Frequently Asked Questions
...about day hiking the Main Mt. Whitney Trail

Over the last couple of years we have been asked a ton of questions; the following we seem to answer all the time.

Where is Mt. Whitney?
How high is Mt. Whitney?
What is distance I will have to hike to summit Mt. Whitney?
How long will it take to complete the trip?
Where do I pick up my permits?
Do I need a permit to hike the Main Mt. Whitney Trail?

Do I need a permit to day hike the Mountaineer Route?
What happens if I get caught in the Whitney Zone either with the wrong permit or with no permit?
Can I use my day hike permit for a full moon hike?
How do I get a permit?
How many permits are available daily basis?
How much does a permit cost?
Do I need a bear resistant canister?
How will I know if "I hit the lottery"?
Does my permit entitle me to a campsite at Whitney Portal?
I didn't apply for a permit/I applied but my application was rejected. What can I do to hike The Main Mt. Whitney Trail this season?

What are the facilities like at Whitney Portal?
Is there phone service at Whitney Portal?
Does a cell phone work at Whitney Portal?
Are bears a problem at Whitney Portal?
What is the service industry like in Lone Pine?
Are there any other trailheads in the area?
What is the trail like?
Does the trail require any mountaineering skills?
Are there any dangerous sections along the trail?
What is the chute?
Where is the last place to get water?
How much water should I take up with me up to the peak from Trail Camp?
How difficult are the 96 Switchbacks?
Looking at the map Trail Crest to the Summit is pretty easy, right?
Will my cell phone work on Mt. Whitney?
Who do I call if I need to be rescued on the mountain?
How much time should I plan for my descent?
Will I have to hike in the dark?
Is the trail hard to follow?
I saw your gear list and, man, you take a lot of stuff with you. Do you really need to take all that?
What piece of gear would you not do without when hiking Mt. Whitney?
Where did you buy most of your gear?
Do I really have to acclimatize to the elevation?



Q: Where is Mt. Whitney?
A: Centrally located at the southern end of the eastern Sierra west of Lone Pine with easy access from the Los Angeles Basin (200 to 275 miles), San Francisco Bay Area (300 to 370 miles), San Diego Area (275 to 350 miles) and Las Vegas (220 to 240 miles).

Q: How high is Mt. Whitney?
A: 14,497.61'/4,420M

Q: What is distance I will have to hike to summit Mt. Whitney?
A: It depends on whether you go via the Main Whitney Trail, the Mountaineering Route or a combination of the two. The Whitney Trail is 22 miles round trip, the Mountaineering Route is 9.4 and the combination of the two is 15.7 miles for the round trip. But if you don't have route finding skills do not consider going up the MR.

Q: How long will it take to complete the trip?
A: This really depends on your conditioning, pace and trail conditions. Most hikers will fall in the 11 to 17 hour range using the most common route, The Main Mt. Whitney Trail. These estimates are for optimal summer conditions. If there is still snow on the switchbacks and the west side you will probably have to add a couple of hours.

Q: Where do I pick up my permits?
A: The Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center at 136 & 395, which is south of town. This is the only place you can pick up your permit for the Mt. Whitney Zone. There are no forest service facilities at Whitney Portal.

 

Q: Do I need a permit to hike the Main Mt. Whitney Trail?
A: Yes, 365 days a year. Between 5/1 and 11/1 you can ONLY pick up your Main Mt. Whitney Trail permit at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center, permits for all other trails are issued at any Inyo National Forest Ranger Station and the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center.

 

Q: Do I need a permit to day hike the Mountaineering Route?

A: Yes, starting in 2008 the Inyo National Forest has combined the MR and MMWT for permitting purposes. The combined quota is 100/day.

Q: What happens if I get caught in the Whitney Zone either with the wrong permit or with no permit?
A: You can be turned around or turned around and fined. The fine is $100 for day hikers caught with an invalid or no permit.

Q: Can I use my day hike permit for a full moon hike?
A: Yes and no. The rangers will tell you can't leave the Portal until 12:01 AM for your hike. However, if you are Joe Hiker with no permit you can leave at 10 PM on a hike to the Whitney Zone border and return why shouldn't you be able to same thing, your government at work doing the illogical and stupid. So, although technically you are out of compliance leaving at 10 PM and entering the Whitney Zone at 12:01 AM who exactly is going to stop you? Believe us, there are no stinking rangers sitting up there at midnight checking permits.

Q: How do I get a permit?
A: There is the lottery which commences 2/1 and  end on 2/28, after which you can call and reserve a permit when they become available in April and May or you and walk-in the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center the day before you want head up the trail. In 2012, the Inyo National Forest computerized the lottery through recreation.gov

Q: How many day hike permits are available daily basis?
A: 100/day combined for the Main Mt. Whitney Trail and Mountaineering Route

Q: How much does a permit cost?
A: It depends. Advance reservations for the Whitney Zone are $15/person. All walk-ins are free but there you roll the dice and take your chances. The Main Mt. Whitney Trail  and the Mountaineering Route are the only trails/routes in the Inyo National Forest where you need a day hike permit.

