Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the continuous United States with an elevation of 14,497 feet above the sea. It is located between California's Inyo and Tulare counties, just 76 miles west of the lowest point in North America, Badwater in Death Valley National Park (-282 feet). The western slope of the mountain lies within Sequoia National Park and the summit is the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail which runs 211 miles from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. The summit of Whitney lies along the Sierra Crest and near many of the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Water that falls to the west of the crest flows into the Pacific Ocean, while water that falls to the east flows into the Great Basin. The peak rises 10,778 feet above the town of Lone Pine in the Owens Valley below. The Mount Whitney Trail (class 1) is the easiest and most popular route to the summit. The trail starts at Whitney Portal (8,360 feet), 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine. The trail is about 22 miles round trip with an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet. Most hikers will take between 2 and 4 days to complete this trip, although it is often done as a strenuous day hike taking anywhere from 10-20 hours. Permits are required year round for anyone entering the Mt. Whitney Zone.
1. Whitney Portal- Mile 0.0- 8,300' The trail starts just below the Whitney Portal Store through a hallway of information signs. The trail ascends a number of long switchbacks passing Carillon Creek and the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek then continues to switchback & transverse the northerly wall of Lone Pine canyon. You then head into a forested area as you approach Lone Pine Lake.
2. Lone Pine Lake- Mile 2.8- 10,000' Shortly after the log crossing over Lone Pine Creek, you will pass a sign for the turn off to Lone Pine Lake. A permit is required beyond this point. After the fork to the lake, switchbacks take you up the westerly end of the canyon to the next level. The trail then skirts the south side of Big Horn Park on the way to Outpost Camp.
3. Outpost Camp- Mile 3.8- 10,300'' At the far end of Bighorn Park is a waterfall, a creek crossing, and Outpost Camp. After another creek crossing the trail then switchbacks up to the next level where you pass Mirror Lake. Above Mirror Lake the trail ascends above the tree line and transitions into a rock path. In this area the trail is more rugged as you gain elevation and pass by Trailside Meadow. As the trail switchbacks out of Trailside Meadow, Consultation lake comes into view.
4. Trail Camp- Mile 6.0- 12,000' The trail passes through Trail Camp, delineated by a rock boundary to the south and a small pond to the north. The stream feeding the Trail Camp Pond is the last easy area to get water before heading to the summit. After passing through Trail Camp you arrive at the 97-switchbacks. In the area of switchbacks 23-25 there is usually water flowing over the trail from a spring and snow melt higher up the slope. This area may be icy at times. After switchback #45 you will enter the area with the cable railing. This area may also be icy and can hold snow well into summer. After switchback #97 there is a long traverse (heading slightly down hill) over to Trail Crest.
5. Trail Crest- Mile 8.2- 13,600' The trail then travels to the west side of the crest as it descends to the John Muir Trail junction then starts to climb again and passes below Mt. Muir. After passing several windows, the next section of the trail goes up several switchbacks as you approach the ridge line and traverse north. The trail then bends and passes several rock columns and various drop-offs. After another bend you will enter the final section and see the summit in the distance. The trail traverses across to the base of the peak and then gradually ascends to the summit.
6. Mt. Whitney- Mile 11.0- 14,497'
Year-round everybody entering the Mt. Whitney Zone must possess a valid wilderness permit. From May 1 to November 1 the number of permits issued is limited to 100 day hike and 60 overnight permits per day. Permits for this period may be reserved in advance by entering the Mt. Whitney Lottery in February by using Recreation.gov to submit your application. Lottery reservations include Day Use of the Mt. Whitney Trail, Mountaineers Route, and Overnight use beginning on the Mt. Whitney Trail. Visit Wilderness Permit Options for a detailed chart on permit options. The following is important information for reserving wilderness permits:
NEW FOR THE 2012 SEASON: The Mt. Whitney Lottery will be done online using Recreation.gov. They will be accepting Lottery applications on-line from Feb 1, 2012 to Mar 15, 2012. All remaining dates for the 2012 season will be available on a First Come First Serve basis after the Lottery has been completed.
Reservation Confirmation Deadline: Reservations will be canceled and space given to other groups if your group size is not confirmed before the deadline. Instructions for permit pickup are included in confirmation e-mail. To hold your space, confirm your group size on line from 2 to 14 days before your trip.
Permit Pick Up: It is mandatory to pick up the permit at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center.
Most people day hike the trail between July and September when the snow on the trail is minimal. There is really no perfect time to go. Snow can linger in shaded areas well into July and thunderstorms are a potential problem throughout the summer. If it will be your first time hiking in this kind of environment, pick a date in late July, August or early September. There is nothing you can do about the weather, just use good judgment on when to turn around if it gets bad and be prepared for a wide range of temperatures.
If you want the moon up in the morning when you start your hike, pick a date several days after a full moon. If you would like to have the moon up after sunset, pick a date several days before a full moon. You can calculate moon almanac information for your date on the US Naval Observatory sun and moon data page.
There are no large commercial airports near Lone Pine. If you are looking for a scenic drive, Reno or Las Vegas are good choices. Most would advise avoiding the Los Angeles area airports due to traffic. If you must fly into the LA area, a mid AM arrival would be best. Rush hour (2pm-7pm) traffic can easily increase your drive time by an hour or more. Ontario is a good choice if you time it right.(traffic after 2pm going north on the 15) There are also small general aviation airports in Lone Pine, Independence, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. The following chart will help you select an airport to fly into:
Bus and train travel is limited in the Eastern Sierra. If bus and/or train is your only option, the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority is the sole provider of inter-regional public transportation for the entire Eastern Sierra Region. They operate several routes between in the Eastern Sierra. The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System provides bus service between Merced and Mammoth Lakes via Yosemite National Park when Tioga Pass is open. Greyhound provides service to Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Merced and Mojave. Amtrak has train service to Victorville, Fresno and Reno and bus thruway service to Las Vegas, Mojave, Yosemite and Carson City.
Most people prefer to camp at one of the higher elevation campgrounds for the acclimation benefits. The Inyo National Forest has over 80 campgrounds in the Eastern Sierra to choose from. None of the campgrounds near the Portal have showers, however there are 5 public showers at the Mt. Whitney Hostel for a small fee. The following are the highest campgrounds in the Eastern Sierra, and a few lower campgrounds that are near Mt. Whitney.
If you would rather stay in a motel, Lone Pine is the most convenient place to stay. The Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce has a good website with lodging information. If you would like to stay in a motel at a higher elevation, the Mammoth Lakes area, Rock Creek Resort, Bishop Creek Resort, and Parchers Resort offer good options. Below are some of the more popular motels in the Lone Pine area:
Although most sections of the main trail are not very steep, you still gain over 6,000 feet on the way to the summit. The amount of conditioning you need depends on your current fitness level and experience with strenuous day hikes. If you have never really hiked before then prepare your body for the challenges that lie ahead and start out slowly. If you are a great swimmer and you think that you are in great condition and could easily hike for hours on end, you can be wrong. Hiking up and downhill on uneven terrain is a pretty specific fitness exercise that strains your body in ways that it may not be used to. Even if you are used to walking, strapping on a backpack and walking on rough terrain at higher altitudes will suddenly change your entire experience. Endurance is more important than speed when day hiking Mt. Whitney, so pace yourself!
Training also involves learning your gear and what works best for you on a hike. The day of the hike is not the time to break in the new boots, or try out your new water filter. Train with the same footwear, clothing and gear you plan to use on the day of the hike. Your training hikes are a good time to figure out how you plan on carrying and treating your water. Pay attention to how much water you are drinking and what foods you like. If you plan on starting your Mt. Whitney Hike in the dark, start some training hikes in the dark. Learning all of theses things on your training hikes will make your day hike of Mt. Whitney a lot more fun.
Layering your clothing is a tried-and-true way to ensure your comfort in the outdoors. The beauty of this simple concept is that it allows you to make quick adjustments based on your activity level and changes in the weather. Weather conditions can vary drastically from the trailhead to the summit. Be prepared for temperatures anywhere from 20°- 90°. Intense sun, strong winds, rain, hail, and even snow are possible anytime of year. Be sure to check the weather forecast before your hike so you can plan accordingly. While you are moving, wear the least amount of layers as possible to avoid sweating. When you stop for a break, put on additional layers to retain your body heat.
