Mt Whitney

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California hikes | Other California destinations
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Frequently asked questions
Mt Whitney, located in the Eastern Sierra of California, is the highest mountain of the contiguous U.S.A.

Whichever way you hike it, this is one of the most memorable hikes in California. Unfortunately, bureaucracy has increasingly spoiled the whole magic.


The best time to hike Mt Whitney is between the time the snow melts and just before thunderstorm season starts, so july and august.

There are two trails from the Whitney Portal (the parking lot) to the top of Mt Whitney.

In this page you will find some useful links and phone numbers, general advice and directions how to get to the Whitney Portal from the Bay Area, and (scroll down) a description of both the "regular" trail and the "mountaineering" North Fork trail. The vast majority of hikers use the "regular" trail, which is relatively easy (for a 4,421m mountain) and very scenic. It is just very long (a fast hiker can hope to get to the top in six/seven hours). The mountaineering (North Fork) trail requires some climbing skills and it is definitely not recommended if you're afraid of heights (people have died on the mountaineering trail). Unfortunately, both the "regular" trail and the "mountaineering" route require a permit, that is not easy to obtain in the summer. (Very easy to obtain in thunderstorm/snow season, of course: lots of inexperienced hikers end up hiking Whitney in september/october). If you have two days, or are willing to hike 60+ kms, check also the Western trail.


The regular trail

Approximate distances from portal to summit (in parenthesis my 2003 time and the 2009 time, respectively the slowest and fastest):

LandmarkDistanceTimeAltitude
Trailhead002550 m.
Lone Pine Lake 4kms 1h 30' (1h10') 2900 m.
Outpost Camp 6kms 2h 3100 m.
Mirror Lake 7 kms 2h 30' (1h40') 3200 m.
Trailside Meadow & Consultation Lake 8.5 kms 3h 45' (2h 30') 3600 m.
Trail Camp 10 kms 4h 30' (3h) 3700 m.
96 switchbacks 5h 30'
Trail Crest 13.5 kms 6h (4h 30') 4,145 m.
Summit 17 kms 7h 30' (5h40') 4,421 m.

The trail from the parking lot to Lone Pine Lake is long switchbacks with a moderate grade. At the top of these switchbacks, there are a fork and a sign. To the left one goes to Lone Pine Lake, to the right one goes to Mt Whitney. If you take the right turn, you are likely to meet a ranger checking that you have a permit (Read my anti-permit rant). If you take the left turn, no permit is required.
The trail from Lone Pine Lake to Mirror Lake is very easy. After Mirror Lake, the trail starts going up steeply and runs along a creek to the trail camp. This is where you are likely to feel the altitude. If you look to your left (past the creek), at some point you can see Consultation Lake down below. You are not far from trail camp.
Trail camp is a little lake with minimal facilities. From the trail camp you head for the face of Mt Muir. The "96 switchbacks" (there are actually more than 140) take you to the Trail Crest. The switchbacks are a very mild grade, but they are very long and the altitute kicks in.
At the Crest you crossover to the other side, with incredible views of the Sequoia Park wilderness. The trail goes down and you reach the second fork of the hike: left you go to Sequoia Park (a very long trip). Turn right to Mt Whitney.
The trail goes up mildly. You will see three giant spikes sticking out of the mountain on your right-hand side. The third one is the peak. When you get to its base, you still have to climb some steep switchbacks. Due to altitude, most people take a long time to complete these last 500m.

If you are in reasonable shape and acclimatized, it shouldn't take you longer than eight hours to hike from the parking lot to the top (and five hours to hike back down). If you are in excellent shape, you can hike to the top in less than six hours. (If you are not in shape, you should not even think of trying this hike).



North Fork (mountaineering) trail


Western trail

The "western" trail (the third way to get to Mt Whitney) can be accessed via the Cottonwood Lakes. This hike requires a car shuttle, because the trailhead for Cottonwood Lakes and the exit point at Whitney Portal are more than 50 kms apart. It is also too long a hike to be done in one day.
See directions for Mt Langley. The beginning of the trail is the same. These are the milestones if you also want to summit Mt Langley (an extra 10 kms roundtrip).
  • Cottonwood Lakes trailhead (3060m)
  • to Old Army Pass (3700m, 10km)
  • to Mount Langley (4275, 15km)
  • to Old Army Pass (3700, 20km)
  • to Rock Creek ranger station
  • to Guitar Lake (3535, 45km)
  • to Mt Whitney (4416m, 55km)
  • to Whitney Portal (72km)

Permits


Links:


Pictures of this hike
Highway 395
Lone Pine trails
Mt Whitney weather
Sightseeing

Campgrounds

Choices for camping include:
  • The overnight hikers' campground at the trailhead
  • The Whitney Portal campground, at the trailhead
  • Tuttle Creek (5 kms west of Lone Pine on Whithey Portal Rd, FREE)
  • Horseshoe Meadows (8 kms west of Lone Pine on Whithey Portal Rd), probably my favorite place to camp in the High Sierra
  • The mountain itself (need permits, of course)
  • Camping is free in the Alabama Hills, another favorite of mine, but only if you don't care about acclimatizing (but drive at least 2 kms off the highway)

If I had to list the most serious dangers of the Mt Whitney hike for inexperienced hikers:
  1. Getting hurt (especially downhill).
  2. Dehydratation (above 3000m the body needs a lot of water, and there is no water for most of the trail).
  3. Altitude sickness (especially if you don't acclimatize properly)
  4. Sunburn and sunstrokes (even if the temperature is chilly most of the way)
  5. Getting stuck on the way back in the dark (if you are way out of shape)

Lone Pine

Everything is expensive in Lone Pine, whether gasoline or food. The selection of restaurants is particularly limited (and bad): overpriced, bad food, lousy service, not unusual to have to wait one hour for your order.


Clickable map

The regular trail is the one that goes through Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake.

The mountaineering (North Fork) "trail" is the one that ends at Iceberg Lake.


For the record...

Check how Whitney compares with other mountains