Day Hike From Whitney Portal
Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The hike isn’t that treacherous but it is very very long. Preparing for the hike also requires some careful planning and the right equipment. Here is how you can summit it without turning the hike into a death march.
- 22 miles (Starting from Whitney Portal)
- 16 miles (Starting from Trail Camp)
Trailhead Whitney portal – 8,360 ft
Highest point Summit at Mount Whitney 14,505 ft
Elevation change 6,145 ft
Trail Named After Josiah Whitney (State Geologist of California in 1864)
First Summit 1873 by Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas on a fishing trip (really)
First Death 1094 Byrd Surby by lightning strike on the summit. Next year they built a lightning proof cabin.
Nearly named Winston Churchill
Nearest City Lone Pine
Nearest City with a major airport
- Mamoth Lakes (1.5 hr drive)
- Bakersfield (2.5 hr drive)
Other nearby completionist activities
- Death Valley National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Lowest Point in the United states (Badwater Basin in Death Valley)
Permit required Yes
How to get a permit
- Issued by the “Whitney Lottery” every February 1st.
- The permit must be held by one person in your group designated as the “group leader.”
- There is a fee for the group and each person in the group. See website for prices.
- Look for a permit type labeled “Exit Mt. Whitney” if you are planning to finish at Whitney Portal via Mt. Whitney (Trail Crest Exit).
- there are two permits – “day use” permit which is easier to obtain but means you have to do the entire 22 miles in one day (which I did.) The other permit is an over night which allows you to sleep overnight in a camping area 6 miles up the trail.
- You pick up permit from the inter-agency visitor center located in Lone Pine. DO NOT Pick it up at the Whitney portal store up on the mountain.
- To increase your odds for getting an overnight permit, apply for weekdays.
- For more information see this: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation
Date I sumited: July 4th
Best season: Summer
22 miles round trip hike, has an elevation climb of over 6000 feet
Whitneyzone – a great resource (and like all good hiking websites, still looks like it is from 1997)
Day Hiker – Another guy who was able to hike it in a day (For the record I beat his 97 switchback time by 15 min)
Whitney Portal Store – The forums here are the best way to get the latest trail conditions such as snow levels and where water is flowing
Forest Service – Getting Permits
Equipment Packing List
- Headlamp (for a 1 day hike you should start pre dawn to allow for enough time)
- I used poles during the hike which helped during the switchbacks
- Short sleeve shirt and shorts most of the hike
- Large hat that covers your ears.
- Light rainproof and windproof jacket that fits in a small bag (I definitely used once I got to the trail crest)
- Wind-proof pants (I didn’t use but probably good to have)
- Wind-proof gloves
- 3 liters of water
- 1 Liter of Gatorade
- 1 dry packet of Gatorade (for after I consumed the first liter)
- Water pump
- Thousands of calories in carbohydrates and protein
- Side note: Look at that old phone and an ipod shuffle. I did the hike in 2007 on the very week the iphone was released.
- Lone Pine Campground (6000 feet) – Place of last resort
- Mt. Whitney Ravine Walk-in Campground (8,365 feet)
- Horseshoe meadows – (10,000+ feet)
- Ravine walk-in campground (8,365 feet)
- Whitney Portal Campground (8,000 feet – the good one – )
- Lone Pine along the main street
My traveling companions and I stood inside the astern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. The ranger on staff happily slid our day-use permit along with 5 WAG bags. What is a WAG bag you ask? Why it is a Waste Alleviation and Gelling bag. There are no bathrooms on Mt Whitney and the alpine conditions mean that stuff doesn’t break down as well as it does below tree line. So this green bag was the last line of defense between us and a clean mountain.
I took the bag and tucked it away in my pack. I had proudly made it from kindergarten and through high school without having gone #2 on school premises. Now the US Government was asking me to poop into a bag the size of a microwave popcorn bag in the open air with nothing but trees and rocks to hide my delicate backside. This tiny bag weighed more heavily on my psyche than the 22 miles and 6000+ feet of elevation change I was about to walk. I was headed for Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.
That evening my companions (my best friend, his 2 brothers, and one other friend of a friend) setup camp at Lone Pine Campground. We were also accompanied by a second party that was composed of my best friend’s engineering buddy and his 4 older sisters all of whom favored scatological humor and had no shame in discussing and demonstrating every biological sound a body could produce.
It was July 2nd, the most popular time to hike this trail. Therefore, none of the good campsites in the higher elevations were available. We also didn’t get the overnight pass so we would have to get to the top of the mountain and back down one 24 hour period.
I was 27 and was in the best shape of my life except for that one semester in high school I ran track and could run a 400 meter dash in under 60 seconds. I have always been a preternatural hiker and can zip up the side of a steep trail almost as fast as I can on flat ground. I was not nervous for this hike. I was excited to notch my first “highest” point in my belt. At 14,505 feet Mount Whitney is the highest point in California and as you will hear over and over “The highest point in the lower 48.” Everyone says that same peculiar phrase. Rarely do they say, “Highest point in the Continental US” or “11th Highest peak in the United States.” Somewhere all hikers agreed to this and without questioning we must call it this. So off we were.
