Hiking the Mount Whitney Trail
Updated: May 6, 2020
One of the best outdoor experiences in CA is a hike up Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney is – after all – the highest mountain in the continental USA with an altitude of 14,505 feet. It yields fantastic views, a diverse hiking environment, and a fantastic feeling of accomplishment once you have made it to the top.
Mount Whitney trail is 22.5 miles long with an elevation gain of 6,656 feet. It starts out in the forest, crossing creeks and climbing some rocks, you then pass a few beautiful lakes (like Lone Pine Lake, Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake) and eventually reach the 99 switchbacks. Once you mastered the switchbacks, you continue on the back of the mountain via the spectacular Trail Crest, a narrow stretch of trail on the ridge that separates the Inyo National Forest from Sequoia National Park.
The trail merges with the John Muir Trail for a few minutes, and it is easy to miss the turn-off to the summit, so pay attention. After this, the route becomes rocky as it brings you up to the top from the backside of the mountain.
But first things first: It’s a multi-step process to get ready for this hike - you need to make decisions early and plan ahead.
Step 1: Obtaining a hiking permit
The Mount Whitney trail is very popular, and the number of permits is limited, which is why you have to enter a lottery to apply for them. There are two types of permits: you can apply for day hike permits that allow you to hike up and down to the summit in one day. The other option is an overnight permit, that allows for two days and gives you the option to camp around halfway up the trail (6.5 miles into the hike), at the bottom of the switchbacks.
To enter the lottery visit the Recreation.gov website (link below). The lottery usually opens on Feb 1 and results are out before the end of March.
You can choose several dates to enter the lottery for a group of up to 15 people, but you have to be there in person to pick up your permit (or designate one other person), should you get lucky. There is a risk in entering with too big of a number though: should your name get drawn, and you requested ten permits, but for the chosen day only eight more permits are available, then you get none. Therefore, don’t enter a big group unless you are absolutely certain that your group is committed to go.
If you don’t win the lottery (which is what seems to be happening to us almost every single time), you can sign up for remaining spots starting at midnight on April 1.
You pick up your permit the day before the hike at the ranger station in Lone Pine. Don’t forget to give them a call the day before to make sure they hold your permits. You can buy a map at the visitor center and they will also supply you with a toilet kit.
Step 2: Getting in shape
The one day option will take you 15-16 hours (maybe a little less, maybe a little more). It is exhausting! No matter how much you run, swim or bike, you probably don’t do it continuously for 15 hours, and when you hit the bottom of the switchbacks for the second time that day, you still have almost 4 hours ahead of you….it’s a looooong day!
Step 3: Following the weather
The weather on the mountain is unpredictable and can change fast. In October the trail could already be snowed in and temperatures (especially at night and with windshield) can drop below freezing. We summited at 11am on a sunny October day to find the thermometer at the top showing 11 degrees. There is also a big difference in temperature between the portal and the summit…plan your day accordingly!
Step 4: Bring the right gear
There are plenty of websites out there that will give you a comprehensive list of what to pack. But the key things in my mind are a headlamp with extra batteries, plenty of food and water, as well as several layers of warm clothes (including one waterproof layer). We also took extra aluminum emergency blankets, water purifier, a taser and a GPS locator. Some might consider it overkill, but we were two girls by ourselves in the forest in the dark, and we were happy we had all those items (you never know when you run into a bear or a cougar). You might also consider taking some medication for altitude sickness before your trip. If you find out during the hike that you actually DO suffer from it, it might be too late to do anything about it and force you to turn around.
Step 5: Agree on a plan and stick to it
I have done the day hike twice, once in the summer and once in the late fall. It took us 15 and 16 hours respectively. We started at 3am in the morning and had very favorable weather conditions both times. However, the fall hike was very, very cold, especially before sunrise. It took us longer than the first time although we all thought we were in better shape, and I think it was the cold temperature sucking all of our energy out of us. We also had to get our headlamps back out before arriving at the portal on the return as the sun set much earlier in October and we didn’t make it down before dark. Build in some slack in case something doesn’t go as planned. If you leave at 3am, you should make it to the bottom of the switchbacks by around 7am.
Most importantly: Agree on a summit time with your group and commit to turning around if you realize you can’t make it all the way up in time. You don’t want to get stuck on the mountain, because you didn’t turn around early enough. This could end up being very dangerous and happens to more people than you would expect.
Step 6: Enjoy your hike
It is an amazing experience to reach the top of Mount Whitney. You will always remember this hike and take all the beautiful memories with you! You will also never forget the sweat and the will power you gave that day, it's a great accomplishment!
I was so excited to do it again this year, but the lottery got cancelled due to Covid-19. Hopefully next year!
Below I have luted some useful links, products and accommodation tips. Check them out and please reach out with any questions!
Places to stay and useful gear:
(Click on link to be rerouted, and if you book or purchase through my link, I will get a tiny little cut of the action. Thank you!)
Dow Villa Motel: this is part of the Historic Dow Hotel but a newer wing. Close to the turn off to Whitney Portal Road. This place has three advantages in my mind: there is a decent restaurant, it has a hot tub which does wonders after a day of hiking and it has an icemaker to cool all the food you bring.
Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel: I haven’t stayed here but it’s popular with hikers.
Historic Dow Hotel: same as Dow Villa Motel (see above)
Best Western Lone Pine: also a nice and clean option with breakfast included. Slightly out of town and no hot tub though……
Deuter Unisex_Adult Futura PRO 36 Backpack: I love my Deuter backpack. It has travelled all over with me and the frame supports my back and shoulders so well. Deuter also has a line specifically made for women.
Deuter Futura Pro 40 Backpack: This is another great option from Deuter, just a tad bigger. Whatever you do, make sure you have an internal frame and a hip harness that allows you to transfer the weight of the pack from your shoulders to your hips
Emergency blanket: These are small aluminum blankets that weigh nothing but will provide warmth if needed. They should be in every backpack.
Water purifier: Similar to the blankets, these tablets weigh nothing and come in handy if you DO run out of water. Especially if the campground is above you and not below you…..
Hiking Tall: Mount Whitney in a Day: Useful information from a pro who has done it many times before
Mount Whitney: Trailhead to Summit: Exploring different route options
Other useful links: