The White-Inyo Range is approximately 110 mi (178 km) long and consists of mountains that rise from valleys to the east and west. The range is located at the interface of two major physiographic provinces: the Pacific-influenced Sierra-Nevada Cascade Province and the arid Basin and Range Province. The mountains at the lower elevations, near 4,000 ft (1,220 m), are dotted with Great Basin Sage, and the mountains rise to elevations of more than 14,000 ft (4,400 m) and the Alpine Steppe. The rise is an abrupt one, occurring sharply over a 12 mi (20 km) linear distance. There is close proximity to the Sierra Nevada to the west, but there are closer biologic ties with the plants and animals of the Basin and Range Province.
The White-Inyo Range expresses moderate geologic diversity (e.g., granitic rocks, basalt, metavolcanic rocks, and weakly to moderately metamorphosed sandstone, shale, limestone, and dolomite) and great topographic diversity. The range consists of complexly folded and faulted rocks, some more than 600 million years old, that lie in a triangular, fault-bounded block. The block rises abruptly on the west above the active White Mountain fault zone fronting the range, along which occurred the 1986 Chalfant Valley Earthquake. The block is more gently inclined to the east. The presence of different types of rock results in striking constrasts in landscape color and form, and the gentle rolling topography of parts of the crest of the range contrasts sharply with the steeply inclined and deeply dissected slopes.
The climate of the range is characterized by cold, dry weather. The average maximum-minimum temperature ranges are from ~ 70°F (21°C) to 37°F (~ 3°C), at the base of the range near Bishop, and from 36°F (2°C) to - 26°F (-32°C) recorded at the Barcroft facilities of the White Mountain Research Station in the Alpine Zone. Precipitation averages from 4 in (10 cm) at the base of the range to 20 in (50 cm), largely as snow, along its crest. Local variation in precipitation and runoff is strongly influenced by topography. The winds at the crest of the range are persistent and frequently strong during both summer and winter. Thunder and lightning storms can be hazardous to hikers in the high country, and a hike to White Mountain Peak in a thunderstorm is strongly discouraged.
Soil quality is poor in the White-Inyo Range, and soil development is slowest in the alpine zones. The White-Inyo Range, with its high elevation and special climate, is a rare and fragile environment. Rapid changes in elevation are associated with abrupt changes in habitats and species, which enhances the area as a scientific research region. The short growing season results in limited plant productivity in a given year. As a result of the thin soil and sparse and delicate vegetation, recovery from disturbance is very slow, estimated to be more than 100 years; thus, this is an area demanding diligent preservation.