Mount Whitney Trail
Sierra Nevada Range, California
- Length: 11 miles (one way)
- Difficulty: 9/10
- Season: June to November
- Type: Out-and-back
- Elevation Gain: 6,132 ft
- Terrain: Forest and exposed rock
- Trail Condition: Well-maintained
Standing above the treeline at a height of 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. Steep granite slopes provide onlookers with a gorgeous pinnacle standing out among the rest of its Sierra Nevada inferiors. The eastern slope of the mountain resides within the Inyo National Forest while the western lies within Sequoia National Park. And amazingly enough, even with Mount Whitney’s magnificent height, it lies only 85 miles from North America’s lowest point: Death Valley National Park. Because of it’s stunning views and prestige, backpackers fight for permits in order to climb the mountain.
Although the summit serves as the southern end of the John Muir Trail, many backpackers choose the much shorter route to reach Mount Whitney via the most popular route – the Mount Whitney Trail. This non-technical, 22-mile round trip hike is strenuous and only recommended to experienced backpackers. Although it can be done as a 10 to 14-hour day hike, most choose to make Mount Whitney a 1, 2, or 3-night trip.
Mount Whitney Trailhead Directions
Inside the community of Whitney Portal is the trailhead, located at 8,365 feet, for the Mount Whitney Trail as well as several other routes to the summit. To reach the trailhead, take US-395 to Lone Pine, California and turn west on Whitney Portal Road. Drive for 13 miles until you reach Whitney Portal. Unless you arrive early in the day, the parking lot can be packed during summer days. Be aware that black bears have been known to visit the trailhead, so don’t leave any food or scented items inside your car, or anywhere on the trail for that matter, unless it is in a bear canister. These can be rented fairly cheaply at the Whitney Portal Store along with other last-minute items.
Mount Whitney Trail Guide
To reach the peak via the Mount Whitney Trail (sometimes known as Main Trail), the easiest and most popular route, you must begin at Whitney Portal and start hiking up Lone Pine Creek. Although forested, the first few miles of the trail are exposed to the blaring sun. Starting as early as possible will ensure cooler temperatures while hiking. Up to mile 3.8, the Mount Whitney Trail is fairly nice and contains pleasant views, although there are plenty of switchbacks as you rise in elevation. Junctions for other destinations and routes are well marked. At 2.8 miles, you will come upon the junction of Lone Pine Lake, a beautiful area and a fantastic, unofficial camping spot. Continue on the main trail. You will come upon many water sources as your hike next to and over streams.
At the 3.8 mile point, you’ll come upon Outpost Camp, the first of two popular campsites. Past this point, the trail transitions from a dirt trail in the forest to alpine hiking on granite rock. Although the scenery is beautiful, the trail is difficult and exposed. Be aware of illegitimate spurs off the main trail as it isn’t uncommon to lose the path.
The Mount Whitney Trail becomes friendlier as you reach Consultation Lake at about 6 miles. Quickly after this, at 6.3 miles, is Trail Camp. Trail Camp is also the last reliable water source along the trail. Between this point and Trail Crest at mile 8.5, the path is difficult and contains 99 switchbacks, which may be covered with snow and ice until late summer, so leave yourself with plenty of time to hike this last bit. Check with the ranger station for current conditions, as you may have to take a different way around, use crampons, or hike through water. Depending on these conditions, you may also be able to find springs along the switchbacks for water sources.Once you have reached Trail Crest at 13,650 feet, you are on the last leg of the hike! Catch your breath and enjoy the view from the ridge. Begin to happily descend the 120 feet just before you have to make it and more up as you push toward the summit of Mount Whitney. As you climb the ridge, you will come upon a few sections with steep drop-offs; keep your eyes on the trail and you will do fine. You will quickly reach the 11-mile mark and the summit of Mount Whitney with its gorgeous, picturesque landscape. After signing the register, you may want to begin heading down the ridge before noon, as this is typically when dangerous Sierra Nevada thunderstorms roll in.
Other Mount Whitney Trail Information
Even with the strenuous challenge of this trail, hikers are not scared away. Because of this, permits are required year-round for backpackers and hikers alike. For more information about the wilderness permit lottery, visit the Mount Whitney Wilderness Permits page. You may also choose to read about some Mount Whitney Permit Strategies. In addition to permits, Inyo National Forest regulations require that all human waste, as well as trash, food and gear, is packed out in WAG bags provided when receiving your permits.
The Mount Whitney Trail contains two official campsites: Outpost Camp and Trail Camp. Most prefer Trail Camp at 6.3 miles in from Whitney Portal. If you’re planning an extended trip or having difficulty acclimatizing to the high altitude, you may choose to stay at the Outpost Camp at 3.8 miles. Outpost Camp does, however, provide some tree coverage and contains plenty of campsites, water, and amenities. Trail Camp has spectacular views, but, along with most sites along the trail, nightly temperatures can reach below freezing and winds can be violent due to its exposed location.
Camping is allowed, though, along most of the trail as long as you are 100 feet from the trail and water sources. Suitable locations that fit this requirement can be hard to find. However, Lone Pine Lake at 2.8 miles is a very nice spot to camp and is located a bit off the trail (so you won’t be woken by those hikers trekking before dawn). Around mile 8.8, you will come upon where the John Muir Trail descends west. If you follow this trail for a minute or two, you will find a spot that can accommodate a a few tents. The summit of Mount Whitney is also an option for camping, although temperatures will get in the single digits, winds will blow, and there is a shortage of space.
Read more backpacking tips »
When camping, be aware that bear-resistant containers are required between May 25 and October 31. Even outside these dates you may still want to bring them as black bears are common throughout the area. In addition to bears, this is marmot-country. Keep your tent anchored down and leave your backpack open so that the marmots don’t get too curious and decide to chew through your gear.
Mount Whitney is a very popular destination between the peak months of July and September, while hiking in winter and early spring requires ice axes and crampons.
Additional Mount Whitney Resources
- Backpacker Magazine – Mount Whitney Trail Map, Elevation Profile, and GPX Data
- US Forest Service – Mount Whitney Trail Map
- US Forest Service – Mount Whitney Trail Information
- US Forest Service – Mount Whitney Wilderness Permits
- Mount Whitney Backpacking – Permit Strategies
- SummitPost – Other Mount Whitney Routes
- NOAA – Current Mount Whitney Weather Conditions