New Army Pass to Whitney Portal
This was our first week trip into the mountains and it was a learning experience to say the least, like our packs are ~20 pounds lighter because of it. This one of the two main ways to go point to point from Horseshoe Meadows to Whitney Portal. In the past this page was a brief diary of my trip. So, this year we've changed it to give you an idea what to expect along the way and a short cut for the semi-adventureous.
TOPO! California Map is available for anyone with this software program. It's waypointed to South Fork Lakes and with campsites and bear boxes the entire route.
Photo Gallery for this trip...part I and part II
New Army Pass Trailhead Acclimatization Day
New Army Pass Trailhead in Horseshoe Meadows, Elevation 10,040'
If you are a SoCal you get in your can and go. Depending on where you live you will be in Lone Pine in 3 to 6 hours if you don't have deal with any rush hour traffic or there isn't a big accident on 395. What we usually do is time it to be in Lone Pine for lunch. We pick up our permit and head over to the High Sierra Cafe for bite to eat. Afterwards, we head up to Whitney Portal to drop off one of the cars, let the rookies look around, hike up the trail a bit and then an early dinner at the Portal Store. Finally, it is over to Horseshoe Meadows and the New Army Pass/Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Hiker-in campsites for the night. Don't forget the firewood and hot chocolate.
New Army Pass Trailhead to Long Lake
Trailhead: 10,040' High Point: 11,140' (Long Lake)
Campsite: West end of Long Lake (11,140')
Hiking Time: 3-4 hours
Elevation Gain (Loss): ~1,100'
Distance: 6.5 miles
Maps(S): Cirque Peak 7.5' USGS quad
Waypoints for South Fork Trail and the cross country section around South Forks are at the bottom of this page
There are a couple of ways to get to Long Lake. If don't like to run into a bunch of people along the way what you may want to do is go up the South Fork Drainage just above the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek...your first water crossing. This trail isn't on any map and we have walked passed it without noticing it our first couple of times up this trail, it is really easy to miss if you don't know it is there. Look for a faint trail about 180' above the creek crossing, hang a left here. This is a well established trail all the way to South Fork Lakes, except at the very beginning. The advantage of taking this trail is that it is a mile shorter, less sandy, less traveled and there isn't any of the by product from the pack animals like on the New Army Pass Trail. If you are a rookie you might want to stick to the main trail, it is a very nice trail, just too sandy, has too many people and horses for our tastes. For those going up the South Fork Drainage, once you get to South Fork Lakes its time to go cross country on the south side of the lake until you get to east end of third lake, there is a trail here that gets more distinct as you travel along it to the north side. This trail will eventually put you on the NAP Trail and to the camping areas of Long Lake in short order. The best camping location at Long Lake is on its west end where it is somewhat sheltered from a breeze that always seems to be blowing here.
As for the main trail...the trail undulates all the way to Cottonwood Creek, 2nd stream crossing, where it starts to climb. At 3.5 miles there is a junction for New Army Pass/Cottonwood Lakes. Take the left option and recross Cottonwood Creek. This is our favorite section of this trail. The Cottonwood Lake headwall on your right and a meadow on your left. At about 4.5 miles there is the Cirque Lake/New Army Pass junction. Hang a right here and continue your climb into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. Most of your climbing is done. You pass Cottonwood Lakes #1 and #2 then a big ass moraine. Finally in about 20 minutes from the time you enter the Cottonwood Lakes Basin you are at Long Lake.
Four Dayers...You cross the pass and camp at one of three locations...at the junction of the New Army Pass Trail/Siberian Pass Trail, Lower Soldier Lake or Lower Rock Creek Lake.
Three Dayers...Continue to the Lower Crossing of Rock Creek.
