Mt Whitney: Highest Point in the Continental United States (and Highest Peak in California)

General Information:

Distance: 22 Miles

Elevation: 14,505 ft / 4421 m

Nights: 1

Days: 2

Technical moves: Nope. Rope not required

Permit: Required

Date: 09/2/2018-09/3/2018

Route: Mount Whitney Portal

My information was researched in 2018

Summary of the article:

This article will the review information for hiking Mount Whitney including
1. How to obtain a permit

2. Training I did

3. Conditions of the drive

4. Where we stayed the night before we began our hike

5. The hike itself

Permit:

Step 1, obtain a Mount Whitney permit. The Mount Whitney permit can be elusive. The permit application is open from Feb 1st through March 15th. To apply for the permit navigate over to the forest services web page here during a time the forest service is accepting permit applications. On March 8th, the “2018 Lottery Result” was publishing giving us some final statistics. Last year, 16,077 applications were submitted with 37% of groups being awarded a date of their choice. With numbers like these it is easy to see why there is a need for a permitting system.

Below I calculated success rates using the assumption that 60 new overnight hikers and 100 new day hikers were allowed to enter each day. This number may be off if the forest service considers people left over from the night before as one of the 60 overnight hikers allowed.

For 2018, the most popular day for “day users” was Saturday, August 18th, with a 2% success rate for day hikers as 5,482 people wanted those 100 spots.

For 2018 the most popular overnight users was August 4th with a 1% success rate as 7,294 fought for 60 spots. This includes everyone who even listed it as a 1st or 15th preference.

Day users who listed it as a 1st choice found the most popular day to be Saturday, August 18th with 899 people hoping for the 11.1% success rate. The second most popular day was Saturday, August 4th with 896 people hoping for the a 11.1% success rate.

For the 1st choice option the most popular overnight entry day is still Saturday, August 4th, with 1405 people hoping to pass that 4.2% success rate (remember this is not including those who had it listed as 2nd, 3rd … 15th preference). The 2nd most popular day being Saturday, September 1st with a 1261 people hoping for that 4.7% success rate. The second option was my first pick.

I applied for an overnight permit for Saturday September 1st on March 15th as my first choice. I did not receive that first choice. My group received our second choice, an overnight pass for Sunday September 2nd with much better odds of 16.2% success. To see more of these odds take a look at the report here.

On the day before entry, any left over passes that no one applied or payed for have a mini lottery at 11 am to go to any walk in users. My Aunt and her friend tried to get 3 more passes. Sadly on Labor Day weekend they did not have a chance as all were taken. I hear for off peak days, especially weekdays, this method can be very successful.

Don’t be too disheartened, because there are some days like Thursday May 31st where only 21 people applied for it as a first choice. The odds are much better for weekdays and non holidays. For more information on the Mount Whitney permit take a look at the Inyo National Forest website here or leave me a question in the comments. I will do my best to answer.

Training:

Even with an overnight permit to split up the hike into two days the trek is difficult, with the longest day being a 16 mile day and changes of 8,000. That 16 mile figure is assuming that Trail Camp is a destination point considering that it is the closest campsite to the summit.

My spouse and I trained for this hike by doing other hikes. We warmed up on a smaller mountain Big Baldy (8,747), and then we hiked Mount Nebo (11,929 feet) two weekends in a row. We took the next weekend off and then hiked 42 miles in Glacier National Park, Montana. Two weeks later we then hiked Mount Whitney.

Our hike up Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo is pictured in the distance the taller of the two peaks. The shorter of the two peaks is on the trail.
Our second Mount Nebo Hike. This is after reaching the first peak pictured above and scrambling up to the top of Mount Nebo.
Glacier Nation Park hiking of Scenic View. Complimentary smoke from the wildfires.


The Drive:

The drive was fairly unremarkable as far as accessibility goes. Road conditions were excellent the whole way. I found it amusing that we ended up cutting through Death Valley National Park, below sea level, in order to make it to the highest peak in the continental United States. While amusing, the drive through Death Valley was rough with a lot of switch backs up and down the valleys.

On the way back we took a different route pretty much taking Highway 6 the whole way. Both ways involved a little bit of planning to recognize when we needed to fill up on gas. It was very possible to run out of gas with the distances between gas stations if you were not careful.

Night Before:

We had some struggles finding out accurate information on where we could stay the night before our entry date. We wanted to stay at high elevation in order to acclimate better to the elevation. There is a lot of false information out there on the web that fooled us. Without an active Mount Whitney Permit, the best places are campsites in the area. We ranked the campsites as follows:

  1. Cottonwood Pass/Horseshoe Meadow Equestrian
  2. Mount Whitney Portal
  3. Mount Whitney Portal Walk in Camp 1
  4. Ravine Walk in Camp
  5. Alabama Hills BLM land

Because Cottonwood Pass/Horseshoe Meadow are so close to each other I didn’t have a preference of the two before coming in. Each one was at the 10,000 feet elevation we wanted to get more acclimation before hiking. Both campsites are about 1 hours drive to the trailhead, which was super yucky at 4 in the morning. Because we had 4 tents in our party we needed two campsites and ended up securing one in Horseshoe Meadow and one in Cottonwood Pass. It was Saturday of Labor Day weekend and we secured the last two campsites in the area at 2 pm: 1 at Horseshoe Meadow and 1 at Cottonwood pass.

Horseshoe meadow is definitely the nicer of the two. The campers that stayed over there had their own close parking spot, a private bear locker, very far neighbors, and a pretty close bathroom. Downside? There was quite a bit of horse poop. How does a horse poop under a picnic table? Make sure to look twice before stepping.

Picture at Horseshoe Meadow Camp. If you look close enough you can see the horse poop.

Cottonwood Pass had a kind of distant parking spot. We had to leave the car with the hazards on the side of the road as we unloaded. Once we unloaded we moved it to the parking spots a little up the road. We shared a bear locker with a lot of people. The amount of people will depend. We were site number 17 and there can be up to 3 tents per spot. Thats can add up to a lot of people. The spots are also very close together. We did not sleep very well. I think part of it was adjusting the altitude, and part of it was hearing the crashing of bear lockers and people leaving to start their hike all night long.

Mount Whitney Portal is located near 8,500 feet elevation. It is next door to the trailhead so it is an easy commute. Some spots can be reserved in advance. All the spots were reserved by July for labor day weekend. I do not know if they were filled up sooner, that is just when I started looking. If you want to reserve a spot get an early start on it.

Mount Whitney Portal Walk in Camp 1 is a little bit of a legend. Because I didn’t stay at the Mount Whitney camp I didn’t get to explore very much. Out of all of my searching, one website said that the Mount Whitney Portal also had 2 walk in areas that are not listed online. They also did not know the name of the camp because it is such a legend.

Ravine Walk in Camp is the second of the two walk in camps next to the Mount Whitney Portal. I have heard that is very rarely full. From what I read, there is no good parking lot near the camp. As long as you don’t mind carrying your things over, it could be a great area to get some seclusion and get away from the bear lockers.

Alabama Hills is a BLM area next to Lone Pine. I hear it is a rock climbers paradise so I was bummed when I didn’t get to spend some days out there. This was our backup plan since it was located around 4,500 feet elevation and we wanted high elevation to acclimate.

Pretty much every campsite had severe bear problems. The rangers described the bears how I describe my childhood dog, always waiting for an opportunity. You leave your car door open to drop off your gear at camp? Turn around and a bear will be inside of your car. Leave something smelly and in view? Bears will break the window open to get to it. The night before we came three different cars had been broken into by bears

**I read many blogs out there that told me Lone Pine Lake did not require a Mount Whitney permit to camp at. False. This is true for a day hike since the lake is before the Mount Whitney permit zone, but in the John Muir Wilderness Area. Based on all the blogs I was under the impression we could camp there with a wilderness permit. When I called the permit office they informed me how wrong I was and how I would need a need an overnight Mount Whitney permit to spend the night at Long Pine Lake. This left us scrambling to find a camp spot. Luckily, most of the camp areas had walk in spots.**

The Hike:

My group had 7 people total. The big group of 5 wanted to make it to trail camp, drop our camping gear, summit, and the spend the night at trail camp for an easy hike out the next day. This was because we had work to get back to on Tuesday. It didn’t quite happen how we anticipated. The group of 2 wanted to get to Trail Camp, camp, summit, grab the gear at Trail Camp, and then exit.