Q: Do I need a bear resistant canister?
A: Day hikers do not need a canister.

Q: How will I know if "I hit the lottery"?
A: You will be contacted by mail starting around 2/15  through mid March. If you apply you will get a permit with the possible exceptions of 4th of July and Labor Day Weekends.

Q: Does my permit entitle me to a campsite at Whitney Portal?
A: No, campsites reservations are handled by recreation.gov. However, there are 16 hiker-in campsites. These sites are good for one night only and are located between the main and overflow parking areas. Hint...only 1/2 of the multi-day sites are reservable in advance the other half are available at Whitney Portal, see the campground manager. The campground manager's trailer is located near campsite #34 in the family campground in 2003.

Q: I didn't apply for a permit/I applied but my application was rejected. What can I do to hike The Main Mt. Whitney Trail this season?
A: After the lottery, the Inyo National Forest has a Dates Available page showing all the permits available after the lottery and the dates they are available for reservation. You can also walk in to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center the day before at opening and enter the daily lottery for leftover permits for the following day. If there backpacking permits available for that day, they are available first come-first served.

Q: What are the facilities like at Whitney Portal?
A: First Class for a forest service campground. Primarily because of the Portal Store, these folks are the best.

Q: Is there phone service at Whitney Portal?
A: Yes, It is a pay cell phone which you have to use a credit card to access (Visa or Mastercard ). It is $3.00/minute and the line quality is marginal.

Q: Does a cell phone work at Whitney Portal?
A: This is a hit or miss thing.

Q: Are bears a problem at Whitney Portal?
A: Yes, according to the folks at the Whitney Portal Store there are 2 or 3 active bear roaming the Whitney Portal area the summer 2003, one reported to be in the 400 pound range. You must keep your food in the bear lockers provided at your campsite or risk your vehicle being broken into, we saw bear break into an Explorer in 1999 for a package of beef jerky. We further recommend utilizing the restaurant at the Whitney Portal Store. The food is reasonable, good and the portions are huge (especially breakfast) and it minimizes the chances of your car being broken into. In 2001 the forest service was aggressively ticketing people for leaving food and coolers unattended in their vehicles to the tune of $150 a pop, and the rangers do check inside your cars.

Q: What is the service industry like in Lone Pine?
A: See our Area Guide. There ain't a lot but there are some good places to eat and stay.

Q: Are there any other trailheads in the area?
A: Yes, there are two at Whitney Portal. Meysan Lake and Whitney National Recreation Trail. However, if you are looking for a nice easy hike at elevation go south on Horseshoe Meadows Rd. from Whitney Portal Rd. for 23 miles to either the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead or the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. There are hikes available from 3 to 13 miles with elevation gains from 0 to 1,200'; between 10,000' and 11,000'. The hiker-in camping here is outstanding and usually under-utilized. Onion Valley out of Independence another trailhead north of Lone Pine which offers some great hiking opportunities. A trip up to Kearsarge Pass will get your heart pumping. DEET is a required item on any of these trails from May into August. 

Q: What is the trail like?
A: Between the Trailhead and Mirror Lake it is fairly easy. The trail is dirt and the climbs are relatively easy. However, the trail gets much harder as you enter granite country, steeper climbs, lots of steps and you are starting to feel the effects of being over 11,000'. The trail work done in 1999 and 2000 is starting to be undone by the annual freeze/thaw cycle and rock fall. This is most notable from Trail Camp to the summit. We there was a noticeable change between 2004 and our last trip in 2009. The going was slower along the westside and  the 97 Switchbacks.

Q: Does the trail require any mountaineering skills?
A: Yes and no. Once the snow clears off the mountain all that is required that you be able to put one foot in front of the other for 22 miles. However, in the spring and early summer you will need some mountaineering skills and winter clothing to hike on this mountain. These items include ice axe, crampons, Gore-Tex pants, gaiters and the knowledge of their use and the ability to self arrest and self belay. Are you prepared for a 1,000' high angle glissade? Also, if you call crampons "clampons" you don't belong on the mountain this early in the year.

Q: Are there any dangerous sections along the trail?
A: In a word yes. There are three areas you should exercise caution when passing through. They are: the area between Trailside Meadow and Consultation Lake when there is snow around, the cabled sections in the middle of the 96 Switchbacks area and the "windows" on the west side. The reason for the cables (at ~12,850') is this area holds ice and snow well into the summer (it returns early in the fall, too), if there is no ice; there are no problems. We recommend you carry, at minimum, instep crampons for traversing this area early in the quota hiking season (May-July). The 4 "windows" give people the willies because there are up to 1,500' drop offs on each side of the trail. The trail is about 5' wide for the first 3 "windows" and it is about 7 to 8' for the 4th "window" (from south to north). If you have problems with heights just look at the ground; not the openings while crossing these areas.

