2013 Onion Valley to Whitney Portal

Description: 6 day 56 mile solo hike from the Onion Valley trailhead in Independence to Whitney Portal with detours to Lake South America and Whitney's summit

Day 1:

I parked my car at the Whitney Portal trailhead and took a private shuttle to the Onion Valley trailhead to begin this trip. These shuttle services are invaluable for the solo hiker out on a point to point trip. Last year's trip began here as well but headed north to Rae Lakes instead. This year, my plan was to head south so after the familiar grind up to Kearsarge Pass, I took the fork down past Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes and camped at Upper Vidette Meadows along Bubbs Creek the first night. Although a nice area, I was looking forward to big mountain scenery and high alpine lakes.

Cabin along US395


The Route


Top of Kearsarge Pass overlooking Kearsarge and Bullfrog Lakes


The iconic East Vidette and Vidette Meadows


Day 2:

The next day was the most difficult for me as I was not able to find a good hiking rhythm up to Forester Pass, stopping frequently to catch my breath. I blame it on the high elevation and an overly stuffed backpack. But I enjoyed the scenery and companionship of a few marmots along the way.

The trail that keeps going up


Top of Forester Pass, the highest point along the Pacific Crest Trail


Trail down the south side of Forester Pass


Lakes below Forester Pass


Camped at this lake below Forester Pass


Day 3:

Though the ultimate goal on this trip was the summit of Mt Whitney, I was in no hurry and had planned to spend a couple days exploring the Lake South America area. Heading downhill towards the direction of Tyndall Creek, I soaked in the beauty of the area while keeping a lookout for the top of Mt Whitney. The trail up the final hill was miserably sandy and gravelly but as soon as the tarn before Lake South America came into view, all was good again. From there, it was just about a quarter mile to the lake. At the lake, I enjoyed a brisk swim.

Pleasant hike towards the junction to Lake South America


Campsite at Lake South America surrounded by mountain ranges


Campsite at Lake South America


Day 4:

The wind was fierce that night and I was getting a little anxious about Mt Whitney so I decided to skip the layover day. I packed up and was on my way again towards the JMT. Mt Whitney was visibly calling me from the horizon.

Mt Whitney in 2 days!




Traveling across the Bighorn Plateau was one of this trip's highlights. The immediate area looks like a low elevation expanse of open prairie land but at 11,000 feet, you notice you are nearly level with the top of the surrounding mountains.

Bighorn Plateau with Mt Whitney peeking over the horizon


Bighorn Plateau with Mt Whitney beckoning


Rather than stop at Wallace Creek as I had originally planned, I decided to continue another 4+ miles to Crabtree Meadows so that I would have an easy day before summiting. It’s interesting that though I generally look for solitude, I really enjoyed the company of the other backpackers at this camp. I had not seen anyone else since the first day's hike. Another highlight of Crabtree Meadows was I didn’t have to dig any holes.

One of the comforts of Crabtree Meadows


Day 5:

As planned, the following day included a very short walk to Guitar Lake. However, once there, it was difficult finding shade from the relentless sun and shelter from the wind. I was either too hot or too cold. I spent the late afternoon with a brother tandem, trailnames Green One and Squish, about to finish their JMT thru-hike. They shared a thru-hike of the Appalachian years ago. Our engaging conversation ranged from the philosophical to WAG bags.

Mt Whitney over Timberline Lake


Campsite at Guitar Lake


West side of Mt Whitney


Day 6:

I began my trek to the summit at dawn. The path was well graded and I was relieved that the initial part of the trail consisted of dirt which is easier to traverse than rocky steps. At the Crabtree/Portal/Mt Whitney junction with only 2 miles to the summit, I dropped my pack among the pile of others and pulled out my daypack. With the reduced weight on my back, the rest of the way to the summit was easier than I expected. It also helped that I was well acclimated, having spent the last 5 days at high elevation. It was a perfectly clear day and I stayed at the summit about 1 ½ hours marveling at the breathtaking panorama, reluctant to leave. Surprisingly, I had a Verizon signal so was able to call home, let my wife know I was at the summit and also post a few pictures on Facebook. Though having this connection was nice, it took a little bit away from the mountain's distinctive quality and serenity.

Almost there!


Guitar Lake below


Peering through one of the "windows" on the way to the summit


Mission accomplished!


Mt Whitney Summit Shelter


North view from summit


Panoramic SE view from summit. I spot next year's destination!


Mt Whitney pinnacles


Hikers need to be careful on some portions of the trail


Relentless marmots. Chase them away but they keep coming back.


Switchbacks past Trail Crest


Useful railing on the trail


With the full pack back on, the descent felt like it would never end. In fact, it is nearly 11 miles from summit to trailhead and a 6000ft descent. I cannot imagine how anyone could complete a day trip from Whitney Portal to the summit and back. I had originally planned on camping at Consultation Lake but after summiting, everything else seemed anti-climactic. Also, thoughts of a real bed, real food, and a shower motivated me all the way back to my car. I also wanted to get rid of the WAG bag hanging off the back of my pack. After a burger and fries at the Whitney Portal grill, I was on my way home on a definite high note.