To ensure a quality hiking experience on Mt. Whitney and surrounding areas known at the Mt. Whitney Zone the Forest Service requires that every hiker, year-around, must obtain a wilderness permit. From May 1 to November 1 there is a quota of 60 hikers per day on the Mt. Whitney Trail, as well as quotas on the numbers of hikers that may approach the peak or come into the area from other trails.
I strongly suggest the hiker make every effort to get a permit. The Trailmaster has heard from plenty of hikers in recent years who “got lucky” walking into the Forest Service office and getting a permit a day or two before hiking Whitney. But don’t count on that–particularly if you’re traveling to the Eastern Sierra from faraway to do this “once in a lifetime hike.”
The Mt. Whitney lottery in February is the first opportunity to reserve a wilderness permit for the Mt Whitney Trail. To be accepted into the lottery you must use the Mt. Whitney Lottery application available online. Fastest way is to Google “Mt. Whitney permits” and navigate through the many details about the permit system on the Inyo National Forest site. The application must arrive by mail with a February postmark. Application must include payment for reservation fees ($15 per person).
To request an application form be sent to you by mail or fax, or other questions about the lottery or wilderness permits, call the U.S. Forest Service’s Wilderness Permit Reservation Office at (760) 873-2483. (Google Mt. Whitney Permits) or go online for the USFS Mt Whitney Hike Information.
All quota space for the Mt. Whitney Trail can be filled by reservation. However, if the quota for a day has not been met or if there have been cancellations and permits are available, you can secure a permit at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center, located along Highway 395 one mile south of Lone Pine. There is no fee for these unreserved permits that will be issued to walk-in visitors starting at 11 a.m. the day before the entry date. Additionally, any permits that have been reserved, but are not confirmed or picked up will be cancelled and made available to other parties on a walk-in basis.
When a permit is issued, the hiker also receive a list of dos and don’ts that must be signed. Hikers are issued free “Wag-bags” and expected to carry and use these human waste disposal bags; there are no toilets en route to Mt. Whitney. All food must be secured in bear canisters, which can be rented for a small fee ($2, but with a $40 deposit) at Whitney Portal Store,(open May 9-6, June 8-8, July 7-9, August 7-9, September 8-8, October 9-6) has camping equipment, replacement stove fuel canisters, toiletries, plus an assortment of beer, sodas, munchies, ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory meds. Check out the store’s Mt. Whitney Web Cam for a look at the mighty mountain.
If you want a “Mt. Whitney” cap or other souvenir, this is the place to get it. The store has a grill and offers hot meals—a limited menu with giant portions: the cheeseburgers are huge and delicious, as are the pancakes, which are nearly the size of small pizzas. Some Whitney-conquering hikers have been known to march quickly back to the trailhead with the cadence: beer-burger-beer-burger…
The Mt. Whitney Shuttle (760-876-1915) offers transportation to and from trailheads in the Eastern Sierra. Hikers can begin the hike to Whitney from a number of other trailhead, top the mighty mountain, then descend to Whitney Portal. Alternatively hikers can take the traditional Mt. Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal, summit Whitney and continue hiking to another trailhead and pickup point.
Best months for a Whitney trek are July, August and September when the trail is (usually) clear of snow and daytime temperatures are usually mild. Depending on the snowfall, experienced hikers sometimes stretch the season from June to October.
By some estimates, about half the people who make a reservation reach the summit. Do not exceed your ability and level of condition by forcing yourself to make the top. The trail is absolutely stunning the whole way; your day won’t be wasted if you turn around short of the peak. The mountain will be waiting for you when you return to try again.