Mt. Whitney – Inyo National Forest

Where: Inyo National Forest/John Muir Wilderness
Mileage: 22 miles
Difficulty: Extremely Difficult
Elevation gain: 6,000 ft
Type: Out-and-back

Mt. Whitney Background

The mountain sits at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) above sea level and is the highest peak in the contiguous United States, the lower 48. Mt. Whitney was named after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist and benefactor of the California Geological Survey. The first recorded ascent was in 1873 by Charles Begole, A.H. Johnson, and John Lucas, all residents of Lone Pine.

Routes

Mount Whitney Trail: The most popular route to its summit is the Mount Whitney Trail route, beginning at Whitney Portal sitting at 8,360 feet (2,550 m). The hike is 22 miles with a gain of just over 6,100 feet. If done as a day hike expect 12-18 hours of hiking. Permits are required year round.

Mountaineer’s Route: The less popular route to the summit. This route was first climbed by John Muir a more interesting fact. The scramble up this way is a gully on the north side of the east face of the mountain and is known to be a class 3, more difficult route. Permits are not required.
Technical Climbs can also be done for the more serious climbers.

Permits
Every year the Forest Service holds a lottery for hiking and backpacking permits on Mt. Whitney Trail. Applications are accepted from February 1 to March 15. The lottery is for the dates in between May 1 and November 1. Interested in reserving, scroll to Helpful Links and find Mt. Whitney Permit Lottery Reservations Page.

Camping
I would recommend camping and sleeping up at the Whitney Portal Campground due to sleeping at elevation will help and you can get a very early start this way. Interested in camping here, scroll to Helpful Links and find Whitney Portal Campground Reservations Page.

HELPFUL LINKS

Forest Service Guides
U.S. Forest Service Mt. Whitney Trail Information
Mt. Whitney Trail Recreation Guide
Reservations
Mt. Whitney Permit Lottery Reservations Page
Maps
Tom Harrison Mt. Whitney Map
Campground
Whitney Portal Campground Reservations Page
Mt. Whitney Weather
Weather near Whitney PortalWeather near Whitney Portal
Weather near Summit (14,505 feet)
More information on Mt. Whitney
Hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail
Sierra Elevation’s Hiking Mt. Whitney Page
Whitney Portal Store
Whitney Zone and Forums
Timberline Trails Mt. Whitney Page

Here are some tips for training and preparations:

TRAINING:
Do at least 5 hikes:
– That take you above 10,000 feet
– That are over 10 miles
– That are 5,000+ elevation gain
– That you carry exactly what you are taking on Mt. Whitney Trip
PREPARATIONS:
– Study the map and mileage, order the map as soon as you know you have permits
– Make sure you have all the essential gear, make a list 3-4 months ahead or exactly when you get the permits, so you can buy anything that you are missing or borrow from a friend
– Plan your meals, re-packing foods that are bulky to minimize room is helpful
– Talk about possibly having to turn around together and no making the summit
– Give your trip plans to at least two different people at home and include: Permit reservation number, entry/exit dates, itinerary, car’s make/model and license # you’re taking, names and phone numbers, ranger station to call in emergency

Directions

From Highway 395 in Lone Pine, CA turn west on Whitney Portal Road. Drive 13 miles to Whitney Portal. There is an upper parking lot that has limited parking and a lower parking area as well.

Mileage Points of Interest
Points of Interest Elevation Mileage
Trailhead (Whitney Portal) 8,637 feet 0 miles
Lone Pine Lake turn-off 9,420 feet 2.8 miles
Outpost Camp 10,360 feet 3.8 miles
Mirror Lake 10,640 feet 4.3 miles
Trailside Meadow 11,395 feet 5.3 miles
Consultation Lake overlook 11,989 feet 6.0 miles
Trail Camp 12,039 feet 6.3 miles
Trail Crest 13,777 feet 8.2 miles
JMT Junction 13,480 feet 9.0 miles
Mt. Whitney Summit 14,497 feet 11.0 miles
Description

You can’t just wake up one morning and say, I’m going to hike Mt. Whitney. Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in California, even the tallest mountain in the lower 48. There are many reasons why there is a permit process for this trail. There have been many people unprepared and even people prepared who experienced trouble and/or devastation on the trail.

