Day hiking permits for Mt WhitneyThe "Whitney zone" (the zone that requires a permit even for day hikes) keeps being expanded year after year, with ever more erratic rules and regulations and ever more rangers added to their staff in order to enforce them. I can see the day when the "Whitney Zone" will extend over the entire wilderness and the Inyo National Forest will simply declare independence.
Update of 2009: There are now rangers checking permits on the North Fork/ Mountaneering route. They have vastly improved that route, but the catch is that now everybody walks the same way and it's therefore easier for rangers to check everyone's permit. They improved the route not to serve the public but to harass the public. The rangers also demolished all the little stone refuges that generations of hikers had built and maintained at the Upper Boyscout Lake, and which represented the ethics of mountaineering at its best. But the rangers do not practice mountaineering: just blatant banditry.
Update of 2008: the demented Mt Whitney lottery system has been extended to the whole mountain, regardless which way you climb it, and even to nearby mountains. You now need a (very hard to get) Whitney permit in order to hike (the very seldom visited) Mt Russell, Mt Carillon and any peak and pass nearby. Please boycott any initiative to increase the funding for the national forests. The more money they get, the more bureaucrats they can hire, the more restrictions they will apply and enforce. Hiking Mt Whitney and nearby mountains has become an incredible bureaucratic nightmare. Ask your Congress representative and senator to boycott all funding for the national forests. Only if these bureaucrats are fired will we get our mountains back.
(Note: what follows is about hiking to the top of Mt Whitney up and down in one day from Whitney Portal in the summer of 2005).
Hiking Mt Whitney is not easy. It is not the mountain, it's the bureaucracy that makes it so difficult. You do need a permit to hike up Whitney in the summer. If you don't have a permit, rangers will cite you and turn you back. The regulations are so complicated that rangers themselves disagree on their interpretations.
To hike the regular Mt Whitney trail in one day requires a day-hike permit. This is not only a very unfair practice, which rewards people who've got nothing to do over people who have a job and can't plan ahead, but over the last few years they have also made it as difficult as possible for us to get one. The phone number changes all the time and it's busy all the time, and the website has the least intuitive name one could think of, and finding the permit area requires a degree in dealing with retarded minds, and the permit system is matched only by horror tales of the old Soviet Union.
That said, permits for summer day hikes can in theory be obtained from Inyo National Forest (1-760-873-2408). Lone Pine ranger station 760 876-6200. They also have a reservation number: 760 873-2483, but only in the afternoon. Permits cost $15 (or, permits are free, but the reservation system costs $15... bureaucrats can afford to have a twisted sense of humour).
These permits become available sometime at the beginning of the year (usually february) and are first assigned via a lottery (no, this is not a joke). Those that are still available after the lottery, are sold via the reservation system or are available for free at the ranger station. Confused? The rangers are too: ask them how it works and you will get different answers.
The rules change every year, so don't trust anything on this page.
To prove that there is no limit to human stupidity, the lottery system has been further complicated. This time the winners of the lottery don't get a permit: they only get a letter that they are entitled to a permit (a permit-permitting letter, if you wish). To get the actual permit, one must show up in person the day before the hike at the ranger station in Lone Pine. If you applied to hike on a saturday, you have to take a day off and drive all the way to Lone Pine on the day before, and make sure to arrive before closing time. You can request that the rangers leave your permit in a "night box" located at the visitor center, but permits have been "stolen" or have been missing. So make sure to call them and get your actual permit number (not just the reservation number that is printed on the letter). If they forget to put your permit in the "night box" or if someone else takes it, you can still produce the permit number. (While i am not encouraging anyone to steal these permits, it is obviously very easy to do so: as long as you obtained one legal permit, you will be given the password to open the night box, and then you can take all the permits that you like; hence you can count on someone stealing yours).
To maximize chances of obtaining a permit for the desired day, it has become commonplace to ask two or three friends to apply for the same day that you want. In theory permits are non-transferrable, but you are not required to carry a photo id on the trail (yet!), so rangers have no way to check if you are really the person who bought that permit. If more than one person wins the lottery, i hear that the extra tickets can easily be sold on the Web. In any case, people with a six digit salary don't mind paying for 3 or 4 permits and use only one.
In 2005, the ranger stations that issued permits were: Mt. Whitney Ranger Station (Lone Pine), White Mtn Ranger Station (Bishop), Mammoth Lakes Ranger Station, and the Scenic Area Visitor Center (north end of Lee Vining).
In 2004 we were able to change the "group leader" (i.e., the owner) of a permit just by calling the Lone Pine ranger station. So it was possible and easy to trade permits (despite the countless warnings that permits cannot be traded!).
Beware! In the past (before 2001), you would not be checked for permits
if you started hiking very early in the morning and returned late afternoon:
this is no longer true. The rangers have enough of our tax money to actually
ambush hikers on the Whitney trail all day and night long.
In august 2009 i met three rangers checking permits, and it wasn't even a weekend.
