.
As you approach the 3.0 mile mark, the highway enters a small gulch and begins its ascent of the collision of the White Mountains and the Inyo Range. Technically, both the Whites and Inyos are one range, although historically and on the maps Westgard Pass divides the two.
Just as your trip odometer is rolling over to 4.1 miles, the top of the gulch is reached. A dirt road turns off to the left and offers a nice view and photo op of the Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada.
The highway will then turn into a broad canyon that will escort you much of the way to Westgard Pass. As your trip odometer readies itself to turn to the 8.0 mile mark, the historical site of Batchelder Spring is reached. Here once was located a toll house, as this byway was once a toll road.
The canyon pinches down beyond Batchelder Spring and at 10.0 miles a narrows is approached where the road will turn to one lane for approximately 1,000 feet.
At 12.1 miles, the road exits the canyon and tops out upon broad Cedar Flat. At 12.8 miles the road to the Bristlecone Pine forest comes in on the left. Continue ahead. At 14.1 miles, Westgard Pass is reached and the road will descend Payson Canyon for the Deep Springs Valley.
At 15.2 miles, you will come across the dim turnoff for the 4WD trail up Mollie Gibson Canyon.
At 26.45 miles since leaving US395, and after crossing much of the deep bowl of Deep Springs Valley; you will spot the road running south over to the Deep Springs College. The college is unique in the California college system. Founded in 1917, it was reserved for the brightest minds of America's young men. It is also attended by a very small student body, usually less than 25 students. The school teaches higher learning, yet is a working ranch. All students must do their studies, as well as work the ranch. The school expands their minds while teaching them manual skills. You will probably have aready spotted Deep Springs College owned cattle on the valley floor and will likely find them scattered all along the byway to Roberts Ranch half way up Wyman Canyon.
At 27.5 miles, the former CalTrans Highway Maintenance station is approached. Now owned by Deep Springs College, it houses faculty.
On the north side of the houses, or at 27.6 miles, you can take either one of two options to reach Wyman Canyon Road. You can turn north on a dirt road here, which will take you the closest to the ruins of White Mountain City and reach Wyman Canyon Road in 1.3 miles; or you can continue ahead along CA168 to Wyman Canyon Road at 28.7 miles. Wyman Canyon Road is signed by a small, plastic paddle marker on the side of the road.
If you choose to turn at the northern end of the houses at the 27.6 mile mark, continue north to a point 0.8 tenths of a mile along the road, where there will be a short road running to the left (west). Turn and park at the end of this road. Here, the ruins of White Mountain City is scattered all about you over an area of about one square mile. Consisting of stone walls, some are unusual in that they zig-zag for long distances. White Mountain City was founded before the Civil War. Mark Twain even visited briefly here. Those fortunate enough to stumble upon them, two well preserved stone arrastras and a small, slag lined furnace firebox and stack can be found along an old alignment of Wyman Creek.
It is 0.8 tenths of a mile along Wyman Canyon Road in from CA168 to the point where the two dirt roads intersect.
Part 2: Wyman Canyon Ascent
Note: Mileage figures will at this point on be from the junction of Wyman Canyon Road and CA168.
At a point 1.3 miles from CA168, another road branches off to the left (south) to more ruins of White Mountain City. If drive to the end of this short road and you look around near where Wyman Creek is diverted into an aqueduct (to divert water to Deep Springs College), you will find a boulder with a nice set of petroglyphs.
At a point 1.43 miles in from CA168, a small smelter stack is reached. This site was built long after White Mountain City's demise, but is associated with the Hiskey & Walker smelting operation that in the 1860s and 1870s treated ores from the nearby Nevada ghost towns of Palmetto, Sylvania and Lida.
Beyond the smelter stack, the byway will start to deteriorate somewhat as it enters the canyon mouth. 4WD is not yet absolutely necessary, but will help if engaged due to the increasing amount of rock that pokes up through the roadway.
One likely has noted the double set of power lines that are now alongside or very near to the byway. These lines carry power from the hydroelectric plants strung along Bishop Creek, west of Bishop, to towns and ranches out into the power grid of central Nevada. These powerlines have a unique history in the region, as they and their associated powerplants were built beginning in 1905 to electrify the booming cities of Nevada – Tonopah, Goldfield, Manhattan, Round Mountain, Beatty, Rhyolite and Bullfrog – as all of southern Nevada and eastern California itself became electrified with mining and prospecting energy due to the mining boom period of 1900-1910.
