Mt. Whitney Trail Report
Miles: 22 round trip
Elevation Gain: 6,715 feet
Difficulty: Very Hard
Permit Required: Yes
Total Time: 12 to 15 hours
Mt. Whitney was the first mountain to kick my butt and now keeps me coming back almost every year. It’s also the first place that really introduced me to the great outdoors and let me fall in love with the mountains. I’ve seen the most beautiful sunrises on Mt. Whitney time and time again, nothing compares to watching the whole mountain light up pink in the sunrise glow.
Having said that, Mt. Whitney is an extremely popular trail, every year the number of permit applications goes up. It’s a bucket list hike. But it can also be a dangerous hike if you’re not prepared. So be prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into. This is not a stroll in the park.
The first step, get permits. You can learn more about the permit lottery and the other different ways to get a permit, here.
You need to decide when to go. During the spring and early summer months, there’s still snow on the trail. Every year people attempt to hike Mt. Whitney in May and June without proper winter mountaineering experience and die. SoCal is bright and sunny around this time, but the mountains are still covered in snow usually through July. Be prepared and please don’t attempt to hike to Whitney if the mountain is still covered in snow. An ice axe and crampons will not save you if you don’t know how to use them and have no experience, this is not the place to learn.
As you apply for permits, here are a few things you need to keep in mind including when you want to go, your itinerary, where you’ll camp, etc. This post breaks down those details to help you plan your trip.
Alright, now that you’ve gotten your permit, you know what you’re getting yourself into, and you are getting prepared for this stunning hike, let’s get into the trail report.
BEFORE YOU START:
Pick up your permit from the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center just outside of Lone Pine, head to Whitney Portal. DO NOT hike without a permit, rangers check.
You’ll turn onto Whitney Portal Rd and just keep heading up to the trailhead. You’ll pass Alabama Hills on the way up which is a great place to car camp or even to just hang out and get a beautiful view of Whitney. You can leave your car at Portal, just make sure to leave all scented items you’re not taking with you in the bear lockers in the parking lot, Portal is a very active bear area.
Start in the dark. Yup, do it. I know you don’t believe me, but sunrise pretty much anywhere on Mt. Whitney above the treeline is SPECTACULAR. You don’t need to be at the summit to enjoy it. You’ll have a front row seat to the best show in town.
You’ll see the Mount Whitney Trail sign, start there. You’ll hike past the wooden frame that also has a scale so you can weigh your pack. There’s also a notice board you can check for any last minute updates.
Also a side note, you won’t be able to see Mt. Whitney until the last 2 miles of the trail. The rest of the way, she hides from view.
THE FIRST SECTION OF THE TRAIL – BELOW THE TREELINE
The first 4 miles you are hiking through a forested area as the trail takes you up long switchbacks. Although there are trees, this section can get hot in the summer. There are a couple of places to stop and get water along the way if you’re running low. Since you’re hiking at altitude and will only be going higher, I recommend drinking lots of water.
About 1 mile in, you’ll get to a water crossing and a fork in the road. Stay on the Mount Whitney Trail and avoid the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek Trail which takes you up the Mountaineers Route. Then you’ll pass the John Muir Wilderness sign!
In this next stretch, you’re likely to see deer. I saw a few when I started my solo hike at 2:30am. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw two big green eyes staring at me in the dark.
3 miles into your left you’ll see Lone Pine Lake. It’s a little off the main trail, but this is a great place for a swim or lunch. The first 3 mile section of the trail you don’t need permits and dogs are allowed. So if you’re looking for a nice day hike in the Eastern Sierra’s this is a great one. Past this, dogs aren’t allowed and permits are required. There will usually be a ranger between Lone Pine Lake and Outpost Camp checking permits.
Another .5 mile from there and you’ve reached a meadow that’s just outside of Outpost Camp which sits at 10,400 feet. Keep hiking and you’ll see a waterfall and probably some tents, this is Outpost Camp. If you’re camping, this is the first place to camp on the trail. There’s a waterfall and a stream where you can soak your feet and fill up on water.
Up to this section, there will be quite a few water crossings in this section. Depending on the time of year that you go and the snow level that year, your feet may get wet. You might want to consider gaiters to help prevent water from getting into your hiking boots if they’re waterproof.
