Ten miles SW of the town of Big Pine, in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, this is the highest peak between Dissapointment Peak and Split Mountain, with a fine view of the Palisades, The Thumb, Mt. Bolton Brown, Mt. Tinemah, Mt. Prater, and Split Mountain. It's a little east of the Sierra crest. From reading the register, it seems to be climbed by about 10 parties per year. It's a steep class 2 boulder hop from Birch Lake, and a 7000' climb from the Birch Lake trailhead. It is an SPS list peak.
Driving directions to nearby Red Lake trailhead are given at http://www.climber.org/DrivingDirections/redlake.html , and the Forest Service provided us with driving directions to Birch Lake trailhead when we got the wilderness permit. The trailhead area is on the USGS Fish Springs 1:24000 quadrangle .
In Big Pine, from Highway 395, turn West on Crocker Av.(Rd?), which changes name to Glacier Lodge Road shortly. There are 2 gas stations here.
After about 2.6 miles, turn left (South) on McMurray Meadows Rd. (signed, dirt road). Then immediately turn left (SouthWest) , as the dirt road forks. The right-hand fork here is the wrong fork - it leads to a road which roughly parallels McMurray Meadows Rd. on the west, but the Forest Service says it is impassable. Stay on the main (McMurray Meadows) dirt road for about 5 + 2/3 miles before turning (slightly uphill) to the right, BEFORE reaching Birch Creek or McMurry Meadow. A small sign indicates the Forest Service Road number 9S03A, NOT mentioning Birch Lake Trail. This road is rougher and may require high clearance. Go about 2/3 miles to another intersection with NO mention of Birch Lake, and go left a few hundred feet to a barbed wire gate. There is room for one or 2 cars to park here. Going through the gate immediately encounters road requiring very high clearance and/or tedious driving, followed by driving through some muck, brush, and ruts, and then a spot on the road too narrow for a Durango SUV. Unless you have a small, extra-high clearance 4wd vehicle, park before the gate - it's not worth it. The trailhead sign is not far past the gate. Study the Fish Springs Quadrangle carefully to find the right route past the trailhead sign. Take the 1st fork in the road to the left and the next fork in the road to the right, and then the road changes into a trail going up a smaller wash (NOT up Birch Creek).
Info on permits is given at http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild/otheravail.shtml. Permits are required May 1 to Nov. 1, with a quota of 8 people per day for Birch Lake trail, though it may be difficult to find parking at the trailhead or campsites at Birch lake for that many people. Bear cannisters were not required, but there are NO trees to hang food from.
When To Climb
We climbed it on Oct. 27, 2002, when there were patches of snow and ice left over from early Octber snowfall, and a 1/2 to 1 inch dusting of new snow from the night before. The Glacier ice was very hard and slippery. The thin snow and ice made footing very uncertain on the long boulder hopping XC route from camp at Birch Lake outlet to the Summit, and we were unable to attempt The Thumb the same day, as we had hoped to. By Noon, most of the snow had melted off the more south-facing route up the Thumb, while it remained frozen on our North facing route up Birch's slopes.
I have met people who climbed it in March (as a ski moountaineering trip) and others who did it in June (and were able to climg The Thumb on the same day). I would prefer no snow or ice on the rocks, in the summer.
This was a baren, steep trail along Birch Creek, with only 2 small (unreliable ???) springs below 10,500' . We found only 4 small tent sites within 100 yard radius from Birch Lake outlet, good for 7-8 people, without much promise of other nice places to camp. There is a small flat area about 2/3 of the way up the trail to Birch Lake without water, and we saw a single bivy site near a stream crossing the trail near the high point of the trail shortly before the lake. Again - no trees anywhere along the trail.
For trail conditions, try the rangers in Lone Pine or Bishop.
Mt. Whitney Ranger Station
P.O. Box 8
Lone Pine, CA 93545
Open year-round, but only staffed spring through fall
Highway 395 at the south end of Lone Pine
White Mountain Ranger Station
798 North Main Street
Bishop, CA 93514
Open all year, Monday-Friday in winter
InterAgency Visitor Center--Lone Pine
Lone Pine, CA 93545
Intersection of Highway 395 and Highway 136
Open all year