At 11 a.m. on July 15th, 2017, my friends and I stood atop the tallest mountain in the continental United States. At 14,505 feet, we truly felt like we were on top of the world looking out from the peak of Mt. Whitney. The views were astounding, but the sense of accomplishment and amazement was heightened by the effort it took to make it there.
By hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail, you cover around 22 miles roundtrip, with over 6,000 feet of elevation change each way. You also get to do exciting things like poop in a bag. In this post, I’ll tell you how we secured our permits, the full details of the Mt. Whitney Trail, the camping situation, what to pack, and show you my photos that don’t even begin to do this portion of Inyo National Forest justice.
Securing Permits to Climb Whitney
Like a lot of gorgeous wilderness areas, this destination is so popular that permits are issued via lottery system. The lottery runs from February 1st to March 15th of each year, and permits are doled out for May 1st through October 31st of that year. It costs $6 to submit an entry in the lottery. In your entry, you can designate up to
fifteen dates and types of permit. I filled out all fifteen options because, why not? I applied for a lot of week days, in the hopes that I had a better chance of selection than entering weekends. I also entered some alternates as overnight (the type of permit we ended up with) and day hike (I’m glad we didn’t end up with this one). If you are chosen in the lottery, you pay $15 per person to lock in your permit. In the end, I was awarded a 4-person overnight permit to enter via Whitney Portal on Friday and exit the same way on Saturday.
Mt. Whitney Trail Details
We set out for Lone Pine on Friday after camping overnight along Highway 395 at around 7,00 feet. We had a big breakfast at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant and picked up our permits and WAG bags (to pack human waste out in) at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center just south of Lone Pine. We drove through the amazing Alabama Hills area to get up to Whitney Portal, the Mt. Whitney Trail trailhead, at 8,374 feet.
Camping Along the Trail
We opted to camp at Trail Camp, six miles from the trailhead at 12,000 feet elevation. Sites at Trail Camp as nestled between Tarn Lake and Consultation Lake amongst granite slab protrusions. From our camp we could see the jagged mountain peaks that made up the crest portion of the trail, including Mt. Whitney.
Trail Camp sits above the tree line and is the last place you can really camp on the way to summit. I highly (no pun intended) recommend Trail Camp as a way to break up the two-day summit itinerary, so the second day you summit and then return all the way back down to Whitney Portal.
Other options for camping include Outpost Camp, which is located 3.8 miles from the trailhead at 10,300 feet elevation, or camping near Lone Pine Lake or Consultation Lake. You just have to be sure to camp at least 100 feet from water and/or the trail and definitely don’t pee within 100 feet of water sources or camp sites.
Dealing with the elevation is very challenging. I won’t sugarcoat it. I recommend doing some sort of elevation training leading up to your Mt. Whitney summit attempt. We did not do much training, and I think we paid the price. The trailhead is at 8,374 feet and the summit is 14,505 feet, so you will be gaining and losing more than 12,000 feet of elevation throughout the 22-mile roundtrip hike.
It took us around five hours to hike the six miles to Trail Camp. We took quite a few breaks to catch our breath and enjoy the sites. Ultimately, I was actually surprised how long it took us to get to camp, and we were legitimately exhausted by the time we got there.
I also want to note that it’s very important to be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness amongst you and your friends. You are susceptible to altitude sickness regardless of your fitness level, age or sex. Symptoms can involve headache, nausea, confusion/dizziness, and weakness. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, but it is important to note when altitude sickness has set in, as the only way to remedy it is going down in elevation as quickly as possible.
We did our climb in mid-July during a year where snowfall was the heaviest it’s been in quite some time. If you are hiking at the beginning of the season, the likelihood is that you are going to come across some snow that you will have to traverse. We all brought crampons and an ice axe to safely cross the snow, as we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. We didn’t end up using the crampons, and only used the ice axes for stability and glissading, but it was interesting to experience how different the snow conditions were at different times of the day (icy and compact in the morning and evening, slushy and slippery in the afternoon).
The only place the snow/ice actually posed as a real obstacle to us was in the final few hundred meters of the trail up the summit. We opted to scramble over rocks instead of dealing with the snow at such high altitude (and near steep ledges).
You will encounter a lot of switchbacks along the trail, including at the beginning of the trail and leading up the crest trail at higher elevation. The most infamous switchbacks are “the 99 switchbacks” that take you from Trail Camp area up to Trail Crest area. The alternative to the switchbacks is the route known as “the Chute.” We opted to take the switchbacks up and glissade down the Chute on the way back. Glissading down the Chute was a real time-saver and was certainly good for a rush of adrenaline.
We had to cross a few rivers that ran completely through the trail. The water was never higher than ankle-height, but water-proof hiking boots or gaiters prove very useful. There is the option of removing your boots every time you encounter these streams, but you will spend a bit of time with your shoes and the water is FREEZING cold (take it from someone that jumped into Lone Pine Lake, surrounded by ice chunks).
Pack for Success
As with any backpacking trip, the goal is to minimize the weight that you’re carrying on your back while making sure that you have all of the essentials. Here is my recommended packing list, including the items that are required to climb Mt. Whitney:
- WAG Bags: WAG stands for Waste Alleviation and Gelling bag. You are required to pack out all human waste (read: poop) that is generated while you are on trail.
- Bear Canister: You are required to store your food and any scented items in a bear canister when you are camping overnight on your way up the trail. Not only will this protect from bears, but there are a lot of cute, pesky marmots that troll the camps for food morsels.
- Bug Spray/Lotion: There are A LOT of mosquitos on trail, especially when the water levels are high. Bring bug repellant. You’ll thank me later.
- Sunscreen: Please bring sunscreen. The UV rays are especially intense at the elevation you’ll encounter on trail.
- Water: Bring 2-3 liters per person and bring water treatment supplies. There is plentiful water along most of the trail, but especially make sure you have full water bottles when you set out to make the final push to Summit from the Trail Camp area, as water is more scarce along that section.
- Layers: The weather can change minute-to-minute along the Whitney Trail. Bring a puffy jacket, a waterproof layer and long, waterproof pants.
- Snacks, Tent, Sleeping Bag, Jet Boil, Sunglasses, Hat With Brim
- Waterproof Hiking Boots/Gaiters: Protect your feetsies from the freezing streams and snow.
- Hiking Poles: Not required, but stability when walking on stumbly gravel and when crossing rivers is clutch.
- Crampons: Crampons will give you extra grip on the snow.
- Ice Axe: You can use an ice axe as a pseudo walking stick and for arresting when glissading.
Thanks for reading! Leave your Mt. Whitney stories or questions below. I’d love to hear from you!