Mt Whitney, in California, is the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet. When the trail is free of snow in the summer months to early fall, you can follow a well maintained trail up to the summit. The hike is 22 miles round trip gaining just over 6700 feet of elevation.
Beginning of the Mt Whitney trail at Whitney Portal, 8,374 feet above sea level
You will need a permit to climb Mt Whitney between May 1st and October 31st. You can apply for permits here between February 1st and March 15th and will find out if you’ve gotten a permit via the lottery system by April 1st. The permits are 15$ per person.
Some tips that I learnt when applying for permits:
A total of 160 permits are given out via lottery system during the hiking season (apparently 100 day hike permits and 60 overnight permits per day). The only other way to obtain a permit is if there are ‘no-shows’ or cancellations for a particular day and requesting a walk-in permit at the Eastern Sierra visitor center in Lone Pine, CA.
Interestingly, I got a day permit for May 19th, and when I showed up at the visitor center on May 18th to request overnight permits, I was told that this time of year only 20 - 30 people actually show up (the rest cancelling) due to weather conditions and snow leaving a TON of walk-in permits available! The park ranger said don’t bother trying this during the summer months though (most permits will be accounted for and the trail will be much more crowded).
The drive up to Whitney Portal trailhead from Lone Pine, CA
You can fly into Los Angeles (LAX) and drive about 4 hours to Lone Pine, CA (the closest town to the Whitney Portal trailhead, where you pick up your permits). Another option is to fly into Las Vegas, and drive a bit over 4 hours, which is the option I went with. The drive from Vegas was fun because you get to drive through Death Valley on the way and I got to spend some time exploring the area on the way back from Mt Whitney. Within 24 hours you can be at the lowest point in the U.S, 282.2 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, Death Valley and at the highest point in the lower 48 states at the top of Mt Whitney.
Climbing 1,500 feet up ‘the chute’ between Trail Camp and Trail Crest
Lots of layers are key when hiking Mt Whitney. When I hiked May 19th, within 24 hours I experienced a mix of hot temperatures and sunny blue skies, t-shirt weather, to strong freezing winds, rain, hail, thunder and snow. You are required to pack all of your food in a bear canister and in the early months of the season when the trail is still covered in snow you will need crampons and ice axe. I would highly recommend hiking poles on this trail. Although most of the trail followed a gradual slope upwards there were some steeper sections and exposed rocky scrambles and the poles provided added stability. If you don’t own a bear canister, crampons or ice axe you can rent these at larger REI stores, or once you get to Lone Pine at Lone Pine Sporting Goods or Elevation. Try to call in advance to make sure they will have gear for you. Gaitors were also useful to keep snow and small rocks out of my hiking boots.
You can attempt to do the hike in one day (I think the average time for this is around 16-18 hours) or you can break it up into multiple days by camping on the mountain. I hiked the first 4 miles into the trail on Friday to Outpost Camp with a larger backpack (tent, sleeping bag, food etc) and then hiked the remaining 7 miles to the summit with a lighter day pack leaving at 5am Saturday morning. I would probably leave a bit earlier than 5am from Outpost Camp to summit earlier in the day and avoid the changing weather and afternoon storms.
Gradual gentle ascent along switchbacks from Whitney Portal up to Outpost Camp
It was nice to spend a night on the mountain, which also shaved a couple hours and miles off the day to summit. It also allowed me to spend some time just over 10,000 feet which might have helped with acclimatization (although I am not sure if I spent enough time at this elevation to make a difference).
Lone Pine Lake, 2.8 miles into the hike and another camping option
Colorful marshes between Lone Pine Lake and Outpost Camp
While I was there, I met some people on the trail that were attempting to summit in one day and had started at 1:30 - 2am in the morning, and there were also people that were spending two nights on the mountain before summitting (one night at Outpost Camp and one night at Trail Camp).
Hiking with the rising sun
When I hiked, end of May, the trail was clear and easy to follow up until about a mile past Outpost Camp. Afterwards (11,000 feet onwards), the trail was completely covered in snow which made things a bit slower. The famous ‘99 switchbacks’ leading from Trail Camp up to Trail Crest were completely covered in snow, so I climbed up the 30+ degree snow covered chute with my crampons on. The crampons stayed on until the summit since the last 2 miles of the hike were along a quite narrow and exposed snow covered edge of rocky cliffs.
Navigating in the snow towards Trail Camp.
Looking up towards the snow covered switchbacks and the chute from Trail Camp
Looking down on the way up the chute
Almost at the top of the chute.
Very excited to have made it to the top of the chute with stunning views of Sequoia National Park
Trail Crest, at the top of ‘the chute’, beginning the final two miles along the ridge to the summit
I thought climbing up the steep chute would be the most difficult portion of the hike (which it was very difficult), but to my surprise the last 2.3 miles along the backside ridge of the mountain were extremely long, grueling and a bit stressful. There were very narrow portions of the snow covered scramble and this is when the elevation started to hit me making each step quite a bit of effort.
Dark storm clouds started to roll in so I got to the summit, took a quick photo and turned around almost immediately (it had started to hail at this point). I reached the summit around 11:15am, after leaving Outpost Camp around 5am. It is recommended you summit before 11am, because typically storm clouds start to roll in early afternoon if they do. Roughly half the people on the mountain this day turned around at some point without summitting because of the conditions.
Shelter at the summit of Mt Whitney
Ridge along the backside of the mountain about a mile from the summit. Heading back quickly to escape the dark clouds rolling in and the hail.
Glissading down the chute on the way back. A 10 minute trip down this portion of the trail vs roughly 2 hours on the way up
Something I really appreciated about doing this hike in May is that there was essentially no one else on the mountain (until the last few miles). I saw a total of maybe 30 people along the trail vs 160 in the summer. The lighter crowds in May come at the cost of more unpredictable, colder weather and a bit more of a technical route in the snow. Overall amazing hike and experience in the mountains.