We started our hike at 6 in the morning. It took us one hour to get from Horseshoe Meadow to the Portal. And once at the portal it took some time to lock our extra food up in bear lockers, find a parking spot and get ready. (We found on the way back we were supposed to leave a note with our return date or risk having our stuff thrown away in the bear lockers).

Obligatory trailhead picture

One of the girls in our group was not able to spend time acclimating to the elevation. She came from sea level and was feeling pretty sick. We didn’t think we needed to start out so early to reach our goal, but we thought this way we could take a few extra longer brakes to help acclimate. Our hike up was pretty slow so we could go easy for the altitude sick traveler in our group.

The first major landmark is the entrance into the John Muir Wilderness Area.

After that we knew we needed to make it to Lone Pine Lake located just about 3 miles into the hike.

Lone Pine Lake

From Lone Pine Lake, the next biggest landmark is entry to the Mount Whitney Zone! Make sure to have permits safely secured on bags. At this point Day and Night hikers have to have a permit to continue. My group did get stopped by a ranger who thoroughly checked all 5 of us for permits.

Outpost Camp

Outpost camp is not too far into the Whitney Zone. This camp looked super lovely. It is only 3.8 miles into the hike but I wished it was closer to the summit so we could stay for the night. There was even a nice babbling stream to help create a camping ambience.

After outpost camp there was a nice lake called Mirror lake about 0.5 miles away.

Another 0.5 miles trip uphill from Mirror Lake is Trailside Meadow. A beautiful thin meadow that the trail borders. Because I love carrying extra weight uphill I started out the hike with 3 liters of water. By the time I made it to Trailside Meadow I needed more water.

Trailside Meadow

The last landmark before Trail Camp was Consultation lake. This mile from the Trailside Meadow was one of the longest miles of the trip. We were getting pretty tired. Consultation lake was pretty much the bluest lake I had ever seen. I don’t know what it is about backpacking, but all of a sudden lakes look like God’s blessing on the earth. It even caused one of the members of my group to start running because she was so excited to see a lake.

Consultation Lake

After doing stairs for 6 miles we made to Trail Camp to dump our stuff at 2 pm.

Summary:


Trail Head: 0 miles from trailhead

John Muir Wilderness Entry: 2 miles from trailhead

Lone Pine lake: 3 miles from trailhead

Mount Whitney Zone: 3.2 miles from trailhead

Outpost Camp: 3.8 miles from trailhead

Mirror Lake: 4.3 miles from trailhead

Trailside Meadow: 4.8 miles from trailhead

Consultation Lake: 5.8 miles from trailhead

Trail Camp: 6.2 miles from trailhead

Even though we had been going much slower than anticipated, Trail Camp was the point in our journey where things stopped going to plan. The original goal was to summit on Sunday. This was due to one of the members of our group having a busy day at work the following Tuesday. We wanted to be able to get to our car early enough on Monday to drive 9 hours home so he could get some sleep before work.

The first thing we did at Trail Camp was put all the smelly things in a bear canister. The freakin marmots were everywhere and vicious. We made sure to leave our bags loosely packed and doors unzipped on our tents so the marmots could have free reign without chewing any holes. After eating a meal and refilling water I was ready to summit. Surprisingly that took us near 2 hours making it around 4pm.

Camp at Trail Camp. The trail goes through the camp just incase that was not clear.

I was surprised to find I was the only one wanting to summit. Our altitude sick friend was worn out from the hike, she and a friend decided to summit early the following day. Since they drove separately from us that didn’t affect our smaller group that had to make it back by Monday night. The two others were tired. I wasn’t about to be stopped this close to the tallest summit in the continental United States! I actually packed up by myself. I knew I would be hiking back in the dark, but I also knew I could make it 5 more miles to the summit in the 3 hours of sunlight left.