Trapped inside your clothing, perspiration can leave you chilled or damp no matter how well your outer shell fends off rain and snow. Cotton is an example of a fabric that retains perspiration and can leave you vulnerable to unwanted chills. This isn't a problem when it is hot out, but on the Mt. Whitney trail you are likely to experience a wide range of temperatures.
Base layers can be anything from briefs and sports bras to long underwear sets (tops and bottoms) to tights and sport shirts. What ever you choose, the material should be silk, wool or synthetic fabrics such as REI MTS®, Patagonia® Capilene®, Polartec® PowerDry® and CoolMax® polyester. Unlike cotton, these fabrics transport (or "wick") perspiration away from your skin, dispersing it on the outer surface where it can evaporate. The result: You stay drier even when you sweat, and your clothing dries faster afterward.
The insulating layer helps you retain heat by trapping air close to your body. Polyester fleece vests, jackets and tights are classic examples of insulation ideal for outdoor activities. They not only trap air but are also made with moisture-wicking fibers to help keep you dry. For most summer day hikes a light weight fleece jacket, and/or a thick long sleeve shirt is sufficient.
The shell (outer) layer protects you from wind, rain or snow. Shells range from pricey mountaineering jackets to simple windproof jackets, but most are designed to block precipitation and hold in your body heat while allowing water vapor to escape. This is an important piece when you're active, because if wind and water are allowed to penetrate to your inner layers, you begin to cool off. Furthermore, without proper ventilation, perspiration can't evaporate but instead condenses on the inside of your shell.
If afternoon thunderstorms or rain showers are in the forecast, you may want to bring along rain pants. For most people convertible type pants/shorts are ideal in the summer. Side zippers are a big help. They allow you easily change between shorts and pants with out having to remove your boots.
Along with the above-mentioned clothing, it is recommended that you bring a shade hat, beanie, gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm and insect repellent.
Choosing the right footwear may be the most important decision you make as a hiker or backpacker. Spend some money on a good, comfortable boot or shoe. Try on lots of pairs and go with what feels best out of the box. The shoes or boots you choose must be comfortable, durable and protective, mile after mile. People hike the Mt. Whitney Trail in anything from tennis shoes to heavy-duty mountaineering boots. Choose footwear that you will be comfortable in for 12-18 hours on uneven terrain. Go to a reputable outdoor store and be properly fitted. Break in your footwear on actual hiking trails, not just around your home or office. You should not have to put up with spots that rub, blisters or tightness.
A few good pairs of hiking or backpacking socks are essential. These socks are designed to provide reliable cushioning and wick moisture away from the skin. Many models have extra padding built into high-impact areas like the heel and the ball of the foot for maximum comfort. Carrying an extra pair of socks is highly recommended. Socks should be made of wool or a synthetic wicking material. Cotton socks will make your hike miserable.
The following is a list of basic gear you will need to day hike Mt. Whitney during average summer conditions. During winter, spring and fall, crampons, ice axe, helmet, snowshoes and winter mountaineering skills are essential. Be sure to check with the Whitney Portal Store Message Board or WhitneyZone.com for recent trip reports and contact the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station prior to your trip for current trail conditions. Just remember you will have to carry all this stuff 22 miles, so keep it as light as possible.
Sample Gear List For a Summer Day Hike on the Mt. Whitney Trail
Osprey Stratos 24 Pack
Tom Harrison Mt. Whitney Zone Map
First Aid Kit in plastic sandwich bag: Suunto A-10 Compass, Space Emergency Blanket (remove packaging and place in zip lock sandwich bag with other first aid items)
Gerber Mini Knife,moleskin, small roll of gauze, small amount of medical tape, a few band-aids, ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamine, blister ointment, a few Potable Aqua iodine tablets
Suncreen- The smallest travel size bottle you can find. Apply often, even if its cloudy.