Long Lake to Rock Creek Ranger Station
Starting Elevation: 11,140' High Point: 12,300' (New Army Pass)
Campsite: 1/2 mile east of the Rock Creek Recrossing (9,640')
Hiking Time: 4:30 to 6 Hours
Elevation Gain (Loss): ~1,160', (~2,660')
Distance: 9.5 miles
Maps(S): Cirque Peak, Mt. Whitney and Johnson Peak 7.5' USGS quad
Now, it's time to carry that heavy ass pack across New Army Pass, oh what joy. Actually it isn't that bad. The pass itself is well graded and a joy to hike up...especially if its with a light day pack on your way to Mt. Langley or Cirque Peak from a Long Lake base camp. You will enjoy the views to the east and in about hour and half you will be standing at the top of the Sierra Crest enjoying the views out over the Rock Creek Drainage and beyond. What a wonderful experience, especially if this is your first time on the Sierra Crest. As they say it's all down hill from here...believe me your knees will know it by the end of this day. If you want you can bag Cirque or Langley, allow 3 to 4 hours for Langley, we're still working on Cirque, another story for another day. Now, it time to descend into the Rock Creek drainage. This part of the descent is a bit steep as you transition from alpine back to hiking in the woods. About 2 miles from the top of the pass you will meet up the Siberian Pass Trail Junction here you head north to a junction at Rock Creek in about 3/4 mile, this is a great place for lunch. You now change direction and head west descending to the lower Rock Creek Crossing. The first 3/4 mile the trail from the junction is steep and rough, the worst section of trail you will see on this trip, at the bottom is a meadow, Lower Rock Creek Lake and a lot better trail to hike on. In about 3.5 miles from the Rock Creek Junction trail will meet up with the PCT about about .75 miles short of the lower crossing. There is an overused trail camp at that point. A better option is to camp just beyond the Rock Creek Ranger Station spur trail on Rock Creek, about 1/8 mile short of the recrossing. More than likely will not have any company at this campsite, we also saw people take the spur trail back to the Rock Creek Ranger Station, so there might be good camping back there, too. If you have a bit more energy, well more than a bit, make the 800' climb up to the Guyot Creek area. This is a beautiful area with a lot of good places to camp. It also sets you up to do a side trip to Mt. Guyot from the pass if this is on your list of things to do.
An aside...the lower Rock Creek campsites are in a cold stink this might be your coldest night of the trip even though this is as low as will camp during this trip.
Four Dayers...Make your way to Upper Crabtree Meadow for the night
Three Dayers...Head for the Tarns east of Guitar Lake
Rock Creek Ranger Station to Upper Crabtree Meadow
Starting Elevation: 9,640' High Point: 10,958' (Guyot Pass)
Campsite: In the trees south of Whitney Creek near the trail junction (10,630')
Elevation Gain (Loss): ~1,975', (~500')
Hiking Time: 5 to 7 hours
Distance: 7 miles
Maps(S): Johnson Peak and Mt. Whitney 7.5' USGS quad
This is the toughest day of this trip, even tougher than summit day in our opinion. If you are camped at the recrossing point it is up 800' in about a mile right out of the box, this is one of the reasons we stay where we do, we like the 1/8 mile downhill warm up. What we do is carry just enough water to get to Guyot Creek then take a break and fill up with water for rest of this day's hiking, even if you don't fill your water here it is a great place to take a break. Once refreshed it's time for another 600' of climb to the top of Guyot Pass at 10,968', the high point of the day.
You come off of Guyot Pass down into the barren Guyot Flats. Once you bottom out the trail starts its up and down and up and down until you reach Whitney Creek in Crabtree Meadow. If you are beat this is a good as place as any to stop for the night since it adds only .75 mile to the following day's hiking. Once you cross Whitney Creek it's one more up to Upper Crabtree Meadow and its sitdown toilet, yeah there is one there but we'll let you have fun finding it.
Four Dayers...A short trip up to somewhere between Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lakes
Three Days...Up to the peak and head for the cold beer and shower at the Portal Store.
Upper Crabtree Meadow to the Tarns East of Guitar Lake
Starting Elevation: 10,630' High Point: 11,680' (Tarns)
Campsite: About 200 yards east of the tarns (11,680')
Hiking Time: 2 to 3 Hours
Elevation Gain (Loss): ~1,050'
Distance: 3.2 miles
Maps(S): Mt. Whitney 7.5' USGS quad
This is what we call a moving rest day. We get up late take our time getting ready, take one more shot at the sit down john then mosey on up trail a bit. Or, you can go peakbagging, the route to Mts. Young and Hale are adjacent to the trail about .5 mile past Timberline Lake. This is wonderful day for a lot of reasons, one of which is the scenery is near perfect. The trip includes a stop at the wonderful Timberline Lake and finally The Tarns above Guitar Lake and beneath Mt. Whitney.