Less than a tenth of a mile beyond the smelter stack, the road splits. Continue ahead on the obviously better road. Both meet up again in a short distance.
At a point 2.3 miles in from CA168, one will cross Wyman Creek for the first time of many. Wyman generally has a steady flow rate that is seldom dangerous or deeper than the axles; the bottoms of the crossings are all firm, gravelly or stony. The creek flows year round.
At 2.5 miles, the roadway will leave Wyman Canyon and climb up the southern bank of the canyon. There may be times when the roadway will have some loose and larger rocks. The road originally continued up Wyman Creek, but has long ago been diverted in this direction due to the canyon's ruggedness, narrowness and impracticability due to washouts. A road of sorts does probe this area, but is that of Southern California Edison to access the power lines in this part of the canyon; the road does not go through.
At about 3.55 miles from CA168, a summit is reached, at an elevation of about 6,445 feet. From here the road enters into a wonderland of giant boulders. At a couple of points, the Eureka Valley sand dunes can be seen looking through the area of Soldier Pass just behind Deep Springs College.
At a point just shy of 4.0 miles, a junction will be reached. Follow the main roadway to the right. The secondary road ahead continues west then south to some prospects and dead ends.
At 4.7 miles, the road will crest a summit – at an elevation of about 6,840 feet – and begin to drop back into Wyman Canyon. The first of the piñon pine trees are passed as one drops into the canyon.
At a point 5.1 miles since leaving the pavement, the byway will once again hit the bottom of Wyman Canyon. Wyman Creek flows in a deep chasm nearby the road. For the next mile or so, a lot of earthwork was done around 2007 due to heavy winter runoff over two consecutive spring seasons, which damaged much of the road.
At about 5.4 miles, the forest of piñon pine becomes denser and will remain until you get into the higher elevations of the canyon.
At 6.0 miles, Wyman Creek is again forded; again at 6.2 miles, 6.3 miles, just shy of 6.7 miles, and at 6.9 miles. From this point to 7.1 miles the road and the creek are often one; and when not one there are a few crossings to be made. This narrow section of the canyon is known as the Royal Gorge, as shown on topographic maps.
At 7.1 miles from pavement, a road heads northward, and maps show this road to access the Dead Horse Meadows country and beyond into the Crooked Creek section.
Wyman Creek is again forded at 7.5 miles. In this section of the canyon there are some small, grassy meadow areas that show signs of regular camping use. In this section the ground water table is also quite high and at times the road is muddy and has standing or running water.
Wyman Creek is again forded at 7.7 miles, then two more times as the road makes an S-curve to 8.0 miles. These will be the last time Wyman Creek will be forded.
At 9.4 miles, Roberts Ranch is reached, the elevation here about 8,120 feet. Here are found two cabins and the stone remains of what is said to be a smelter. The most obvious cabin is pretty much too tattered to be of use, but the one down in the willows north of the road shows signs of periodic habitation, likely in deer season and by cowpunchers from the college. Be hantavirus aware and take precaution if you plan on overnighting in the cabins! The road south from the red cabin accesses Roberts Ridge and the Wilkerson and Southbend Mines, as well as numerous prospects, shafts and adits.
Just above Roberts Ranch, our byway passes through a meadow. The condition of the road can be muddy or flour dust, depending on the time of year or how wet the winter season was. Above Roberts Ranch, Wyman Creek virtually disappears and dry for the remainder of the ascent of the White Mountains.
A half mile above Roberts Ranch is a gate that the Forest Service closes during winter months (it's not often one can even get this far in deep winter).
At 10.3 miles from pavement a sign indicates that the traveler has entered the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The trees around you are still primarily piñon and mountain mahogany, but that will change soon enough.
At 12.4 miles, a road heads north past Cedar Spring to access a prospect high on the north side of 11,285 foot high Blanco Mountain.
At 12.9 miles, a trail heads south to climb a side canyon and meet up with the main Bristlecone Pine Forest road.