Lip balm- With SPF protection
Sunglasses- These can be easy to forget if your starting in the dark!
Toilet paper- A few feet rolled up small, Remove the cardboard core to save a little weight. Remember to pack it out along with your Wagbag.
Wagbag (supplied by the forest service)
Black Diamond Cosmo LED Headlamp- with fresh lithium batteries
Black Diamond Flicklock trekking poles- w/ a few feet of duck tape wrapped just under the handle
3 plastic, 1 liter water bottles- reused arrowhead bottle
Underarmour boxer brief, or womans briefs + bra
Patagonia Capilene 2 Crew Top
The North Face Paramount Convertible Pants
Smartwool hiking socks
Merrell Outland Mid Waterproof Hiking Boots
Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap
REI Lightweight Power Dry Long Sleeve T-shirt
Patigonia R2 full zip fleece jacket
Marmot Precip Rain Jacket
Marmot Precip fullzip Rain Pants
Black Diamond Wind Weight Liner Gloves
REI Windbrake Beanie
Smartwool hiking socks- extra pair
Staying hydrated while acclimating, and during the hike is extremely important. The amount that you need depends on several factors including temperature, humidity, body mass, pack weight, fitness level and start time. Most people will consume between 3-6 liters of water day hiking Mt. Whitney. Many people add an electrolyte sports drink mix to their water or bringing a liter of Gatorade along to help stay hydrated . Water is available at many places along the main trail up to just beyond Trail Camp. It is a good idea to top off your water before starting the 97 switchbacks because it is about 10 miles round trip from this point. The stream flowing into the trail camp pond is an excellent source of clean water. For most people, there is no need to carry more than 2 liters of water at a time. Water is likely the heaviest thing you will be carrying, so learning how much is right for you is very important.
Some thought should be given to how you are going to carry your water. Some people prefer using "Camel Back" type reservoirs, while others prefer water bottles. Water bottles tend to be easier to refill in streams and lakes because you can just submerge the bottle and fill it up. It is inconvenient to remove a reservoir system from a backpack and fill it in a stream or lake. This is not a problem if you plan on using a pump type filter. Either way you plan on carrying your water, you should practice treating water, and refilling your container on your training hikes.
There is much debate on filtering and treating water in the Sierras. Most people filter or treat their water with Iodine just to be safe, while many seasoned mountaineers drink untreated water throughout the Sierras. See Bob Rockwells Reliable Water Sources Along the Mt. Whitney Trail for information on various water sources along the trail. When day hiking Mt. Whitney, it is easiest to use iodine tablets or don't treat at all. Filters are expensive, bulky and have many parts. Its one less thing to carry in your pack.
The general trend to follow is, the harder and longer you are hiking, the more simple carbs you need to be eating. This goes for any endurance activity. The higher the intensity, the larger % you are burning energy from your muscle glycogen stores. When these run out, you will hit the "wall", as well known in marathon runs for example. You simply have to slow down when burning energy from fat. So the key is to stop those glycogen reserves from running out. How do we do this? Carbs. Simple carbs. Sugar. Bread. These substances (foods with high Glycemic Index ratings) are the best for the same reason they are looked down upon when eating while sedentary: They will be absorbed into the blood stream very quickly. Carbs with fiber take longer to breakdown (and may cause stomach issues), and fat and protein have to go through other chemical reactions before getting into form for usable energy. The day of the hike is not the time to start a diet!
Common foods brought on a day hike include various "power" bars, bagels, trail mix, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, cookies, candy and energy gels. During your training hikes you should learn what works for you. It is important to snack often through out the day. Remember you will be on the trail for 12-18 hours so plan accordingly.
Restaurants in Lone Pine include Bonanza Mexican Restaurant, Pizza Factory, The High Sierra Cafe (24 hours), Mount Whitney Restaurant, Seasons, Margie's Merry Go Round, Carls Jr and Mc Donald's.
The Whitney Portal Store serves great food including huge pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, hot dogs, burgers, french fries and chicken sandwiches. Aside from the grill, the store has cold beverages (including beer), energy bars, and snacks. The store also sells basic supplies for hiking, camping, fishing and also rents bear canisters. They are open until 8 or 9pm in the summer.