We picked up our permits at the Eastern Sierra Inter Agency Visitor Center the day before. The deadline to pick up your permits is 10am of the entry date. You should pick up your permit the day before. Only the group leader or the alternate leaders that are stated on the permit can pick up the permit. Also, something to take note is if you confirm your reservation online you can pick up your permit one or two days before your entry day.
They will give you a permit that you signed, the group leader has to keep this on them and each person in the group will receive a tag. Put these immediately on the backpacks of those going with you in order to not forget them. The two things they will give you is a Parking Pass (must have one displayed at Whitney Portal) and a Human Waste Bag. You are required to take out what you bring in; this includes human waste. Do not leave the bag on the mountain, there is a trashcan where you can dispose of it at Whitney Portal at the end of your trip.

I hiked Mt. Whitney twice and did it the same way both times. We slept up at Whitney Portal Campground just 5 miles down the road, woke up around 2:00am with everything packed except our tents and were on the trailhead by 3:00am in the morning. Both times we had a group of 3 people with us.

The first time around it was easy to find a spot online at Whitney Portal Campground, but the second time there were no sites available. We walked in and were able to snag the last site even though I had reserved a site at Lone Pine Campground, but again wanted to sleep in elevation to be more accustomed and have an easier time adjusting the next day. It’s $15 a night to stay at the campground.

We cooked some steaks with veggies and potatoes on the fire for dinner the night before; the year after we hit up one of the restaurants and had a turkey burger. Both were high in carbs and protein. If you know you are going to wake up early, make sure you hit the sleeping bag as the sun sets. Both years we were in bed by about 7:00-8:00pm.

Day 1: Whitney Portal to Summit and back down to Consultation Lake Overlook (16 miles)

The goal of today was to get the Consultation overlook to set up our tents and take a day pack up to Mt. Whitney after a short break and a good breakfast. Second goal was to head out and summit before 1pm, so that we would get back to camp before sunset. We parked the car actually right next to the trailhead which was absolutely nice on our way down. Make sure you put all food and scented items into the bear boxes; do not leave anything in your car.

The trailhead is located across the street, it is very easy to find and it’s just below the Whitney Portal Store. We were on our way, taking our first steps on the trail and of course the first couple of miles are long switchbacks. We were quite overdressed for the climb and after about a mile in we had to take a couple layers off. We hit a trail marker that pointed to the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. If you are continuing on the Mt. Whitney trail, continue on “TRAIL”.

Soon after this sign, you will cross over a small creek call Lone Pine Creek. In the dark one year I missed it, but the year later shortly after crossing the creek there will be a John Muir Wilderness wooden sign. Continue on to the next major landmark Lone Pine Lake. It was still complete darkness and other than a few lights we saw up ahead of us, we did not see a soul starting when we did or on the trail behind us.

A little before the lake itself there is a wooden log crossing, this is where you will know that you are very close to Lone Pine Lake. This was the first time we ran into people who had started earlier than us. We reach the junction to Lone Pine Lake a little past 4:00am. We were making good time to reach Consultation area to set up camp and possibly even take a good hour to ourselves. The junction sits about 2.8 miles from the trailhead.

We continued on after a short break we were addressed by a wooden sign. “ENTERING THE WHITNEY ZONE – SPECIAL PERMIT REQUIRED FOR ALL HIKERS, DAY AND OVERNIGHT”. We were still using our headlamps at this point. The sign is there for a reason, you cannot enter this area without a permit. Please do not attempt to do so! If the ranger catches you, you will be escorted off the mountain. Once you pass this sign you have about a mile to arrive to Outpost Camp.