What happens if you did pay for and got a permit-permitting letter, but did not have time to go and pick up the actual permit? Big trouble, because the reservation number on the letter is not (of course...) the permit number. When you surrender your reservation number, the rangers give you a permit number (that they keep secret until you show up in person). Your "permit" is basically just a carrier for the permit number. The ranger who checks permits on the mountain will want to see that number (the permit number) and doesn't know what to do with reservation numbers.
This is a typical form of bureaucracy that feeds itself: both the fees and the fines are needed in order to be able to pay for the rangers who enforce the rules.
I gave up trying to keep this page updated: the rangers keep changing their
websites, phone numbers, etc. Every year there is something different.
They have a well-staffed bureaucracy to do so, i don't. They win.
Please boycott any initiative to increase funds for the Inyo National Forest:
those funds are used to hire more bureaucrats to add more red tape.
Write to your Congress representative and senator and ask to cut funds to the
Inyo National Forest.
Please write to
Inyo National Forest
351 Pacu Lane
Bishop, CA 93514
to complain about this stupid system and demand the deportation to North Korea of the human (?) being who came up with the lottery system.
The official excuse for the permit system is the need to protect the "delicate ecosystem" of Mt Whitney. Anybody who has been on that mountain knows that this is plain crap: Mt Whitney is one big rock. There is no vegetation on that mountain. I could name thousands of places on the Sierra Nevada and even near major cities that constitute a much more delicate ecosystem. If we applied the same criterion to every place in the world, you would need a permit even to walk outside your house.
Ironically, the part of the trail that can be hiked without a permit is precisely the part that goes through a forest and where animals can indeed be seen. I am not sure what "delicate ecosystem" gets hurt on Mt Russell, a mountain that normally would get one or two visitors a day and is now considered part of the "Whitney Zone" (and therefore gets an average of zero visitors). If the goal was to close Mt Russell to the general public, it succeeded. Ditto for the Russell-Carillon pass: if you want to transit through it, you need a Whitney permit. That's a remote pass that probably no more than 100 people a year would use (incidentally, it is just a big pile of sand and loose rocks).
Of course, Whitney gets more visitors than other mountains. It is, after all, the only major mountain with a trail all the way to the top. However, the permit system has simply increased its popularity and there are now many more people who desire hiking it (most of them totally unprepared). So the permit system has encouraged people to hike Whitney instead of discouraging them.
At the same time that the permit system was introduced in order to protect the "delicate ecosystem" of Mt Whitney, the mountaineering route (once a legendary route that very few people had actually attempted) was improved and keep being improved. This is indeed a side of Whitney that is biologically rich (both wildlife and vegetation). Nonetheless, year after year the rangers have worked on creating a use trail that now (2010) extends all the way to the final chute. That has indeed hurt a "delicate ecosystem". In fact, the rangers have probably sped up by a few centuries the process of creating a use trail to the summit that would have spontaneously taken place as people hiked that side of the mountain.
I could name hundreds if not thousands of places that have a delicate ecosystem that is being wiped out by crowds of human beings, but most of them are located near cities, very far from the rarely visited high sierra (that, incidentally, gets most of its visitors in just one or two summer months).
Summarizing, i doubt that these hiking permits are meant to limit damage to a delicate ecological environment: the most accessed and vulnerable areas have always been the ones that are still permit-free, and above that only a small percentage of tourists would go anyway, and there is very little to damage above 3500 meters. Countless places in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon in Arizona are far more delicate and receive far more tourists. If indeed hiking at high altitude hurts the environment, then the poor Alps, a lot more trafficked than Whitney and for a few more thousand years, including a few hundred armies, would already be reduced to a desert. Furthermore, the quota system is simply sending a lot more hikers to the mountaineering route, which is a far more delicate ecosystem. To me these hiking permits are just bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake.
If we truly want to protect the wilderness, i can easily name the real enemies, having walked all over those mountains for almost 30 years. First and foremost, plastic. The plastic bottle that you carry is lethal. If you drop it (and sooner or later you will), it will stay there forever. I routinely collect one or two plastic items from trails. Every year we add a few thousand plastic items to the wilderness. If the bureaucracy wants to protect the environment, i would start by banning plastic beyond the parking lot (or at least setting a limit to how much plastic one can carry): no plastic bottles, no sunscreen and insect repellent in plastic containers, no food sold or wrapped in plastic, etc. (Incidentally this is easy to do - my friends know that i never carried plastic bottles and the only plastic in my backpack is pretty much the emergency poncho). Next would be (ouch) all electronics. First of all, the most unnatural thing in the wilderness is to be on a smartphone talking to your granma in Switzerland (especially if you have to shout "can you hear me?" every minute). Secondly, that's another thing that people drop more often than you'd imagine: cell phones, cameras, GPSs. Each of those items contains harmful chemicals that will leak into the soil. I could go on. If we really want to protect the wilderness, i would not stop animals from using it (and "animals" includes humans) but i would make sure they don't carry any potentially harmful substance with them: plastic, electronics, guns, aerosol sprays, soap, etc etc. Can you believe that it is illegal to hike the Mt Whitney trail without a permit (to protect a fragile ecosystem) but perfectly legal to use DDT to kill its insects?