So, you have a half a day of boredom, relaxation or exploration, pick your poison. I guess it depends on you personally. We suggest a trip up to Hitchcock Lakes through the gap south of the western most tarn.
Four Dayers: Up to Whitney and out. The shower is waiting for you at the Portal Store.
The Tarns East of Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal Via Mt. Whitney
Starting Elevation: 11,680' High Point: 14,497' (Mt. Whitney)
Campsites: Trail Camp (12,000'), Outpost Camp (10,495'), Lone Pine Lake (10,200'),
Whitney Portal Hiker-In Campsites (8,360')
Distances to Campsites: Trail Camp - 9.4 Miles, Outpost Camp - 11.4 miles, Lone Pine Lake - 12.4 miles
Distance to Whitney Portal: 15.4 miles
Elevation Gain (Loss): ~2,817', (6,137')...to Whitney Portal
Maps(S): Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley 7.5' USGS quad
We have done this during a full moon twice we love the experience of chasing the moon up the west side switchbacks to the lower Trail Crest, it is a great experience to witness 4 or 5 moonsets and a sunrise on the Sierra Crest.
The hardest part of this trip, if you start in the dark, is staying on the trail until you get to the switchbacks, just keep your headlight on and pay attention to the trail. With a full moon lighting the place up it looks like you are on the lunar surface. Eventually you make your way to 10 or 11 switchbacks, depending on how you could them. This part of the trail is well engineered and should not provide you with any technical challenges. As you approach Trail Crest you will start seeing people hiking above you so you know your pack will be shed shortly. At Trail Crest there is plenty of room to dump your pack before you head north the 1.9 miles you have left to the summit, we counted over 30 packs there both years upon our return from the summit.
The trip to the summit is a breeze carrying only a summit pack. Since we get there early there aren't too many people to have a running conversation with along the trail, this is not the case on the way back when you will run smack into the "Whitney Follies". The trip over to the summit is really uneventful but loaded with a lifetime of views. This is a more leisurely way to summit Mt. Whitney. Now, sign the register, have something to eat, share your experience with fellow hikers (what did you think you'd have the peak to yourself), take all the pictures you want and visit the highest outhouse in continental U.S..
Now, it's time to head back down the mountain, past the thundering hoards of day hikers and those coming up from Trail Camp. It's also decision time where to camp for the night or is that cheeseburger and garlic fries calling you from the Portal Store. A lot of you will plan initially to camp at Trail Camp, this is prudent planning and this was our initial plan, too. However, let us suggest a more flexible plan. This is to go as far as you want or as far as the weakest hiker in your group can go. Here's why...having read more than a few trip reports from people doing this and similar routes to Whitney I was struck by the total disdain for camping anywhere on the east side of the Sierra Crest. I didn't see their point until I experienced it myself. It's like I've been in the woods for a week with just a handful of people now I have share my experience with half of SoCal. Just be aware of this phenomenon and plan for it as we have. Back to the 5th day.
Once you pick up your pack at lower Trail Crest its up to Trail Crest then all downhill. Your knees are in for a screaming experience. About 3/4 of the way down the 96 Switchbacks you come to the seeps where water passes over about 10 switchbacks. This is where you stop and filter water for the rest your trip down the mountain. Coming off a mini glacier this water is ice cold and totally refreshing. About a hour after leaving Trail Crest you return to civilization as you enter Trail Camp. This is the end of day 5 for some.
The trail between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp is rough, stepfilled and a royal pain. In about .75 mile and 500' of descent with many steps and ankle twists you will come to Trailside Meadow. This is a great place to stop if you are staying on the mountain for the night. Take your boots and socks off and dunk your feet. In about a half hour your feet will be two widths narrower and you will be ready to continue your journey down the mountain much more refreshed. What comes next is absolutely no fun. The trail is uneven, hard to follow, you have had it with hiking on granite and you are total exposed to the afternoon sun. Finally, you come to the first tree and realize things are looking up. Then it is down through Mirror Lake to Outpost Camp. If this looks unappealing, well, it proves you've out in the woods for 5 days. This is certainly a better place to end the day than Trail Camp but it has one big problem which backpackers are clueless about, that is, day hikers the following morning are having a great old time at 3 AM passing through Outpost Camp at the expense of your sleep.