Past this point you will start to notice that trees to your left (south) are starting to turn to predominately limber pines. Though similar in appearance to bristlecone pine trees, there are characteristics that make these trees unique. Limber pines are not as picky as to the soil they grow in, bristlecone pines prefer dolomitic soils. Though both have five needles per cluster, the limber pine's needles are substantially longer. Whereas the bristlecone pine has cones 2”-3” long, the limber pine's cone tends to be closer to 10 inches. The bristlecone pine also has a quarter inch long barb at the end of its cone, hence its name.
At 14.5 miles a cabin, made of railroad ties and presumably associated with the powerlines, is reached. Here the powerlines branch off and take a side canyon in order to better align themselves with Silver Canyon for the trip down to Owens Valley. The main road continues ahead.
At a point 0.3 tenths of a mile past the log cabin – or 14.8 miles from CA168, a trail turns north to reach several prospects and adits on the north face of Blanco Mountain.
At previous mentioned point, Wyman Canyon Road starts to wind its way up the south side of Wyman Canyon. As one switchbacks up the slope mostly devoid of trees, nice views eastward over the Sylvania Mountains and Palmetto Range in Nevada are afforded.
At 15.6 miles from pavement, you will encounter a wye. Either branch will take you to the spine of the White Mountains and the Bristlecone Pine Forest road. Turn right (north) if you wish proceed to the Bristlecone Pine road and on to the high country of the White Mountains – Crooked Meadows Research Station or to the closed gate south of Barcroft Station; or turn left (south) to go directly to Silver Canyon. It is 1.3 miles to the Bristlecone Pine Forest road if you go north. It is 1.5 miles to the Bristlecone Pine Forest road if you go south, which will line you up directly with the Silver Canyon Road for the descent into Owens Valley.
Part 3: North Along the Spine of the White Mountains:
If one wishes to continue north along the spine of the White Mountains, turn right at the wye in the Wyman Canyon Road. The route will climb through open sagebrush meadows to meet up with the main Bristlecone Pine road in 1.3 miles from the wye.
The road north is a maintained and bladed dirt road that runs north through increasingly alpine moonscape to the locked gate south of Barcroft Station of the White Mountain Research Station. This road also accesses the Patriarch Grove of bristlecone pines, and the Crooked Creek Research Station. Other roads access hideaways in the White Mountains, such as the Cottonwood Creek basin.
In 2.5 miles after reaching the Bristlecone Pine road, the road to Crooked Creek Research station is reached. Turning here, it is 1.3 miles to the station. If one continues past it, a 4WD road leaves the Crooked Creek drainage and heads north into the Cottonwood Creek drainage and the meadows at the effective end of the road, about five miles from the Bristlecone Pine road. This road is covered in Roger Mitchell's “INYO-MONO SUV TRAILS: A GUIDE TO 40 INTERESTING AND SCENIC FOUR-WHEELING EXCURSIONS IN INYO & MONO COUNTIES,” on page 128. This area has been a subject of environmental controversy in recent times and a movement made to close this section to motorized vehicles, but as of this writing (March 2006) is still open to motorized vehicles.
At just shy of 4.6 miles, the road begins to climb out of Campito Meadow and the 11,000 foot point is passed.
At 5.0, the road to the Patriarch Grove is reached. It is 1.0 mile back to the picnic area and the end of the spur road. Here are two self-guiding trails, including one to the Cottonwood Basin Overlook. One trail takes the hiker to the Patriarch Tree. Not very old, it is nevertheless the largest bristlecone pine yet found with a circumference of 37 feet.
Past the road to the Patriarch Grove the road to Barcroft Research Station begins to climb and within 1.1 mile reaches the highest point on this road at an elevation of nearly 11,880 feet. A knoll of about 11,910 feet is a short walk from the road; although at this altitude the walk will likely have you breathing hard; and offers beauty and views in all directions - simply stunning – and that word is not an adequate description.
At 9.5 miles since leaving Wyman Canyon, a locked gate is reached. Here are some meadows and a parking area. For those interested in hiking, it is 1.9 miles to the Barcroft Station of the White Mountain Research Station. If one is fit and wishes to do so, it is 7.5 miles from the locked gate to the summit of White Mountain Peak. The road runs the entire distance to the summit (though deteriorated and eroded) and there is a stone hut and weather station atop the peak.
