I had never climbed Boundary Peak, Nevada's highest point, nor had I ever encountered a belly-up dead cow. These two personal "firsts" occurred on successive days several Augusts ago and left a lasting impression on me.
The cow came first, and my son and I could smell her well before we could see her. It was late in the afternoon, and we had been hiking since noon. Our plan was to camp just below the timberline and to climb to the summit the next morning. "Bessie" was lying about 50 feet to the right of the trail and was still intact, probably having the same effect on potential predators that she had on us. After a (very) brief investigation, we began a forced march to gain enough separation to permit both camping and breathing. Fortunately, a prevailing wind came to our aid, and the experience did nothing to lessen our appetites that evening.
The cow's temporary insult to our olfactories was a small price to pay for the visual treats to come. Boundary Peak proved to be an extraordinary experience. It's a tough climb, and one that requires some rudimentary route-finding, but one that rewards the hiker with film canisters full of postcard images and a head full of memories.
The 13,140-foot peak is at the northern end of the White Mountains that straddle the California-Nevada border west of Tonopah at about the same latitude as San Francisco. The range's geography permits unique views of the Sierra Nevada on the west as well as a rare perspective into the sagebrush ocean of the Great Basin to the east.
Although the Whites contain one 14,000 summit and a large forest of 4,000 year-old bristlecone pine, the range suffers a sizable reputation gap with the neighboring Sierra. But to an outdoor lover who is sick of the permit systems and Mother-may-I's of the more popular wilderness areas, this lack of prominence is a real godsend.
As we approached the range on U.S. 6 over Montgomery Pass we had an unobstructed view of Boundary Peak and its companions. (A more distant perspective can be had driving south from Reno on U.S. 395.) Surveying the sheer 6000-foot north face of the mountain, I found myself thinking me, up there? After turning onto State Route 264 we found the dirt road that leads to Trail Canyon about 10 miles north of Dyer.
The hiking path starts quite gently as it climbs into Trail Canyon, along a lush, sometimes boggy creek. At first the trail is easy to follow, but it becomes hopelessly intermingled with dead-end trails so that frequent cross-country travel is required. It's impossible to get lost, however, as the canyon is fairly narrow, relatively straight, and you traverse its entire length. The route steepens once you reach the canyon's end, and it's a good thousand-foot heave up a dry-creek bed to the saddle and some sensational views to the west. From here the going gets more challenging –- unambiguous, as you just stay on the ridgeline, but challenging.
At this point let me say that I am not a technical climber, nor is Boundary Peak a technical climb. But after completing this hike I had the sense that I had done something special. Maybe it was finding my way through the high sagebrush in the canyon often without a trail or clambering over boulders along a narrow ridge at 12,000 feet. Maybe it was the encounter with a band of wild mustangs at the 10,000-foot level of Trail Canyon Saddle or avoiding the sizable snow cornices (even in August) that had formed in the lee of the ridgeline. It could even have been "Bessie". I think John Hart in his Sierra Club work Hiking the Great Basin had it right when he concluded his description of Boundary Peak with, "It's quite a spot."
Making the Trip
Boundary Peak, Nevada highest mountain, is located about 200 miles southeast of Reno and about 70 miles west of Tonopah. If you take the hike, be prepared for a 4600-foot elevation gain over the five one-way miles up to the 13,140-foot summit. That works out to just about a 20% grade. If you hike on a weekend in late summer, you probably won't be alone. There were four or five other people on the trail with my son and me that day, all of them on long day hikes.
I would recommend making it a three-day, two-night trip, and camp near the trailhead or in the canyon. As for the season, June through October is best, but I'm told it makes an interesting snowshoe trip in winter. Contact the U.S. Forest Service's White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, California (760-873-2500, www.r5.fs.fed.us/inyo), for maps, route updates, and current trailhead information, or refer to John Hart's Hiking the Great Basin (Sierra Club Books). Although my son and I had explored Boundary only the year before, we still got confused at a minor junction after the sign for Trail Canyon. I had a copy of the USFS Inyo National Forest Map as well as the Benton Range USGS 1:100,000 topo. Most of the hike will be in relatively open country. You will be hiking due west to the ridge and then south to the peak. It's hard to miss, even if the trail does come and go.