As I said goodbye to the group my husband realized I was serious and decided to come with me so I wouldn’t be hiking alone. We made our way up the 99 switchbacks. As we were going up people coming down would ask us things like, “Really? You are going to summit at this hour?”, or “Wow you guys are really, really hardcore. Good luck!” One gentleman was so surprised at us hiking to the summit at that time said, “Are you serious? Its gets cold up here. You are still very far away.” We finally determined that we should turn around. Much to my disappointment we hiked back down to trail camp thinking we would not be able to summit on this trip to Mount Whitney. We would have to apply for the lottery and make it in again. This turnaround was for the best, especially considering that we forgot to transfer our permits off our backpacking bag to our day bag.

At Trail Camp we ran into the other 2 members of our group. They were getting ready to go to bed. We chatted a bit, but besides them everyone else was in bed. Not too much later we joined them in our bed. Of course this was after experiencing the joy of pooping in a bag for the first time. Not as hard as it sounds, but definitely as awful (and required on the Whitney Trail!).

The next morning we woke up at 6 am and packed down our camp. As it was packed up I was staring longingly at the 99 switchbacks just wishing that I could go up 99 switchbacks (it is amazing what inner competition and goals can do to a person’s mind!). My husband (also driven by goals and maybe feeling a little guilty) decided right then that we should try to summit and drive back that night. Our adventure continued!

We left around 6:30 am. We hiked up the 99 switchbacks (again!). This time we made it to the beautiful Trail Crest. This part of the hike gave us a lot of energy. It was so stunning to be on the saddle and see both sides of the Mountain. Also it was a relief to have finally finished the 99 switchbacks.

Great view of the switchbacks and Consultation Lake

After a short journey where we lost some elevation we made it to the connection of the John Muir Wilderness Trail and Mount Whitney. We had about 2.1 miles left at this point to make it to the summit. Besides the elevation making it hard to breathe sometimes, the trail was not difficult at this point.

Gloriously we made it to the shack building, signed our names in the book and celebrated at the top. It took our group about 4 hours to make it up! It was totally worth all the pain.

After that we made a pretty quick decent down to Trail Camp. We finished packing up, ate dinner, and refilled on water. Then it was just down and out to get to the portal. We were so slow getting up that I didn’t realize until we were going down how many stair like features there were. While gravity was on my side it was still rough. The last 3 miles seemed to go on forever, but eventually the portal came into view.

We stopped hiking around 7:05 pm and then started our trip home to Utah, but only after we had some burgers from McDonalds. We pulled in to our house at 6 in the morning!

Of my group, 5 out of the 7 of us were able to summit. That number would have been 2 out of the 7 had my car decided not to drive all night. It is a very challenging hike, and altitude sickness is very real.  

Driving all night was totally worth it for me. I have never felt so accomplished as I did when I made it to the summit of Mount Whitney. When I thought that I was not going to make it to the summit I don’t think I had ever felt so sad on a hike before. I learned that I am more of a destination person than a journey person! Now I am waiting for a time where I play two truths and a lie so I can talk brag about the time I was on the highest mountain in the continental United States! 🙂

As far as elevation sickness went, some of us had the harsh realization that it is real. The biggest symptom I saw in my group was nausea. It could be less extreme of course, but the nausea level experienced was debilitatingly bad. To the point where it was hard to move.

At 10,000 feet the night before some of us suffered from insomnia. I thought he was exaggerating, but my husband told me that at our 12,000 feet elevation camp he actually woke himself up because he was breathing so hard while he was sleeping. It wasn’t until we we started hiking to summit that our other friend told us she had experienced the same thing!

Once we hit 13,000 feet I got hit with a pretty mild case. Even though I was not breathing too heavily, I could feel my pulse racing. The whole time I kept my appetite and ability to sleep. Altitude sickness hit us all differently! I fully recommend giving yourself time to acclimate if you choose to do this hike!


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