Disclaimer: If you use this information to get yourself or someone else killed/hurt, I am in no way responsible. Be smart and do not just trust some random blog.
White Mountain is arguably the best place in the lower 48 to stargaze (especially if you happen to see in microwave frequencies and are looking for polarization in the cosmic microwave background to test inflation theories). This is a product of the extremely dry air and relatively high elevation (14,246′) – thus less crap (aka ‘atmosphere’) between you and outer space.
Not only is it awesome, but White Mountain is also the least technically difficult of California’s fourteeners. It’s a Class 2 4-wheel drive jeep trail to the top (although it’s closed to vehicles). Hell, this bad ass did it in a wheelchair. So, with proper precautions and equipment, it’s a great candidate for a night hike.
The approach to the trailhead involves nearly an hour of gravel/dirt road driving. If you’re doing this at night, there will be nobody on the road. Be prepared – a failure with your vehicle here is just as serious as a failure with your body later on the trail.
The hike itself is a 15-mile round trip with about 3,000′ total elevation gain/loss. I’ve marked the trailhead below at the bottom of the map. The peak itself is marked by Google at the top. If you switch to satellite mode and zoom in, you can trace the trail from trailhead to peak.
The challenge, of course, is the elevation. The parking lot sits at about 11,500′. If you’re coming straight up from sea level, you will most likely be experiencing minor altitude sickness syndromes before you have even parked your car. If this is the case, you will be dizzy, nauseous, have a pounding headache and be unable to think clearly at the peak. Don’t do this. Spend some time acclimating beforehand – camp at the trailhead the night before, at very least. I spent the preceding week before in Tahoe (6,000′) and was ok to about 13,000′. If you’re in 6-minute mile physical condition, accent and decent will each take 3-4 hours, depending on how hard you’re pushing it.
To do this hike safely, you must be prepared to spend the night on the mountain should something go wrong. You must be carrying enough clothing with you so that a sprained ankle does not turn into a life-threatening situation. For me, in the warmest month of the year (August) this meant:
- thick pants, long johns
- wool socks, running shoes (No, not hiking boots. Use them if you want to, but they are not necessary here.)
- gloves, beanie, glasses with night lenses (wind protection)
- thin undershirt base layer, medium weight fleece layer, medium weight wind-proof jacket
This was on the light side. If I did it again, I would add one spare layer to both my top and bottom.
As a rule of thumb, you should be carrying enough food and water to last twice as long as you expect to be out. For me, this was 112oz of water, three power bars, a package of salami, 6 whole wheat bagels, two things of yogurt and a big one of potato salad. As you’re hiking, you need to catch your thirst and hunger before it affects your body. This means if you feel weak or thirsty, you’ve already failed. Force yourself to eat and drink constantly.
You also need to be redundant on all mission-critical components:
- spare batteries
- spare headlamp bulb
- spare water container – bring a backup 32oz or so in addition to your primary repository.
- spare trail – have a viable plan ready should you lose the trail. Keep track of landmarks, bring a topo map, compass and/or GPS.
- spare brain – do not do this hike alone!
With the proper precautions, fitness and equipment, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the hike. When you find yourself thousands of feet above treeline, dozens of miles from anybody outside your party, and can see for hundreds of miles in every direction with the stars peppering the sky like a golden blanket of dust – the Zen factor is extremely high.