Another .5 mile past Outpost Camp, you’ll reach Mirror Lake, which sits at 10,640 feet. This lake is right below the treeline. Past this section, you’ll be on exposed granite rock the rest of the way. This next stretch takes you to Trail Camp.
THE SECOND SECTION OF THE TRAIL – ABOVE THE TREELINE
Trail Camp is a very popular campground, primarily known because it’s the last place to camp before the summit and it’s the last place to fill up on water until you return.
This next section up to trail camp has some steep stair sections which can be rough on the knees, especially when you’re coming back down.
You’ll also start seeing marmots up here. Please don’t feed them. Yes, they’re cute, but they’re becoming a problem with people leaving food around or feeding them. That’s also why bear canisters are required to camp in this area, there are no bears, but the marmots will chew through your gear. Do you like your $200+ tent and backpack having holes in them? No? Don’t leave scented things in your tent and don’t leave your pack unattended. This rule applies for the whole Whitney Zone.
There are sections also where you’re going over granite rock and it can be harder to find the trail. Look around for rocks places that show where the trail goes. In this section is can be easy to get lost, so take your time to look around and make sure that you’re on the trail.
At 5 miles in, you’ll pass Trailside Meadows which sits at 11,400 feet. Even though you’re above the treeline, this is the last part of green that you’ll see for a while. Make sure to be taking it slow and drink lots of water. You’re most likely starting to feel the altitude and be short of breath by now.
The trail continues to climb up through granite rocks. You’ll soon see Consultation Lake to the left as the trail continues to climb past it to Trail Camp. Just one final push and you’ve made it 6 miles into the hike, at 12,000 feet in elevation and 5 more miles to the summit.
If you’re camping here for the night, awesome! If not, filter some water by the lake, it’s the last source of water until you return, and then keep going. Next, are the famous switchbacks.
THE LAST SECTION OF THE TRAIL – 99 SWITCHBACKS AND THE SUMMIT
They make memes about these switchbacks. “I got 99 problems and switchbacks are all of them.” That joke is from this trail.
There are 99 switchbacks, yes there really are that many and yes they suck. Everyone feels the same way about them, there is no sugar coating it, sorry. They cover 3 miles of the last stretch. Your legs will hurt and your knees will hurt on the way down. A section like this is easier done in the dark because you don’t feel it as much without the sun beating down on your head and your mind not seeing what you’re doing as much. I’ve noticed it’s easier for me to knock out hard sections in the dark because I just do them without realizing the struggle compared to during the day.
The trail is well marked here, at night, you’ll see headlamps heading up the switchbacks. By this point on the switchbacks, many start feeling altitude sickness. Swelling is expected, but if you’re really dizzy, vomiting or experiencing other signs of altitude sickness, turn around and head down immediately. Also, make sure you have enough water and you’ve been drinking a lot of it to this point. This helps with acclimation. I’ve also used Boost Oxygen to help with the acclimation process on this section. Go nice and slow, let your body adjust to the altitude. It’s not a race.
On the switchbacks, you’ll get to a section with cables. Because there isn’t much sunlight, there could be ice on this stretch, be careful.
Then more switchbacks on your final push to Trail Crest at 13,700 feet. And congratulations! You’re less than 1000 feet from the summit and almost there!!!!!!
Again, if you’re suffering from altitude sickness here, turn around. It will not get better, turn around here.
Another thing to keep in mind is the weather. If there’s a storm approaching, turn around. You don’t want to be caught at over 14,000 feet.
A little past Trail Crest, you’ll run into the John Muir Trail Junction. Here is where you’ll run into hikers finishing the John Muir Trail and High Sierra Trail and passing by Pacific Crest Trail hikers. One big hiker party! Woop woop! You’ll also see packs that the thru-hikers ditched to make their summit easier. Keep right at the junction.
This last stretch is very easy to follow, some scrambling, some of it can be scary because you’re literally on a ledge. I do not recommend doing this section when it’s covered in snow. If you’re scared of heights, this part can be scary. But just go slow and put one foot in front of another.
To the West, you’ll see Guitar Lake and the Sequoia National Park. To the East, you’ll be looking over Lone Pine and the trail you just hiked up. And you’ll finally be able to see the Mt. Whitney summit and the hut on top. One final set of switchbacks and you’ve made it! You are now standing on 14,505 feet! Congratulations!
Have a snack, take photos, relax and head down back to camp! The Portal Store has giant pancakes and other goodies like burgers and fries if you make it down while they’re still open.