The closest supermarket is Joseph's Bi-Rite Market in Lone Pine. There are also several liquor stores in town.
You can find camping, hiking, mountaineering and fishing supplies at Lone Pine Sporting Goods, Elevation, Sierra Adventure Essentials and True Value Hardware.
In higher altitudes, the oxygen level of the air is lower, making your body work less efficiently. These are some important facts on Higher Altitude Hiking:
It is important for most people to acclimatize at high altitude for at least 24 hours before attempting to day hike Mt. Whitney. Whitney Portal (8,360') is not necessarily the best place to acclimatize, but it is very convenient for people who want to hang around the Whitney Portal Store and the trailhead. At Whitney Portal you can also do a warm-up hike up to Line Pine or Meysan Lake. Horseshoe Meadows (10,000 feet), Onion Valley (9,200 feet) and the Tioga Pass area of Yosemite offer higher elevation camping and excellent warm up hike opportunities. See Where to Stay for more information.
For most people, a nights sleep at around 10,000' and some type of warm up hike at a moderate altitude is sufficient. If you are more sensitive to altitude, or unsure of how you will react to altitude you may want to plan more time to acclimate or consider taking a medication such as Diamox to help adjust. Regardless of your plan, you should drink plenty of water as you acclimatize to avoid dehydration. The Eastern Sierra offers endless hiking and sightseeing opportunities.
If you have the time, spend a few days exploring the area! See Warm Up Hikes for ideas on acclimating.
These are the factors that are related to Acute Mountain Sickness and the severity of your condition:
Preventing AMS is easier than treating it. These are the guidelines for preventing AMS:
Diamox is the most tried and tested drug for altitude sickness prevention and treatment. It seems to works by increasing the amount of alkali (bicarbonate) excreted in the urine, making the blood more acidic. Acidifying the blood drives the ventilation, which is the cornerstone of acclimatisation. For prevention, 125 to 250mg twice daily starting one or two days before and continuing for three days once the highest altitude is reached, is effective. Side effects include: an uncomfortable tingling of the fingers, toes and face carbonated drinks tasting flat; excessive urination; and rarely, blurring of vision. Most people recommend trying the medication at home or on a training hike so you can determine benefits or disadvantages of using the medication prior to your Mt. Whitney day hike. Consult with your doctor for a prescription and more detailed information on this drug.
You should periodically analyze yourself and members of your group for symptoms of AMS. Most of them can happen to you independently and are not necessarily signals of AMS. If you suffer from one or more of them you may want to descend to a lower elevation. Minor headaches are very common, and often relieved with ibuprofen or asprin.
The best time to leave on a day hike depends on a number of factors, including:
As a rule of thumb, you want to plan to be at the summit no later than noon. That gives you some extra time to play with in case your trip up takes longer than expected (most likely) and hopefully will give you enough time to avoid any afternoon storms that may materialize (especially in July and August). For most people that means leaving the Portal by 4 AM. The 12pm rule is just a guideline. There is nothing wrong with reaching the summit at 2 or 3PM if the weather is clear. Likewise, thunderstorms can develop well before 12p.
If the forecast is calling for thunderstorms, you are in a large group, and/or you are a slow hiker you may want to start earlier. This is a good idea for a few reasons:
This is easier said than done. Most people are just concerned with getting to the top and don't plan ahead for possible problems. A lot of things can happen on the Mt. Whitney trail, especially with a large group. It is better to have an agreement up front on what everybody's roles and responsibilities are. Be sure to read the What Can Go Wrong Section on Whitneyzone.com. Some basic questions to ask are:
Unpredictable weather is an inherent risk in wilderness travel, so hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Sunshine, wind, rain, hail, snow, ice and lightning are all possible anytime of year on Mt. Whitney. Many summer storms are accompanied by high winds, hail and lightning, particularly at the higher elevations. Pay attention to developments in the sky. The shapes and movements of clouds typically foreshadow changes in the weather such as the arrival of thunderstorms.