A Guide to Hiking Mount Whitney


Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the continental United States. See more national park pictures.
Dennis Flaherty/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

As the highest summit in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney is a tantalizing tourist attraction for avid hikers. It is the most frequently climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada [source: National Park Service]. Ascending to the peak has been a coveted accomplishment since at least 1864, when a California Geological Survey team discovered it. The mountain was named after the survey's leader, Josiah Whitney. One of the survey members, Clarence King, attempted to be the first to climb it. Seven years later, King believed he was finally successful. However, as he eventually found out, he had actually climbed Mount Langley, not Mount Whitney, thanks to a mistake on his map. By the time he did finally make it up Mount Whitney, a group of fishermen had already beaten him to it.

According to the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, local residents pushed to rename the mountain Fisherman's Peak in 1881 in honor of the first men to climb it. If the bill hadn't been proposed in the state legislature on April Fool's Day and amended as a joke, it might have been passed [source: LonePineChamber]. The original name has thus prevailed to this day.

Peaking at a relatively modest 14,505 feet (4,421 meters), Mount Whitney doesn't rank with the world's highest peaks, but it does make for a manageable hike -- doable by even unseasoned hikers. Whitney is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. In fact, it stands merely 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the lowest land point in the Western hemisphere, Badwater in Death Valley National Park. Some adventurers like to traverse from one to the other in the Badwater Ultramarathon.

If you, like others, drool at the opportunity to ascend the highest point in the lower 48 states, you'll need to be prepared. Read on to find out what you need to know.

Mount Whitney Hiking: Trail Maps

If you learned anything from the story of Clarence King, it's to use a reliable map if you're going to climb Mount Whitney. Luckily, we now have established trails to the top, unlike in King's day. You actually have the option of many different routes, and a good map will help you choose which one you'd like to take.

Thanks to local fundraising efforts, the first trail up the mountain was forged in 1904. Unfortunately, the trail's first fatality occurred just days after it opened. Byrd Surby was eating lunch after scaling the mountain and was struck by lighting. This resulted in plans to build a hut atop Mount Whitney, completed in 1908 and using wood hauled up by mule [source: LonePineChamber].

You can find free, helpful maps online from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Web site. These provide a good outline for you to get an idea of what the trails look like. But if you want more detailed maps to have with you while you're on your trip, it would be better to purchase them online from the National Forest Store or Sequoiahistory.org.

Be aware that permits are required year-round for both day trips and overnight trips to hike Mount Whitney. During the peak season of May through October, hiking the mountain is so popular that authorities have enforced a quota to limit the number of hikers. A lottery is held several months in advance for these permits. So, plan early if you want to hike during the peak season.

What are some of the more popular hiking routes near Mount Whitney?

Mount Whitney Hiking: Popular Routes

A view of Whitney Arch at sunrise.
A view of Whitney Arch at sunrise.
Don Smith/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Serious mountain climbers will want to make their way up on the steep east side. However, everyday hikers will enjoy the more leisurely trails on the west side.

The original trail, called Mount Whitney Trail, is still the most popular and easiest. Thankfully, during the 1930s, a road was constructed leading up to the current trailhead, Whitney Portal. The old trail between the local town of Lone Pine and Whitney Portal is now a National Historic Trail of the Smithsonian Institute. When accessing Whitney Portal in your car, be aware that the last six miles (10 kilometers) of road may not be plowed and passable during the winter months (often November through March).

Trailhead elevation is 8,365 feet (2,550 meters) above sea level. Starting at Whitney Portal, the trail to the peak is nearly 11 miles (18 kilometers). As it's a strenuous trip to pack into one day, most hikers take a more leisurely pace and camp overnight. The trail will take you by Lone Pine Lake, Big Horn Sheep Park, an Outpost Camp area, Mirror Lake, Trailside Meadow and finally the main camp area. After a good night's rest, it isn't far to the Trail Crest, where you'll enter Sequoia National Park and walk behind Mount Muir and Mount Whitney's subsidiary needles before reaching the summit.

The second most popular route is the Mountaineer's Route, which is best for seasoned mountain climbers and especially popular in winter and early spring. A more direct route than Mount Whitney Trail, the Mountaineer's Route is also a more technical hike that will require special equipment. Another less trafficked route is the High Sierra Trail, which starts on the west side of Sequoia National Park and takes at least six days in all.

Mount Whitney Hiking: Landscape

On the east face of the mountain, you'll be able to see clearly the top of Mount Whitney in all its rugged, rocky majesty. You'll also have a good view of the subsidiary needles, including Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak (formerly known as Day Needle).

As you climb the west side of Mount Whitney, you'll find a landscape filled with beautiful lakes and wildflower meadows. You'll come across a variety of pine trees, including singleleaf pinyon, Jeffrey pine, white fir, and (at higher elevations) foxtail and lodgepole. You won't find many trees above 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) but rather patches of shrubs and grass.

Much of Mount Whitney is bedrock. This, combined with the fact that Mount Whitney is immensely popular and attracts so many hikers, means that visitors have to be especially careful when answering "nature's call." In many other wilderness areas, you may be allowed to simply bury your human waste. However, the USDA Forest Service explains that Mount Whitney doesn't have enough soil to properly decompose every hiker's waste. If all hikers were to simply leave their waste, this would dangerously affect the water quality of the area. So, be prepared to pack out your own waste. You can get pack-out kits from the Visitor Center in Lone Pine, the costs of which are covered in your permit fees.

And although athletic shoes may be all that are necessary during the warm peak season, ice and snow will likely be present doing the off-season. So, come equipped with an ice axe and crampons.

So, adventure-seekers and casual hikers alike won't be disappointed with an excursion to the famous Mount Whitney. For lots more information on hiking, see the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Inyo National Forest. "Mt. Whitney Area Trails." United States Department of Agriculture. (June 21, 2012) http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5337643.pdf
  • Koehler, Cheryl Angelina. "Touring the Sierra Nevada." University of Nevada Press, 2007. (June 21, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=oTpsvnOhJr8C
  • Langley, Christopher, Michael Prather. "Mount Whitney." Arcadia Publishing. 2012. (June 21, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=Udzikomqn0EC
  • Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce. "Mt. Whitney History." Aug. 1, 2008. (June 21, 2012) http://www.lonepinechamber.org/history/whitneyhist2.html
  • NPS. "Sequoia & Kings Canyon: Climbing Mt. Whitney." National Parks Service. (June 21, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/whitney.htm
  • SummitPost. "Mount Whitney." SummitPost.org. Last updated Aug. 18, 2011. (June 21, 2012) http://www.summitpost.org/mount-whitney/150227
  • USDA Forest Service. "Hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail." United States Department of Agriculture. 2012. (June 21, 2012) https://fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5333235.pdf