Because 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney is accessible, non-technical and stands taller than any other peak in the Lower 48, the climb is extremely popular. But, don’t underestimate the experience. The peak’s easiest route, the Mt. Whitney Trail, climbs over 6,000 vertical feet over about 11 miles, making for one big adventure for both novices and hardened peakbaggers. Here’s how to do it.
Start your hike at 8,360 feet at the Whitney Portal Trailhead, 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine on the east side of the Sierra. Sleep at the campground so you can get an early start and drop in the Whitney Portal store for last-minute supplies or a post-climb beer and a pile of the best fries we’ve ever eaten (seriously).
After climbing gradually for one mile on a well-defined, rocky trail, you’ll reach a trail marker that points toward the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Head left, hop across the creek and continue southeast.
A sign heralds your entrance into the 581,000-acre John Muir Wilderness, which encompasses 100 miles of the Sierra Nevada crest.
Approximately 2.8 miles in, pass the turn-off to Lone Pine Lake, a worthy side trip if you are taking your time and spending a few days climbing Whitney. Shortly (.2 miles) after the lake, you enter the Whitney Zone where a sign warns of special permit requirements (see below).
Just .8 miles later, you will descend to Outpost Camp, a beautiful meadow nestled at 10,400 feet and surrounded by imposing granite walls. If you are spending the night here, find flat, sandy established campsites at the far end of the meadow. If heading on, begin climbing the switchbacks at the edge of camp.
Continue climbing for .2 miles and 240 vertical feet to reach a stunning view of this beautiful lake. Enjoy the scenery above treeline and fuel up, because from here on out the trail—which meanders past meadows, Consultation Lake and towering granite walls—becomes steep, rocky and curvy in spots.
After climbing steadily over large rocky steps, you’ll arrive at Trail Camp (12,000 feet). This sleeping spot, six miles from the trailhead, is extremely busy and popular with those wishing to hit the summit in morning. From here, you’ll gain altitude quickly as you climb a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. Take your time; the 2.2-mile effort to reach Trail Crest is worth it.
This notch in the cliffs, which sits at 13,700 feet, provides astounding views of Sequoia National Park below and peaks in the distance. From here, you only have 2.5 miles and 797 vertical feet to the summit, but, due to of the altitude, it might feel longer. After Trail Crest, the trail briefly descends and undulates up and down before finally climbing to the summit.
After more than 11 grueling miles, you’ve made it to 14,494 feet—the top of the continental United States! Enjoy the view, then follow your route back down to return to the trailhead.
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This rugged pant combines durable nylon canvas fabric in the hips and thighs with soft, comfortable chockstone fabric in the waist and legs. Bonus features include a zippered security pocket, ankle zippers for easy mid-climb changes and articulated knees. $115; mountainhardwear.com
Note: A quota system limits the number of people allowed on the trail from May to November and permits are required year-round for overnight hikers and day hikers in the Mt. Whitney Zone (www.fs.usda.gov/inyo). Reserve Wilderness permits in advance at www.recreation.gov.