Tips and Tricks for Hiking Mt. Whitney

I love a good challenge.

Last summer, that challenge was summiting Mt. Whitney. Spoiler alert: due to the heavy snowpack of last winter, we did not fully summit. And yet, it was one of the best hikes I have done in the Sierras. From crossing glacial streams by the light of a headlamp, following switchbacks up with the sunrise over Death Valley, passing waterfalls, glacial lakes, and hiking with crampons through the snow, it is surely an adventure worth taking on, whether you reach the top or not. 

Fun Facts

  • Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in California and in the continental United States, standing high at 14,494 feet!

  • You can hike the entire John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney.

  • One of the United States’ craziest ultra-marathons, Badwater 135, goes from Death Valley National Park to Whitney Portal, a whooping 135 miles!

Tips and Tricks

Accomodations: The first thing to do if you are serious about hiking Mt. Whitney is booking a place to sleep. I recommend a campsite in Whitney Portal, which is the closest campsite to the trailhead. It is also one of the most beautiful campsites I have ever stayed in. There is a roaring river you can relax next to with glacially cold water, while you stare up at the mountains in every direction. One of the coolest things about the Whitney Portal campsite is that there are actual stone cabins built up into the mountainside in the campground. Supposedly, these cabins are inherited and stay in families for generations. Alternatively, you can find accommodations in the town of Lone Pine which rests in the valley below the mountain range.

Pro tip: make sure to reserve your campsites far in advance. I reserved on January 1st for July 4th weekend.

Powerful streams in the Whitney Portal campsite.

Securing permits. You need to enter a lottery to hike Mt. Whitney, which has its pros and cons. It’s good because it keeps the trail from being overcrowded, but it also means you run a risk of not securing a spot. This is the lottery site. The lottery opens February 1st and closes March 15th. Lottery results are sent out on March 24th. If you win the lottery, you have a month to accept it (April 1-30). You have to pay $15 per person, verify the group size and complete other trip information. Permits have to be picked up in advance at the visitor center in Lone Pine, and the permits adhered to your pack for the journey.

Note: If you don’t win the lottery, open dates become available for web reservations starting on April 1st on a “first come, first serve” basis. If anyone cancels, their space also could become available, though there is no waitlist.

The much desired permit.

Which hike should you apply to? When you apply for the lottery, you can apply for a single day entry to the mountain or a two day entry, but you can’t apply for both. It is not clear to me which option is more popular. It just depends on what kind of trip you want to do.

  • Single day hike: this option is aggressive, because in order to hike the 22 miles in a single day you have to start the hike in the dark, usually between two to four AM (though we met people who started at midnight!). However, you don’t have to carry as much with you. We applied for the single day permit because we didn’t want to deal with the extra weight.
  • Two day hike: with this option, you can make camp either in Outpost Camp (10,365 ft, 3.8 miles in from the trailhead) or at Trail Camp (12,000 ft or 6.3 miles in from the trailhead). Some people don’t sleep well at that high an elevation, but it means you can wake up the next morning and summit before the sun hits, and you can leave your pack in camp. However, we did see mountain marmots destroying someone’s camp because they left food out (you must carry bear canisters with you, which is added weight), so there is always some risk.

Journey Preparation:

  1. Pick up your permit. Available at the visitor center the day before you summit (at least). Be aware of visitor center hours of operation (usually 8am-5pm).
  2. Carry out. You are required to carry out your human waste from the mountain, so pick up wagbags at the visitor center. More information about this change can be found here.
  3. Train for the hike. At over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, that is a thousand feet every 2 miles, in a way where you might be hiking for 12 hours or more. We did a lot of hiking the months leading up to the trip, but could have used more training - like on a stepper at the gym.
  4. Acclimate to the elevation. We had a day and a half in camp before we hiked so that we could sleep and hang out at elevation (8,000 feet at Whitney Portal). I still ended up with a pounding altitude headache, but I didn’t get sick or out of breath on the trail.

What to pack:

  1. Enough food to keep your energy up but not weigh you down. We packed two large sandwiches for lunch as well as a bagel sandwich for breakfast. I also had four Clif bars and some energy GUs with caffeine.
  2. Enough water. I carried 4 liters in my pack (3 liter camelback and 1 liter extra bottle). I almost always hike with a UV pen and iodine tablets as well. I drank all my water on the way up and refilled (and treated the water) near Trail Camp. There was no shortage of water on the trail due to all the waterfalls and stream crossings.
  3. Hiking poles. There are multiple stream crossings, and they would have been hard without the added stability. I absolutely love my pair from Black Diamond.
  4. Sun protection. You move quickly from tree cover to complete exposure, and then add in the snow reflecting at elevation, and you have a recipe for burning! Pack sunscreen and a hat.
  5. Extra layers. To the point above, you hike in the dark and cold for a few hours, but by mid day you are roasting. Make sure you pack a variety of layers to alternate in-between.
  6. Crampons and an ice axe. Depending on the time of year and the intensity of the previous winter, parts of the trail may be completely snow covered. We hiked about 50% of the trail in snow with crampons (I bought a cheap pair from Amazon). We didn’t get ice axes because they are expensive and we didn’t know how to use them correctly. If you can borrow one and get trained on how to use it, definitely bring it. We probably would have summited if we had.
  7. Sandals/water shoes. There are 3 stream crossings on the trail, where the water goes up to your knees depending on the winter and the current can be quite strong in places. We brought stable waterproof sandals that we changed into at every crossing. It was a pain, but better than risking blisters by hiking in soaking wet hiking boots.
  8. A headlamp. How else will you hike in the dark at 4am?
  9. Oxygen. This is kind of a joke, but I did see a family hiking with small oxygen canisters. This family even had an extra they gave to a hiker in distress, so at the very least, you could help out in an emergency! On that note, always hike with a small first aid kit.

From top, left to right: Starting the trail in the dark; sunrise on the trail; stream crossings; waterfalls; more waterfalls; views of the summit from Trail Camp.

Half the fun is the journey (and other things to do)

  1. Diaz Lake - On our acclimation day, we went swimming at Diaz Lake which was a nice refresher since it was so hot out! This is a family friendly area where you can camp and do boating activities.

  2. If you are travelling around the south side of the mountains, you can visit Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, checking out the majestic Sequoia trees, some of the largest in the world.

  3. If you are travelling through the mountains, you can drive through Yosemite National Park and visit Tuolumne Meadows along the Tioga Road (Rt. 120), which is closed usually from October to May.
    1. If you like hot springs, beautiful Travertine Hot Springs is located off of this road.
    2. If you take this route, make sure to stop at fascinating Mono Lake for some photos and grab lunch at Woah Nellie Deli. Don’t let the underwhelming exterior turn you away - it’s the best food around.
    3. Stop off in world renown Bishop for rock climbing, or just to grab some amazing pastries at Schat’s Bakery.

From Left to right: Travertine Hot Springs; Mono Lake; and Yosemite Views.

 

Though it may seem daunting, preparing for and hiking Mt. Whitney is an incredible adventure. It is a challenging but beautiful hike with a variety of scenery throughout, including waterfalls, streams, glacial lakes, and granite peaks. You can’t go wrong!

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