First off let me say we have always gotten permits for the dates we wanted. We are 7 for 7. We aren't lucky we just have never backpacked The Main Mt. Whitney Trail starting from Whitney Portal in Prime Time, Independence Day to Labor Day. If you want to do this route during Prime Time, you roll the dice and take your chances.
Let's take a look at ways to maximize your chances of being permitted.
The February Permit Lottery
for the Main Trail
This is where basically 10,000 people are trying to get 540 permits for weekends from 4th of July to Labor Day. This kind of puts it in prospective. So, what do you do to? Here are some things to do to maximize your chances.
The May/June Strategy
Don't enter the lottery or call and make reservations...spend your savings on a good after trip meal. Just drive up and pick up a permit. There will be plenty.
Mid Week Strategy
Mid week really means have a start date on a Tuesday or Wednesday. The weekend starts on Thursday and ends on Monday, at least according to how the day hike permits were distributed in 2002.
The Alternate Date Strategy
You are allowed to put alternate dates on your permit. Last year's permit applications didn't say that so, make sure you mark your permit as such. An example of this would be Enter 8/1, Exit 8/3 (your prime date), then mark below it "Alternate Dates" and then do a laundry list. Make sure you include some mid week dates.
Starting this year you can do a laundry list plus "any open date for a 3 day/2 night in July" type thing. I would assume you could do a "any open date for a 3 day/2 night trip between July 5 and September 15. Just remember to keep the trip in a time frame that will not put you on ice or snow if you are not prepared for those types of conditions.
Reduced Party Strategy
This is new for this year. You can reduce your party on your permit with a note like, "we will accept a permit for 2", even though you have 8 on the permit. Let's face it most of us putting together a Whitney trip will have drop outs along the way. We have for every Whitney group we have put together. The question is how many will drop out. Use this option only after explaining it to everyone in your group.
Late September/October Strategy
The Whitney crowds really start to thin out in these months and permits are more plentiful but be aware even though it is nice and warm in SoCal, winter weather can become an issue with no warning this time of year. In 2006, there were ~240 backpacking permits available in the first 7 days of October.
The Western Approach Strategy
These would be our routes of preference but if you get a "Dear Backpacker" letter from the Inyo you still have time to get a permit for other Inyo and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park permits. The strong backpacker can do the Horseshoe Meadows routes in as little as 3 days of hard hiking whereas those not in tip top shape or like a more leisurely pace will take 5 to 6 days to reach Whitney Portal. In 2009, we did Onion Valley to Whitney Portal in 4 days...if a couple 55+ geezers can to it you young'uns should not have a problem besting your elders...right?
Here's how the permit work in the Inyo for their routes. You call up 6 months before the date you want to enter the forest and request a permit, say Cottonwood Pass to Whitney Portal. They will check to see if there is a permit available for this trailhead plus an exit/Trail Crest permit, for you old Inyo backpackers this policy was instituted in 2002. The reason for the exit permit is rather than giving each trailhead a Whitney Zone quota as in years past the Inyo decided to make it one local; therefore, in theory on a particular day all people exiting over Trail Crest may start out at just one trailhead. The exit permit quota is 25, 15 of which are reservable.
The Sequoia/Kings Canyon Trailhead permits, e.g.. The High Sierra Trail, are available on 3/1. You have to call to reserve a permit. The quotas for these trailheads range from 15 to 30/day (The High Sierra Trail is 30).
The After the Lottery Strategy
After all the permits requests are filled from the lottery, the Inyo institutes a dark period where they will not accept permit applications for the Main Mt. Whitney Trail. Some time in April they will advertise the leftovers on their website on a Dates Available page. These permits will become available on 4/23 for May and June trips, 4/30 for July, 5/7 for August and 5/14 for September and October all on a first come, first serve basis. What is left is generally permits in May, June and October and maybe a few in early July and late September.
The Day Hike Strategy
I know you don't want to day hike this puppy but if worse comes to worst this is an option. Unlike backpacking permits where all the prime dates are gone after the February lottery the day hike lottery sells out only a few prime weekends. So, in April check the dates available page on the Inyo website and call them on May 1st for the date you want.
Alternate Leader Strategy
This won't help you in getting a permit but it will help your hiking partners if you have to bail before the hike. List everyone in your group as an alternate leader, this way if you can't make it anyone in you group can pick up the permits without you jumping through hoops and making a phone call to the Inyo.
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Date of Last Change: 12/22/09