Going Ultra-Remote in California's White Mountains
NOTE: Bicycle access to this area may be restricted or prohibited in the near future. This wilderness area proposal may impact bicycle access. We may have made one of the last bicycle journeys through this amazing area. Senator Barbara Boxer is largely responsible for the drive to designate this and other areas as wilderness. She is not inflexible on the issue, and has been persuaded to drop efforts to get other areas designated as wilderness. If you would like to help preserve access to this area, please write to her and let her know!
Having redacted all the unpleasant memories of my last bike journey in the White Mountains, I thought I'd return to Cottonwood Creek...and drag along two hapless suckers to share in the pain...er...fun! This report is less a story, and more a pictoral, with some useful details for those wishing to take on this beautiful and difficult route.
Meeting in the town of Big Pine, at the Hwys US-395 / CA-168 East junction, I led our little caravan up into the White Mountains to 7321' Westgard Pass. Here is where the White Mountain Road branches to the north and begins a long, gradual climb along the backbone of the White Mountains. We drove past Schulman Grove, Silver Canyon and Wyman Canyon to the Crooked Creek Road and parked, starting our ride at 10,400' in Big Prospector Meadow.
The first climb was quite grueling, and rough with rocks and washboard to boot. We crested a shoulder of Campito Mountain at 10,800' and dropped a bit into Campito Meadow before the climbing became more serious, but fortunately paved for a while.
At 11,200' we passed the entrance to Patriarch Grove, where some bristlecone pines have lived for more than 4500 years. Here, we encountered a disabled car that had flatted one regular tire, then the spare. The driver left a note on the dashboard saying "Gone for tow truck!" Even the roads in this zone are serious business.
At 11,400' we took a break, then took another at 11,800' as we crested the east ridge of Sheep Mountain. The road descended a bit to where the road into Cottonwood Basin branched to the right, heading northeast into the canyon. Rough doubletrack got rougher and steeper as we descended, passing the site of the Eva Belle Mine, where an old cabin made from bristlecone logs still stands.
We crossed the basin and veered left, heading north and searching for the start of the Cottonwood Creek Trail. We almost rode into someone's campsite, very unexpected, and turned around to try another spur road. We spotted what looked like a trail across the creek, so we bushwacked over and began to follow what could have been a cow track...except for the faint motorcycle tracks! The trail started in earnest after we broke through a thicket of willow, and we began to cruise down the canyon.
Riding was varied. Mostly, we were tracking through sagebrush with a little cactus. There were beautiful aspen groves and little meadows, with big granite outcrops on all sides. Occasionally we'd lose the trail, but quickly find it again.
At about 9800' we passed a trail junction at the lower end of Granite Meadow, a beautiful meadow along a tributary creek flowing in from the west. The views here were magical. Big granite domes lined the basin, with a carpet of grass everywhere, and aspens turning yellow on the mountainsides.
After this junction the trail became progressively more vague and rough, until finally at 9000' we reached the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek. I had previously recorded the map coordinates for this fork in the canyon, and I was glad I did. At this point we lost the trail heading down-canyon, and had not yet found the trail headed up the South Fork, which was our planned escape route. We searched around in the sagebrush and found the barely-visible trail heading up the canyon. What a relief!
This was a nice spot for lunch. We hung out and munched a bit, taking in the solitude and beauty. Then we headed up the trail, which became better quickly. We rode on through beautiful little aspen groves, passing a corral and cabin at McCloud Camp, where the trail turned to doubletrack. The road bent south and began a severely steep climb up a rocky canyon.
The canyon ended abruptly at a saddle at 10,300' and the road dropped a couple hundred feet, then traversed across a mountainside and into Crooked Creek, where we picked up the road up to Crooked Creek Station. A long, slow grind followed. We were all pretty whipped, and finishing the ride with a slow climb was really taxing.
Returning to the car, we cracked some barley pops and drank to success. We sat around and yakked for a while, then headed down the road to Grandview Campground.