So, you want to hike Mt. Whitney?
Mt. Whitney may be the highest peak in the contiguous US (14,505 ft.) and the views you will be greeted with along the Sierra Crest are much more valuable than any bragging rights for reaching the summit. The hike starts at the Whitney Portal and winds its way up the steep mountain over stream crossings, past alpine lakes and meadows, and between incredible rock formations. If you choose to do the hike in two days, you will camp just below the most technical portion of the hike, 99 Switchbacks and the Chute. Once you work your way up to the Trail Crest, you come the the boundary between Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest, and the southern most point of the John Muir Trail. The views along the ridge are absolutely breathtaking (or maybe that is the lack of oxygen), and once at the Summit you really do feel as if you are on top of the world.
- Hiking Permits: All hikers must secure a permit through Inyo National Forest to enter the Whitney Zone. Permits are awarded via a lottery and any unclaimed permits become available on April 1, and throughout the season as people cancel their trips. For more information, visit the Forest Service’s website.
- Camping: Before your hit the trail— There are several places near Lone Pine where you can camp the night before you start the hike. The Whitney Portal Campground is the best, as you will get to talk to people coming back from the trail and get some insights on the conditions. And, the few extra hours at altitude doesn’t hurt. On the trail— If you doing an overnight trip, you can either camp at Outpost Camp (mile 3.8) or Trail Camp (mile 6.3).
- Bear Cannister
- Water Filter
- Wag Bag (provided with your permit)
- Trekking Poles
- Crampons or Microspikes (spring)
- Ice Axe (spring)
- Backpacking or Hiking gear
Check out the Whitney Portal Store for current conditions and knowledge from people just coming off the trail (on their message board).
Overview: The Mt. Whitney Trail leads you on a beautiful hike that will test your fitness, let you know how your body feels about being at altitude, and may get your adrenaline pumping. This is not the only way to reach the summit, as you can test your skills on the Mountaineer’s Route or come in via the John Muir Trail from the western side. Unless you are hiking from Sequoia, you need to plan ahead to get a permit. According to the Forest Service, the Mt. Whitney Trail is the most visited mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada. Be sure to pick up your permit by the deadline listed on your confirmation from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, just one mile south of Lone Pine. They’ll also provide you with a wag bag—leave no trace!!
The Mt. Whitney Trail starts at Whitney Portal (just west of Lone Pine) and is 10.7 (17.1 km) miles from trailhead to summit. The total elevation gain is approximately 6,145 feet and the hike gets more challenging as you ascend, mostly due to the elevation gain. If you are new to high altitudes, make sure to read up on the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, which may include headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, and dizziness. If you experience altitude sickness, it is important to descend to a lower altitude and potentially seek medical attention.
If you start during the day for an overnight hike, the first few miles of the trail are relatively exposed and quite warm. At mile 2.8 you can divert away from the trail (by only a minute or two) to visit Lone Pine Lake, which is highly recommended. After passing a gorgeous meadow with views of the towering granite, at mile 3.8 you reach Outpost Camp. This is one of two official camping locations along the trail. Most people will choose to keep hiking to get a few more miles behind them before setting up camp. After Outpost you come to Mirror Lake, a gorgeous spot to take a break and filter some water. (While there are water sources near Trail Camp, the lakes are sometimes frozen.)
After Mirror Lake the landscape begins to change as the trail is replaced by granite steps. At about mile 6 you will reach Consultation Lake, followed by Trail Camp (mile 6.3). The actual camp looks right up towards 99 Switchbacks and Trail Crest. Be sure to keep your food in your bear canister, as you are likely to be visited by some marmots. In order to keep the effects of altitude at bay, keep moving around after you set up camp and before you turn in, likely quite early.
Get an early start the next morning, especially if there is snow on the ground. In the morning the snow is nice and hard, but after the spring sun hits it begins to get slushy. By early afternoon you may end up waist deep in snow, so try to avoid this by heading out well before the sun rises. After leaving Trail Camp you will either head towards 99 Switchbacks. In the spring you will need microspikes or crampons even if you are doing the switchbacks instead of the chute. If you are choosing the chute, you will also need to be prepared with an ice axe (and trained to use it). The switchbacks seem to go on forever but the reward at the top is well worth it. Once you hit Trail Crest (mile 8.5), you feel like you have reached the summit because the views are incredible and you only have about 850 ft. of altitude to go. Unfortunately, the two miles left are at such high altitude they may be the hardest yet. Lucky for you, the views are incredible the entire way and well worth the effort. Once you reach the summit, be sure to sign in, soak in the view, and enjoy that peak treat you hauled all the way up. You are on top of the Sierra Nevada! Happy trails.