Even though all of us were 20 years and in the top shape of our lives, nobody can just go from 6000 feet (our campsite) straight up to 14,505. The rapid elevation change to the un-aclimated body will surely throw it into Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) causing all kinds of terribleness in an environment that not even trees bother to live in.
To prepare ourselves, we had to spend as much time in the next 48 hours at an elevation higher than 8000 feet. If you are lucky and can get one of the limited camp sites on the side of Mt. Whitney (like Whitney Portal Campground at 8000 ft) you can just sleep and your body will start to adapt. Instead we had to drive up the mountain, hang out until sundown, then drive back down and sleep in our pathetic 6000 ft high camp.
On the first day we went for a mild hike over verdant springs surrounded by great pine trees. It was really beautiful and easy. The next day we explored a high-altitude lake, played volleyball on a rough-dirt court, and then napped in a stone ramada.
On the last night back at the high-desert campground, we hung out by the fire, cooked freshly caught fish and scrambled over large boulders strewn about the camp site. An ice cold creek ran through the middle of the camp and we briefly dipped in to clean ourselves. It was really beautiful. From our vantage point you could also gaze upon the distant peaks. Mount Whitney and the half dozen sister peaks resembled the lower half of a jawbone from an indeterminable wild animal. It’s broken jagged bones looked wicked and cursed.
By light of LED headlamp I assembled my day pack. 3 Liters of water. 1 liter of electrolyte water. Over 2000 calories of dried fruit, sugar, and highly processed protein/carb bars. A wind jacket. Wind Pants. Finally that WAG bag. I looked it over. There was tiny type written all over it describing how to use it. I refused to read it. I thought of the WAG the way U2 pilots must have looked at their cyanide pills: I am required to carry this and I hope that I shall never find the need to use it. I packed it deep in the bowels of my pack.
We started at 4AM. If we had started any later we would not been able to get to the summit before noon. In the late afternoon storms can accumulate over the peaks making the chance for lighting strikes more common. In 1904, the first man to die on Mt. Whitney did so when he was shocked while standing on the summit. The next year they built a crude rock cabin at the summit. It is still there today.
The trail head at Whitney Portal has a pair of open pit toilets. In the dark I attempted one more chance to evacuate myself. It was fruitless. At this point, the only thing that separated me from the WAG was my intestinal fortitude.
The predawn hike was cold and I was wearing my windproof jacket. We were still deep in the forest by the time the sun was completely up. At that point it was warm enough to shed the jacket and put away the headlamp. The trail at this point is stunningly beautiful. It is appears so idyllic that I would expect it to have been designed by Disney: tall pines, creek crossings, and log bridges.
At 2.5 miles we reached Lone Pine Lake which was a perfect spot to refuel and take stock of the morning. My legs were fresh and I was ready for the rest of the day.
Shortly after the Lone Pine Lake is the “Whitney Zone” which is the clearly demarcated place where no one without a permit can cross. At this point the deep forest has thinned to a few very scraggly looking trees dotting the bleached-white granite. Everything seems to be covered in a fine white powder. This is also “Trailcamp” which is where the overnight campers can pitch their tents. Every little nook you will find tiny backpacking tents. The tents are largely unoccupied because their owners are already on the trail toward the summit. It was quiet and the entire area had a post-apocalyptic feel. It was not a welcoming site and quite ominous.
Consultation Lake is the last major landmark before you start what is called “the 97 switchbacks.” Other than “Highest in the Lower 48” the second most discussed topic among Whitney hikers is the dreaded “97 switchbacks.” This rapid series of hairpin turns constitute the major ascent up Whitney. The elevation here is about 12,000 ft. At this point all trees are long gone and there is just a chalky, lose gravel at your feet. Above, complete sun exposure. At this point in my life it was the highest I had been. I had never breathed air with so little oxygen. My appetite was minimal which is common. Food also doesn’t taste right. It is bland and dry.
Despite the conditions and general numbness, this is a good place to refuel with some high-grade refined sugar. I ate 3 whole candied pineapple rings and chased it with a Cliff Bar. I unfurrowed my hiking poles and queued my ipod with the hardest rap music I had. It was time to tackle the switchbacks.
At this point I was the lead hiker in our group. Good. I didn’t want to chit chat and slow down to wait for anyone. My pace was steady. There was no stopping at this point. I was breathing heavily but this was well within my normal exertion zone. I could carry forward like this for miles. I barreled on, not counting switchbacks, just watching the heads of other hikers bobbing in a rhythm similar to mine.
I stopped only one time on the 97 switchbacks and that was to slam some more food. I was breathing quite heavily at this point and I really had to stop for my breathing to slow so that I could get the food down before the next breath.
I was so focused I didn’t realize that I swung around the last switch and onto Trail Crest. I just remember a blast of high Sierra air and the view all the way down to the valley behind Mt. Whitney. I quickly switched off the music and stopped. I was now at 13,700 feet.