The uphill climb on this portion was the first time we saw light. Keep climbing to about 3.5 miles from the trailhead and there is a notable large meadow just before Outpost Camp. There is a short descent into the valley where we didn’t really notice anyone sleeping as we approached and were talking rather loudly. Fortunately it looked like we didn’t wake anyone. You could hear a waterfall rumbling in the distance from Lone Pine Creek to the south of the camp; perfect spot to fill up on water.

Outpost Camp sits at 10,400 feet and is a perfect location to camp and acclimate if you’d like to do so. The Camp has established sites that are perfectly sandy and level. If you decide to stay here, there are no wood fires allowed; it is well marked on a sign near the campgrounds. We continued up to the next point of interest Mirror Lake. After a short climb we reached the lake and it is well marked that camping is prohibited here.

We continued next to the lake until the trail turns into a heavily rocky area. The trail starts climbing on the west side of Mirror Lake and stays above it in a small wooded area. Switchbacks take you up to granite rock with no more tree coverage and you will be glowing in the sun (of course if the sun is out). This portion of the hike was very strenuous. Do not rush yourself and make sure you are getting plenty of water. This is the first time I actually felt the altitude and from reading many others have too at this point. There is a wonderful view of Lone Pine Lake and the Owens Valley as you reach a plateau; this is a great spot to take a break.

The trail turns westward here on a flat portion till Trailside Meadow before another climb. Trailside Meadow is another great spot to fill up on water and take a short break. Once you hit Trailside Meadow you have gone about 5.3 miles and a little over 2,700 feet of elevation gain. It is a lush meadow with a small waterfall pouring out of Consultation Lake. The lake is just above us on the right here and you won’t be able to see it until we climb up towards Trail Camp. Make sure you take the trail to the right of the meadow, north side.

This trail supports the hiker with large rocky steps. We looked at the gps and we were about 6 miles into the hike. It was time to find a campsite and we headed off trail a little bit to find some nice sandy outcroppings with a beautiful view of Consultation Lake. We found a perfect place to set up our tent and take a rest and it felt like we were nowhere near civilization. I’m sure everyone was either day hiking or at Outpost/Trail Camps.

Consultation Lake sits at 11,686 feet, our campsite for the evening was a few hundred feet above that. There was no one on the shores of the lake, which absolutely made for a perfect picture. One year the lake was clear of snow, the next year there was a little more remnants of snow. In 2015, we decided the next morning we would leave our packs near the trail and go for a quick swim in the lake. But we still had to tackle the highest mountain of the lower 48. We set up our tents, ate some breakfast and napped, deciding to move forward at 9:30am.

We packed up the essentials for summiting as a day hike and headed towards Trail Camp to fill up on water, enough for summit and the way back. Not even a half a mile later we hit Trail Camp and there were tents everywhere. What did you know, there were people on the trail overnighting. Apparently Trial Camp is one of the most crowded backpacking campsites in the entire Sierra Nevada range. Trail Camp is located at 12,000 feet and is actually a perfect base for the summiting of the mountain. Trail Camp has a seasonal lake perfect for filling up water, but in the other seasons it is frozen over and you will have to melt snow.

Just after passing trail camp is the beginning of the infamous 99 switchbacks up to Trail Crest. 1,700 feet of elevation gain, 99 switchbacks in a little over 2 miles. There is a sight of the 99 switchbacks and a ton of little ants (people) heading up it from Trail Camp. How did I make it easier on myself? In the beginning I counted down 98 left, 97, 96… I definitely lost count at some point and by then we were halfway. I thank the use of my hiking poles on this part of the trail, which I let my sister borrow for half of the time.

There was a little snow from a storm that occurred a week ago, but nothing to fear. There is a portion of the trail right before Trail Crest with cables. Many people worry about this section of the hike, but we had little to no snow or ice on it; small portions. Be sure to check the conditions on this portion of the trail in case you need any equipment.