Back at the locked gate, the meadow makes a delightful walk, and views northwest, west and southwest are afforded. Marmots are always found running about the meadows, although they're wary and it's difficult to get close enough to really get a good look at them without binoculars. I'd recommend keeping an eye on your vehicle, however, because Marmots have been known to gnaw out the lower radiator hoses of vehicles to get to that sweet but deadly anti-freeze; resulting in dead marmots and disabled vehicles.
After this tour to the end of the road, return south along the same road that brought one in. This backtrack isn't boring at all, as the views ahead will keep the traveler enthralled as they are ever changing. It is 13.16 miles south from the gate to the start of the descent of Silver Canyon.
A note about the Barcroft and Crooked Creek stations of the White Mountain Research Station. These are working stations with scientists and supporting crews, and are inhabited. While visitors are not chased away, especially if one is in need, visits are best made with advance permission. A call or visit to the base station east of the Bishop Airport will provide useful information. Their address is 3000 E. Line Street; which is reached by turning east at the southernmost signal light in Bishop onto East Line Street and driving east 3.8 miles past the airport and Owens River to the research station. Their phone number is (760) 873-4344. One should also be able to obtain information about hiking to the top of White Mountain Peak (in which you must pass through Barcroft Station) or driving into the Cottonwood Basin (where one must pass through Crooked Creek station).
Part 4: Silver Canyon Descent:
The descent of Silver Canyon is dramatic and quite steep. Traction is lessened somewhat by the prevalence of decomposed slate on the road's surface in many places, making for an often slippery slope. The road is not dangerous at all if driven prudently and berms and brush will keep you from sliding off the trail. As stated before, it is highly recommend that one's vehicle is equipped with a 2-speed transfer case for lower gearing and less use of the brakes. From the Bristlecone Pine road to Laws Railroad Museum on the Owens Valley floor is 11.3 miles and the total elevation drop is 6,386 feet – this road looses nearly half of its elevation within the first third of its mileage!
Leaving the Bristlecone Pine road on Silver Canyon Road, a summit of about 10,490 is reached. Views of the Sierra Nevada are beautiful, especially in the evening when there's clouds in the sky. In a quarter mile after leaving the Bristlecone Pine road, a road turns south to access the numerous radio facilities on the nearby summit. Immediately beyond this road, Silver Canyon Road begins its plunge. Again, it is heartily recommend that one shifts their transfer case into 4-LO before dropping over the side.
Silver Canyon Road plunges through a lengthy series of switchbacks and sharp curves from an elevation of 10,490 feet to about 7,200 feet in 3.8 miles. At that point, the canyon bottom and Silver Creek is reached and the road widens and is nowhere as steep as what one has just driven over.
The road continues to descend Silver Canyon for 5.6 miles to the mouth of the canyon; the road fording Silver Creek numerous times. Pavement is reached a bit more than a mile after exiting the confines of the canyon. Laws Railroad Museum is a bit less than 0.6 tenths of a mile further. A stop at the museum is a must for the train buff (if one arrives before closing time) or anyone that's not been here before. From the railroad museum to US6 is 0.3 tenths of a mile.
From Laws Railroad Museum to the junction of US395 and US6 in Bishop is 4.1 miles. Bishop is the largest town in Owens Valley and has all the amenities – numerous gas stations, mini-marts, restaurants, fast food restaurants (McDonalds, Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, Taco Bell), Vons supermarket, Kmart, sporting goods stores, banks, Northern Inyo Hospital and plenty of motels. Brown's Town at the southern end of Bishop, located on the northern side of the golf course, offers a nice, shady location for camping and has hookups for motorhomes and travel trailers. Tent camping is also permitted.
For Further Information/Reading:
Natural History of
the White-Inyo Range: Eastern California, by Hall, Clarence A.
This book is available at most book outlets in the Eastern Sierra, such as at the Forest Service ranger station in Bishop. Highly technical reading.
Inyo-Mono SUV Trails:
A Guide To 40 Interesting And Scenic Four-Wheeling Excursions In Inyo
& Mono Counties, by Roger Mitchell
The book has this trail and many more, with descriptions of the natural and man-made history of the region.
On the Internet, there is so much available information about the White Mountains, such as climbing White Mountain Peak, simply GOOGLE and read on!
Create Date: 2006