Q: What is the chute?
A: The chute is utilized early in the season when the 97 Switchbacks are still blocked by snow. The chute is located near the base of the Sierra Crest  and ends at Trail Crest (13,600'). This is a high angle ascent which requires an ice axe, gaiters, crampons, Gore-Tex pants for the glissade back down, the ability to read snow conditions and the knowledge of how to self arrest and self belay. During the summer you can see the trail back to the chute for the trail going up to Trail Crest. Do not make this you first attempt at glissading.

There have been fatal glissading accidents in this area the latest we know of being in October 2005.

Q: Where is the last place to get water?
A: There is usually water flowing over about 10 switchbacks between ~12,400' and ~12,600' about 1/2 to 3/4 mile west of Trail Camp. This spring-fed water source can be taken without filtering. However, this source may not be available in the early morning hours because of the flow could be frozen at the source or dry in late summer in after a snow straved winter. If you intend to use this source on your ascent check with descending hikers before leaving Trail Camp. This source had dried out by mid-September 2004 and 2009.

Q: How much water should I take up with me up to the peak from Trail Camp?
A: Depends on your normal intake, ambient temperature and humidity. We've taken anywhere from 2 to 4 L and have needed as much as 5 L to complete this round trip. We suggest you take 4 L.

Q: How difficult are the 96 Switchbacks?
A: Very, mostly because they seem never ending and you have already hike 6.5 miles and have climbed over 3,600'. Our philosophy here is just keep moving and don't piss and moan you'll get to Trail Crest soon enough and back down to the water eventually on your return trip.

Q: Looking at the map Trail Crest to the Summit is pretty easy, right?
A: No, you lose 120' of elevation gained in the quarter mile between Trail Crest the the junction of the John Muir Trail. There are three loses and gains on the way to the summit all this at more than 13,500'. This means you have to climb three times on the way back to Trail Crest from the summit, this stretch is what we consider the hardest part of a day hike trip, especially for those with acclimatization issues.

Q: Will my cell phone work on Mt. Whitney?
A: Yes and no. There are a couple of considerations. The phone is getting a lot of cells and service providers to choose from up there and might get confused over which one to take. Make sure your phone is fully charged and kept warm in the morning so you don't experience any battery drain from cold temperatures.

Q: Who do I call if I need to be rescued on the mountain?
A: You call the Inyo County Sheriff's Dispatcher at 760-876-5606, program this number into your phone before you leave home. The problem on the summit and westside  is what cell tower will pick up your call, it may not be in Inyo County.

Q: How much time should I plan for my descent?
A: Our descents at Whitney fall in line with my 70% rule. That is, it takes 70% as long to descend as does to ascend. However, if you are sick, have AMS or have some very sore knees it could take you just as long to descend as it did to ascend.

Q: Will I have to hike in the dark?
A: Yes, most will start in the dark and some will finish in the dark. Make sure you headlight is good enough for night hiking by doing a night training hike before heading to Whitney Portal.

Q: Is the trail hard to follow?
A: For the most part no, especially in the morning when the hikers are all bunched up. However, in the afternoon and evening when everyone is strung out descending the section of trail between Trailside Meadow and Mirror Lake is very hard to follow in spots. Therefore, we recommend you plan to be in Bighorn Park prior to darkness setting in, preferably to the Lone Pine Lake area.

Q: I saw your gear list and, man, you take a lot of stuff with you. Do you really need to take all that?
A: Whitney is a balancing act between weight and safety. Our feeling is you should have enough food and clothing to be able stay out a night anywhere on the trail, that means a night below freezing. Therefore, a fanny pack ain't going to cut it in our opinion.

Q: What piece of gear would you not do without when hiking Mt. Whitney?
A: My Black Diamond Elliptical Binary Locking System Trekking Poles. They make you a better hiker, especially at the end of the day.

Q: Where did you buy most of your gear?
A: Currently, we get most of our gear at the following retailers and discounters: REI, REI-Outlet, backcountrygear.com, and Sierra Trading Post.

Q: Do I really have to acclimatize to the elevation?
A: Our feeling is yes you do and this is confirmed by a Colorado study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine which states 42% of people will have some symptoms of AMS over 10,000'. Risk factors include living under 2,800', previous bouts with AMS and cardiopulmonary conditions. People over 50 are less suspectible and young children are more suspectible. You spent the big bucks to get here spend an extra day or two acclimatizing to give yourself a better chance of success. Personally, we have had AMS problems as low 7,500' and we live at 1,600'.


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Date of Last Change: 2/27/12