You can’t get any higher than the 14,495-foot summit of Mt. Whitney, highest of all peaks in the continental U.S., and a once-in-a-lifetime (at least!) hiking experience. Hikers come from around the nation and from countries around the world to climb the fairly popular Mt. Whitney Trail, which climbs the mountain’s most accessible slopes.
The hike on Mt. Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal to the summit is 21.4 miles round trip with 6,100-foot elevation gain.
The summit, on the eastern boundary of Sequoia National Park, can be climbed by the most fit and least altitude-sickness prone hikers in one day. Veteran hikers often make a before-dawn (3 to 4 a.m.) start for the climb to the peak.
You must secure a permit to hike to Mt. Whitney from the US Forest Service, the agency administering the trail. Check out The Trailmaster’s Mt. Whitney Hike Planner accompanying the trail description.
It’s somewhat fitting, somewhat not, that this highest of the High Sierra was named for geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney. At Whitney’s urging the California legislature founded and funded the California State Geological Survey in 1860 and placed him in charge.
In 1871, Whitney sent Clarence King, mountaineer extraordinaire and Geological Survey researcher, to the High Sierra for his second attempt (bad weather had hampered the first) at finding the highest peak. King reached what he thought was the highest peak and named it “Whitney.” Alas, it was discovered a few years later that King had climbed the wrong peak (Mt. Langley) located 6 miles south.
Before King could return to scale the right peak, some Lone Pine residents climbed it and named it Fisherman’s Peak.
The last couple miles of trail to Whitney’s summit is the climax of the John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite Valley; this meeting on the map of Muir and Whitney is ironic because Whitney really disliked the great naturalist.
Whitney had long insisted Yosemite Valley was the work of faulting. Upstart Muir advanced the then-revolutionary theory that Yosemite was carved by glaciers. “A mere sheepherder, an ignoramus,” Whitney called Muir. “A more absurd theory was never advanced.”
Unhappily for Whitney’s place in geologic history, Muir’s glaciation theory has proven to be largely correct. Still, Whitney’s name remains at the top, elevation-wise anyway, a few hundred feet higher than 14,015-foot Mt. Muir, just south of Mt. Whitney.
Answering the call of science (astronomy, meteorology) and scientists, Lone Pine residents financed and constructed the Mt. Whitney Trail in 1904. In 1909 a stone summit hut (which still stands today) was built by the Smithsonian Institute to study Mars.
Over the years, the trail has been rehabilitated and realigned. It stands today—graded switchbacks hewn out of granite walls—as one of the finest examples in America of the trail-builder’s art.
Directions: From Highway 395 in Lone Pine, turn west on Whitney Portal Road and drive 12 miles to Whitney Portal.
The hike: From Whitney Portal, the path ascends open country dotted with Jeffrey pine and white fir. About 0.75 mile out, a path forks west—the famed Mountaineer’s Route used by climbers who tackle the eastern slope of the great mountain. Mt. Whitney Trail soon crosses the north fork of Lone Pine Creek and shortly thereafter enters the John Muir Wilderness.
Switchbacks, long and short, ascend nearly 2 miles over sun-drenched slopes to Lone Pine Lake, visible from the main trail. A short (200 yards or so) side trail leads to the rock-walled lake. Perfect for a (cold) swim.
After another half mile of climbing, the path skirts the south side of Bighorn Park (a long meadow), ascending alongside Long Pine Creek and, after crossing the creek, reaches Outpost Camp. It’s a pleasant enough camp, but usually ignored by summit-bound hikers because it’s too low and too far from the top.
Farther up the trail, 4.3 miles from the trailhead, is tiny Mirror Lake (10,640 feet). Switchbacking above the lake, the trail passes some rather stunted foxtail pine and emerges above treeline. The path traverses Trailside Meadow, seasonally splashed with wildflowers. About 6.1 miles out, you climb to 12,000 feet and reach Trail Camp, last (highest) place to camp on the mountain.
Now tackle the famed switchbacks, 96 of them. First there are some longer ones and then, about halfway along the 2.25-mile ascent to Trailcrest, you’ll encounter a series of switchbacks fitted with handrails. If you’re hiking this trail when its icy, you’ll know why the handrails were installed. Use them and appreciate them.
About 8.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach Trailcrest, a pass located at 13,714 feet at the boundary of Sequoia National Park. With nearly a hundred switchbacks under your boots, you get a feeling of accomplishment when you look down at Trail Camp, seemingly so small and so far down the mountain.
The climb resumes as the path winds among large blocks of talus and between dramatic rock pinnacles. Enjoy stone-framed views of Owens Valley to the East. As for the western view, well, don’t look if you’re afraid of heights because there’s quite a drop-off. Nevertheless, while an acrophobe’s nightmare, the trail is plenty wide and distinct as it traverses the ridge.
About 10 miles out, Whitney’s summit pops into view and you continue around to the southwest side of the peak. Choose among several steep summit routes marked with cairns. Gaining the summit, you’ll find a register next to the mountaineers hut, and the very highest point just east of the hut.
Oh, the view from all directions: To the north, the panorama of summits includes Mt. Williamson (second-highest peak in the continental U.S.) and to the south the procession of peaks includes Mt. Langley and Mt. Muir. To the west are the Sawtooth Peaks, the Kaweah Peaks and a section of the Great Western Divide and to the east, shimmering like some mirage far below is the Owens Valley.
While it’s tempting to want to linger on the summit for a long and well-deserved rest, be aware that hikers frequently underestimate the length of time required for the descent. You do not want to rush down the mountain on rubbery legs—that’s how injuries occur—and you want to return to the trailhead before dark. Enjoy your passage down the mountain, but remember to stay focused and watch your step.