Looking up at the eastern face, Whitney summit is to the far right out of view. Note the dark blue sky due to the altitude.
Tidbits: Highest mountain in the Continental United States (and only 40 miles or so from Death Valley, the lowest point in the Continental United States)
Highest mountain in California (also the highest point in both Inyo and Tulare Counties)
Time Zone: GMT -8 hours
Maps: Mt. Whitney Topographic 7 ½ minute.
When to go:
Mid-July through mid-September offers the mildest conditions, although snow and storms are possible at any time.
I decided to use the Whitney Portal Route which is 21 miles (roundtrip) and starts at an altitude of 8,365’.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
Permits are absolutely required from May through October. If you plan to do this hike in more than one day (it is possible to do it in one day, but you will miss much of the beauty of the area since you will be hiking for at least 10 hours in total darkness) you must obtain the permit well in advance. This is usually accomplished by lottery. Day hike permits may be available at the local ranger station up to 24 hours in advance (valid between midnight and midnight). To get an overnight permit, you can contact the Wilderness Reservation Service of the National Forest Service for details (1-888-374-3773…expect busy signals), or go to the US Forest Service web page at http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/inyo/vvc/wild_permits/availability.htm. I thought it would be best to spend 2 nights on the trail.
Several small hotels are available in the town of Lone Pine off of Hwy. 395. The forest service runs a small campground at the base of the Whitney trail (at an altitude of 8,000). See their website for availability and rates.
Standard alpine packing arrangements (tent, 20 degree-rated sleeping bag during the summer, provisions, etc.). Bring a flashlight and extra batteries. There are no wood fires permitted, so bring a fuel-burning stove. Bring a water purifier. There is water available almost any time of year up until “Trail Camp” located at 12,000’. Trekking poles are strongly recommended. The Whitney Portal Store, located at the base of the trail, has provisions and equipment readily available at reasonable rates (along with facilities for showers). At the time I climbed, they would even loan you a free “evaluation” set of trekking poles.
Heading to Whitney via the Whitney Portal Road from the town of Lone Pine
Drive north or south on Highway 385 until you reach the town of Lone Pine. The 13 mile long Whitney Portal access road is clearly marked and intersects with the highway in the middle of town. Please note that this road is not maintained in the winter, so if you suspect significant snow at the 8,000’ terminus of the road, you may want to think twice about parking at the trailhead. At the trailhead itself, there is ample parking. You will also find the Whitney Portal store and campground. There is significant bear activity in this area, so do not leave food in your car.
A mid-day view looking east on Whitney taken at about 9,000’
I had obtained a permit several months in advance through the lottery system.
Day 1: Departed San Francisco for the 8 hour long journey to the trailhead. Because there are very few roads that lead through the Sierra Nevada, you need to make a 100 mile detour either north through Yosemite or south through Kernsville. Both are spectacularly beautiful (to break up the trip, I headed to the trailhead from the north, and back from the south). After parking at the trailhead and filling up with water at the portal store, I started heading up the well-marked trail. After an hour or so I came to a large sign located in a narrow part of the trail stating that permit holders only are allowed beyond this point. I was told that frequently a ranger will be posted here and/or at Trail Camp checking permits and sending hikers back if they do not hold the valid permit. I hiked for several hours until I reached “Outpost Camp” at an elevation of 10,364’. Outpost camp is a flat area with a waterfall and stream. There are several small areas that have been cleared of rocks that are suitable for a campsite. I picked one fairly close to the waterfall so that the there was water close by and the white-noise drowned out the sounds of the hikers on the trail (the many day hikers would be walking through the trail constantly from midnight on). There area bears in this area, so most of the groups brought bear canisters for their food. I decided to hang my supplies off of the branches of one of the trees.
Day 2: Awoke at 6:00am, packed my field pack, and headed for the summit, leaving my tent and overnight provisions at the campground. The rock walls of the Sierra Nevada mountains were absolutely spectacular. I hit tree-line at about 11,000’ and soon came to “Trail Camp”. Trail Camp is a large rocky area located next to a small pond (which is the last reliable water source). I’m told that there is no risk of bears in this area, however, there were numerous marmots, which are probably less dangerous, but far more annoying. There are several long iron stakes that have been pounded into the rock in this area that are used for hanging food. Trail Camp sits just below a steep area called “100 switchbacks”. And, true to the name, the trail climbs up the face of the mountain ranges though 100 switchbacks. About ¾ of the way up, there is a particularly nasty section of trail that is ice-covered all year long. The ice extends to the edge of the trail, which goes immediately off a 1,000+ foot cliff. The forest service put a steel cable just by the edge that you can grab if you start sliding, but I must say that that area of the trail really made me think twice before I crossed. After passing this area the rest of the trail is long, but fairly easy. After reaching the top of the switchbacks, you have fabulous unobstructed views to the east. Guitar lake can be seen 10,000’ below. After a few more hours you reach the end of the marked trail, and are confronted with a small boulder field. After traversing this area by any route you choose, you can see a stone shelter building at the summit. At the summit itself is the USGS marker. To the east is Death Valley. An interesting note…at the summit, if someone takes a picture of you with the east in the background, you have both the lowest and highest points in the continental United States in the same photo. People are welcome to stay at the shelter overnight, however, I’m told that since the rock is granite it does NOT provide protection from lightening. The summit is actually quite large and can accommodate numerous people. The journey down was uneventful, although I passed a large number of grossly unprepared hikers. Some were reaching Trail Camp at 3:00pm and were planning on still going to the summit with no flashlight…one wrong step in the dark would prove fatal. I reached Outpost Camp just after dark.
My favorite shot…On the summit with Death Valley (over the second ridge) to the east in background. This picture shows both the highest and lowest points in the continental United States within the same photo.
Day 3: Broke camp and headed back down.