Trail Crest sits at 13,777 feet and you are within 2.8 miles of the summit by this point. The view from here is quite dramatic as you can see both sides of the mountains, west and east. This is probably one of the most beautiful views in the entire Sierra Nevada’s, but then again every new place you see is. On the west-side you can see almost the whole of the Sequoia National Park. On the east-side, John Muir Wilderness and the Owens Valley below with views extending all the way to the White Mountains on a clear day.

After Trail Crest the trail descends and ascends a few times before hitting the John Muir Trail Junction. The trail wasn’t exceptionally steep like most other parts of the trail, but the trail is very exposed with a drop. Be very careful here and know one of the rules on the trail is to let the hiker going up pass by if you are on your way down! Honestly, it’s better to always just move over if someone looks like they are in a hurry to be safe.

I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the trail as you are now on the Sequoia Side of the trail where it is extremely rocky. My favorite area are the Windows that offer beautiful views and you peer through of the Owens Valley and thousands of vertical feet below. I remember thinking how far the trail seemed to just go and keep going. After the Needles, you will hit the East slope where we hit our first snow patch, but nothing to worry about as it was melting and the trail was not steep here.

It was a very difficult last mile up, but this stretch by numbers is the easiest stretch of the hike. But because of elevation and being that you have already climbed 10 or more miles, it obviously feels like the hardest part. Take your time here as most people start having altitude sickness problems. Make sure you read about safety and how to prevent this before your trip up to Mt. Whitney.


I remember not even looking where I was walking and looking for the hut. We reached the summit at 1:00pm, seemed like just enough time to take a good break at the top and enjoy the 360 degree view. We definitely had a victory shot and rested a bit here. I recommend not hurrying because being up there was just something else entirely. It is the first time we were standing on the highest point in the lower 48. Even the second time around was just at breathtaking and the greatest feeling of accomplishment. It’s a great place to refuel your body too and eat something.

We had a small meal and lots of water while we relaxed at the top. Something to note, do not take refuge in the summit hut if lightening is a threat; leave the summit as soon as possible if you see any threatening weather. Always check before hand and even if you are so close to the summit and a storm rolls in, leave immediately. We were lucky to find perfect conditions during our entire hike both years.

We didn’t reach camp until about 4:45pm and the sun was going down quickly. How nice it was that our camp was set up; we cooked something warm and laid out under the stars in our sleeping bags. Both nights we tried to stay up, but we fell asleep on the rocks outside. Around midnight we woke up and made our way into the tents.

Day 2: Consultation Lake overlook to Consultation Lake to Whitney Portal

The next morning we decided to pack up and leave our backpacks somewhere on the trail near Trailside Meadow to check out Consultation Lake. Bikini and towels in our small day packs we scrambled off-trail to the lake. The water was crystal blue clear and looked cold as ever, but what’s our #1 rule – jump in the water. So we ended up doing so; see video here. It was such a good feeling, almost like we had just showered and yes the water was absolutely freezing.

Quickly dried off and headed back to our backpacks. We filled up on water here at the Trailside Meadow and continued down to Whitney Portal. It was quite nice to see the trail on this portion on the way down. We were able to catch side of some deer on our way down the long switchbacks. There were actually people coming up asking how much further. I hope they listened and turned back because they were very under prepared. We were also asked by two rangers for our permits. This was the first time on any hike I have ever been asked; I always keep my permit on me, but never encountered a Ranger until that hike.

There were a lot of day hikers going up to Lone Pine Lake, we decided we wanted to head back home sooner than taking the side trek to the lake. We headed to the Portal and had an amazing burger and beer and headed home on our way. What a hike!

Note to self: Make it to Lone Pine Lake one year!

5 Comments on “Mt. Whitney – Inyo National Forest

  1. Awesome article, Twinsters! I have to do this before I die! 😀

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: