The Main Mt. Whitney Trail
The Main Mt. Whitney Trail
is 11 miles from trailhead to summit, over 6,100’ of elevation gain and
the hardest thing about it is getting a permit, see our
Strategies page for some hints about getting a permit. So let’s go over what you will need to know.
The Trail, Campsites,
Water, Weather and When.
We have broken down the trail into segments as our mind's eyes see it.
The Trailhead to Lone Pine
Creek Cascade (Log) 0 to 2.6 miles
As you leave Whitney Portal you can see a crag as you look up the canyon, to the left of it is where you are heading. Although forested, this section is mostly exposed to the sun and it is the best trail you will be hiking on all day. You can do yourself a favor by leaving at or before dawn before the canyon heats up, these lower elevation can get into the mid 80's during the heat of the day.
The views of the Inyo Mountains, Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills open up as you switchback your way up the trail. The first water crossing, no real problem here so don’t sweat it, is just before you come to the John Muir Wilderness sign and the barely noticeable junction for the Mountaineering Route. Eventually the trail becomes more chaparral than forest and after about 2.6 miles you reach a termite infested log which is a good place to stop for a rest, a bite to eat and to layer down.
Lone Pine Creek Cascade
to Outpost Camp 2.6 to 3.8 miles
Personally, this is my favoring segment of the trail. It is over the river, through the woods and up another set of switchbacks to Bighorn Park. About .2 mile into this segment is the junction to Lone Pine Lake, a wonderful place to fish for golden trout, to watch the sunrise and to camp if you are taking two days to Trail Camp (much better place than Outpost Camp in our opinion).
As you drop off the switchbacks you come to a meadow which is Bighorn Park. This flat section is a nice respite from climbing. Here you cross Lone Pine Creek again. This is the only crossing that will give the water crossing challenged any problems and only if the water is high. In the southwest corner of Outpost Camp is a ~50’ waterfall, a definite Fujifilm moment.
Outpost Camp to Trailside
Meadow 3.8 to 5.3 miles
This is where the fun begins. The trail transitions from dirt to granite and the forest cover goes bye-bye and you enter the world of alpine hiking. This is a beautiful section of trail but it just beats the living crap out of your body. There is one socially redeemable feature of this section and that is Trailside Meadow. This is the halfway point to the peak and a great place for lunch on the way up and a better place to soak your feet on the way down. After your brief time out at Trailside Meadow it time to switchback up 700' to Trail Camp and its marmot welcoming committee.
Above Mirror Lake is where it is really easy to walk off the trail, especially during the descent when you are tired, I've personally done this 4 out of 5 times. It is not a big deal if you have an idea where you are going but we have seen people wandering around up here in search of a trail late in the day.
Trailside Meadow to Trail
Camp 5.3 to 6.3 miles
This segment of trail is just as bad as the last mile and half you just hiked but it is tempered by the 360º views. The trail mellows out when you get to Consultation Lake. About 15-20 minutes beyond the lake, you enter Trail Camp. To the first time backpacker, this is nirvana, to a backpacker passing through from the west it is hell but for permanent residents, the fat ass marmots and their friends, this is heaven here on earth because you have just brought dinner.
Camp as close as you can to the water for obvious reasons.
Trail Camp to Trail Crest
6.3 to 8.5 miles
Thank your lucky stars you didn’t have to do this section before the major trail work in 1999 and 2000. As difficult as it is now it was a lot worst before the work. At about 12,400’ water starts to pass over the switchbacks this may not be present if you start your trip up to the summit in the early morning but it will be there when your return. The water will pass over ~ 10 to 12 switchbacks to ~12,600’. At about the half point in the switchbacks are the cables at between 12,800’ and 12,900’. This area holds snow and ice into July and sometimes August, if there isn't any ice or snow you won't have any problems negotiating this area. Check with the ranger station for current conditions before heading up the trail. You may need crampons and an ice axe to handle this section early in the season or you might have to go up the chute and glissade back down upon your return.
Beyond this point you start getting is this thing ever going end blues. It will end soon enough with the view out over Mt. Hitchcock and the Great Western Divide. Take a Tom Harrison Cartography Sequoia/Kings Canyon Recreation Map if you want to identify the far off peaks; the Portal Store and the Mt. Whitney 7.5’ USGS maps end relatively close to the Sierra Crest on the north, south and west.
Trail Crest to the Summit
8.5 to 11 miles
Ok, you caught your breathe, you identified 7 or 8 peaks, and hey, that lake really does look like a guitar plus you made sure the weather was ok. Now it's time to head for the summit. It is also time to descend 120’ over the next .3 miles, nice break eh. Wait till you have to climb it on the way back. At the bottom of this descent is where the JMT heads west and descends to Guitar Lake and points north. This is the only place you can get yourself into trouble, that is if you continue to descend and visit Timberline Lake and the nice ranger at Upper Crabtree Meadow. Don’t laugh a couple of people do it every year.
Again, thank the trail crew for their work on this section. Those of you have hiked this trail prior to and after 1999 will know what I mean. The next major bit of prehike anxiety you will run into are the 4 “windows”. The trail across all the windows is between 5’ and 8’ wide. We advise people who are adverse to heights to treat these openings like a water crossing. Just look at the ground and not the open air. Once you reach the Whitney massif it is clear sailing on a trail to the summit, in 1997 and 1999 you had to boulder hop to the summit from this point, can you say 14,000’ b*&^% boys and girls.
Ok, you are on the summit sign the register, take all the pictures you want and make sure you know where your food is at all time because the marmot population on this peak is fat for a reason, and they will rip into you summit pack to get it.
There are two places the forest service wants you to camp; they are Outpost Camp and Trail Camp. However, you can camp anywhere your heart desires as long as you are within the forest’s guidelines of 100' from trails and water. The exceptions are Mirror Lake and Trailside Meadow where no camping is allowed.
Let’s go over these options first, Outpost Camp is 4 miles from the trailhead and if you are not in good shape, not use to the elevation or didn’t train as hard as you should have this might be the place you will want to spend your first night. This place has been described to us as a backcountry ghetto and we can’t disagree with that assessment. The place has all the amenities water and plenty of campsites. it also has day hikers tramping through it at 3 AM. Then, there is Trail Camp cold windy and austere, another thing the forest service won't tell you it is a backcountry slum. If you camp here put the fly on your tent and batten down the hatches you can be in for a very cold windy night. Plan on temperatures into the 20s at night all during the summer. However, the views to the Sierra Crest are awesome.
The following are some sites the forest service will not tell you about. At 10,120’ is Lone Pine Lake about a mile short and about 100 times nicer than Outpost Camp. In my mind this is the place to stay if you going to take two days to get to Trail Camp. This is slightly off the trail so your sleep will not be interrupted by the marauding day hikers at 3 AM. At 13,460’ there's a camping area just below the trail which can accommodate two or three two person tents and can be accessed by descending the John Muir Trail ~100 yards. These are dry campsites and expect temperatures into the teens, so if you are going to use these sites plan accordingly. Lastly, there is the summit. There are not many sites here so you will probably have to guy out your tent and be prepared for temperatures into single digits in the summer, did I mention thunder and lightning.
A bit of advice when you leave your campsite make sure you tent is secured because the Mt. Whitney area can get extremely windy. When we camped at Trail Camp in May, 2007 the wind howled both nights...flapping our guyed out tent enough to make sleeping difficult.
We are consistently asked, where is the water in reference to the trail? We find this question a bit annoying because any plan includes looking at your maps before you head up the trail preferably in the initial planning stage. If you look at the map it will show the trail crosses water 7 times. Believe me, when I say it crosses water about 20 times if you include the seeps on the switchbacks. A better question is where is most convenient places to filter water. We always start out with 2.4 L of water when backpacking, this is enough water to get to Trail Camp on most days during the summer. Here are are the best places to get water along the trail if you need it: Outpost Camp @ 3.8 miles, Trailside Meadow @ 5.3 miles, Trail Camp @ 6.3 miles and @ 12,600’ on the switchbacks on your return from the summit.
One of the most asked questions is “What is the weather like I’ll be hiking two weeks from now?”. How would you answer that question? And really, what difference does it make. You have spent the better part of a year planning the trip, buying gear, training, reading this stupid website, keeping up with the message boards and if someone says to you it is going to rain on hike day are you going to fold up your tent and go home? Not hardly! You are going to go and don your rain gear and hope that on summit day it will be clear and crisp. However, if you are not geared up for conditions at hand you go home with a very expensive lesson learned.
We are not experts on the weather nor do we pretend to be on this website. Based on our experience in the Sierra you have to be prepared for awful winds and thunderstorms during the summer season. We have seen people with packs on turned 180° from the wind, seen people running down passes during severe electrical storms and have been stuck in our tent 5 to 6 hours during heavy thunderstorms during the afternoon and early evening.
One place you don’t want to be when the weather turns ugly is on the Sierra Crest or Mt. Whitney. Here you have no place to hide and if I’m not mistaken granite is big time conductor of electricity. At home before you head to Whitney Portal review the information on what to do when lightning strikes. Most guide books for this area will have a section on the subject or head over to Backpacker.com and do a search on the subject.
Do you have winter mountaineering skills and gear? If you answer this question in the affirmative then by all means go as early as you can because you will get a permit when you walk in the to Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center and ask for it. If you don’t or you are coming from the east pray you win an August or September permit. The main reason August is the busiest month on Mt. Whitney is the mountain is usually clear of ice and snow, the El Niño influenced year of 1998 was the exception to this rule, and it is a simple hike to the top. July is an iffy month. In a dry year like 2007, you most likely could have started up the trail in late June without fear of running into ice.
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Date of Last Change: 12/30/07