Those continuing down the trail...It's over the river and through the meadow for a climb up and then down into the Lone Pine Lake area. Now, if you are totally beat and the cheeseburger which was a good idea at the summit has faded from your memory or you just hit the wall. So, stop at the best place to camp on the mountain...Lone Pine Lake. No matter how many people end up here there will less people here than the two other camps and you are far enough away from the trail that you will not even know that one of the busiest trails in America exists a couple hundred feet away. Note to all you fishermen, the lake is loaded with Golden Trout.
Five Dayers: From the Tarns to the shower at the Whitney Portal Store
Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal
Starting Elevation: 10,200' High Point: 10,200' (Lone Pine Lake)
Campsite: Lone Pine Lake
Hiking Time: 1 to 1:30 hours
Elevation Gain (Loss): 1,840'
Distance: 3.0 miles
Maps: Mt. Langley 7.5' USGS quad
Since you've been asleep since 7 PM it's time to get up for the last sunrise and it is worth getting up for as the sun breaks over Lone Pine Lake and finally lighting off the lower walls of Thor Peak. Now, it's time to stretch the morning out you so you really don't have to go back home. Ok, you have to go so make the best of it lively up your step there is a shower waiting for you at the Portal and you are starting stink so badly you even smell yourself, which ain't so good. So it's down the trail with its views into Owens Valley and Inyo Mountains. Finally, you make that last water crossing, come off the last switchback and finally you are in Whitney Portal.
Be aware you appearance will illicit a lot of questions because you are the grizzled veteran of this mountain...all knowing; all seeing. Yes, you are now officially a sage, even if this was your first backpacking trip. Of course, that is until you shave and lose all your Whitney powers ;-).
Trail Notes & Sage Advice
Do not leave home without low gaiters and trekking poles for this trip, the former because this is one sandy trail and poles because your knees will be grateful at the end of the day...To do this trip solo you must have confidence in your skills and equipment, and an Elmore Leonard book doesn't hurt either...If you have any questions about your gear before hand replace or repair it, I should have replaced the jet and needle on the stove before I left because the stove took a dump on me a month earlier...For the backpacker who is venturing beyond a weekend trip for the first time work on keeping the pack weight down, justify each item you put in your pack it will make the trip a little more enjoyable...Repack your food, we had less than a quart bag worth of trash after six days on the trail...Take the good repair kit, there is nothing worse than a flat Therm-a-rest pad, lens popping out of your sunglasses or cold rehydrated food...Have fun finding the sit down john at Upper Crabtree Meadow, think of it as a challenge. I found it on my own, you can too...Spend at least one night camping away from the crowds at the usual locations, try Guyot Creek for instance...I don't know how some backpackers do without trekking poles...You realize your back in civilization when you run into the marauding hoards of day hikers on John Muir Trail on their way to the summit...Don't be surprised if you have the urge to go all way to the Portal on summit day rather than camp with east side throng...Use the 4 - 7.5' USGS maps they are so much easier to read than the Tom Harrison's Cartography area map...Know your hiking day. Study your maps before heading out in the morning and keep checking them throughout the day if this is your first time through the area...Annotate your maps at the end of the day...Put an English legend on your metric maps before hiking if you are metrically challenged (both Mts. Whitney and Langley are metric quadrangles)...Build in some redundancy in your essentials if you are traveling in a group of 4 or more...A Powerpoint Presentation of this trip is available for those who want to convince their friends this trip is worth a week of their time.
Waypoints for the South Fork Trail and X-Country around the South Fork Lakes
The following are the GPS waypoints for the start of South Fork Trail and the cross country route around the south side of the South Fork Lakes.
All are UTM Zone 11 and 1927 Datum/Map
The South Fork Trail
Log Creek Crossing.....0394228/4036089
Unmarked Trail Jct....0394295/4036111
Cross Country Route
(East to West)
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Date of Last Change: 8/22/04