To this day the sight from up there on Trail Crest remains one of the most beautiful sights I have ever encountered. Everything at this altitude has a faint blue tinge. Every rock is as white as moon rocks and every shadow is blacker than anything at ground level. From here I could see lake Hitchcock. But, the lakes were so far below me that they appeared the way lakes do when you look out an airplane window: featureless, monochromatic. Next to Hitchcock lake is Guitar Lake; named because it looks like a guitar but only when you look at it on a map. From my angle it just looks like a turd.
The WAG bag! I almost forgot. I was still holding it together. Don’t need it yet.
From Trail Crest it is like hiking through a German Expressionist-Cubist nightmare. There are jagged spires twisting into the blue void. The ground is broken as if reality has been shattered. By now my head was starting to throb from the altitude. Sounds seem muffled and yet louder at the same time. The sheer cliff face that the trail hugs disappears at key points and you can see all the way down to Lone Pine. The only thing with any organic form are the dazzling Sky Pilot flowers that seem to glow a deep fuchsia.
Although psychologically draining, the last few miles to the summit are fairly flat and easy to traverse. Soon the trail widens and there is no more higher cliff faces. I reached the summit. It was actually rather anticlimactic since there was no single great spire jutting above the rest. It is just flat. I was only able to find the true summit because there were groups of hikers standing around it taking pictures of each other.
Upon reaching the top, your duties at the summit are as follows:
Sign the logbook
See the surveyor’s medallion with the printed elevation
See the National Park Service Sign
See the building from 1909
There is also, of course, the triumphal photo. If you don’t have any ideas, wait and watch. I saw a guy unroll a full-sized American flag. Another guy started doing push ups. I jumped to prove I could go an extra 2 feet higher than everyone else.
I beat the rest of my traveling party to the top which meant that I had to spend a lot of time at the top waiting so we could all take a group photo. And then we had to wait even longer for the 4 sisters to arrive too. In the end, I spent nearly 2 hours at the summit. The altitude was definitely affecting me. I became increasingly agitated like a mean drunk – my head was pounding like I had been drinking the night before. It was really unpleasant to be around me.
After photos were done I got right back on the trail. I was becoming more and more worried about the effects of the altitude. The trail was much easier on the way down. Each step was one towards a lower elevation and I could quickly feel the air and sanity returning.
I rounded Trail Crest again and took one more glance at the Hancock lakes. Beautiful. As I started down the switchbacks I felt my stomach rumble. It was the first sign that that WAG bag might be needed. I clinched my jaw and carried on.
Down and down the switchbacks I flew. What was once a climb that took grit was now just a smooth ramp to the finish line. We paused on the switchbacks only to refill our water bottles from a small mountain stream. After the 97 switchbacks I shuffled through Trail Camp. A couple farts here and there could relieve pressure but there wasn’t much more I could do. It was a race against time.
I passed below the treeline and was quickly back within the Sierra Nevada forest. At dawn I was carefully observing this forest, soaking in the beauty but now I saw cursing the monotony, the endless curves and dips. More and more trees. I had to get off this mountain. I paused, surrendering to the need. I looked around for a rock, maybe a huge tree to get behind. There were none. The trail switched back and forth so tightly that I would always be available for viewing at some angle by some passing hiker. The feeling passed without my having done anything. Not wasting any more time I was back on the move but running with every muscle tensed.
Round and round and at last I could see them: the two latrines that I used in the pre-dawn start of this hike. I dashed past everyone in front of me. I slammed the door and was satisfied in realizing that I would never actually needed the WAG. You never anticipates accomplishments that you savor. When you decide to climb the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states you will find that you are capable of things that you never would have been capable of back home. It is just some of the magic that happens in the most extreme of environments.
The traditional post-hike-meal is a burger and a beer at the Whitney Portal store. I got one and a beer but was so exhausted and my stomach was so cramped that I could only manage a few bites and a sip of my Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The remaining memories that night are of my packing up a tent, checking into a hotel in Lone Pine, and then opening my eyes again the next morning.
If I could do it again I would should have been more conscious of my fiber intake. I think those pineapple rings and dried fruit were a bit much. A better fuel base could have made a more pleasant trip.
I also believe that I over-exerted myself on the 97 switchbacks. Although my pace was constant and I never felt gasping for breath, I think a slightly slower and more steady pace would have not depleted my blood-oxygen as much. By better conserving my energy I feel that my headache and grumpiness at the summit would not have been as acute.
For all the negatives, however, I will always remember the ethereal quality of Trail Crest and appreciate the accomplishment of summiting Whitney. However the sheer exhaustion and the numerous other summits to climb mean I have no interest in doing it again.
- Not far from the Portal Store is a nice calming waterfall.
- The portal store also has some pretty cool souvenirs – I particularly like the survey marker.
- Stay your last night in Lone Pine. The shower and bed are worth it.
- Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel.
- Any hotel along Main Street should be miles above the tent you slept in the night before.