Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the Contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m). The east slope is in the Inyo National Forest and the west slope is in Sequoia National Park. The summit sits at the south end of the John Muir Trail (which runs 211.9 miles from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley) and is 84.6 miles west-northwest of the lowest point in North America (Badwater in Death Valley National Park which is 282 feet below sea level).
The image above is a real-time image of Mt. Whitney. The web-cam taking the image is housed in the attic of the Whitney Portal Hostel, located at 238 S. Main Street in downtown Lone Pine, CA, approximately 12.85 miles from the Mt. Whitney summit. During the day, the camera takes a picture every 10 minutes (refresh your browser for the most recent image). For a full-screen image, click here.
The Main Trail:
The most popular route to the summit is via the Mount Whitney Main Trail which starts at the Whitney Portal (8,360 feet) 13 miles (21 km) west of the town of Lone Pine. The hike is about 22 miles round trip with an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet. Permits are required year round, and to prevent overuse a limited number of permits are issued by the Forest Service between May 1 and November 1 by way of a lottery.Most hikers do the trip in two days, camping at either Outpost Camp (10,640 ft & 3.8 miles from the trail-head) or Trail Camp (12,039 ft & 6.3 miles from the trail-head). Those in good physical condition sometimes attempt to reach the summit and return to Whitney Portal in one day, thus requiring only a somewhat easier-to-obtain “day use” permit rather than the overnight permit. This is considered an “extreme” day hike, which normally involves leaving Whitney Portal before sunrise and 12 to 18 hours of strenuous hiking.
Possible struggles include altitude sickness, cold air, and occasionally treacherous surface conditions (because snow and/or ice are normally present on parts of the trail, except for a short period from early July to late September.)
The John Muir Trail:
The John Muir Trail is a long-distance backcountry trail which crosses remote wilderness areas. It connects to the Mount Whitney Main Trail from the west near Mt. Whitney’s summit. For about 160 miles, the John Muir Trail follows the same footpath as the longer Pacific Crest Trail.
The Mountaineers Route:
The Mountaineers Route involves ascending a steep gully on the north side of Mt. Whitney’s east face. This more direct and technical route (class 3) also starts at the Whitney Portal, but breaks off after less than a mile and heads up the steep North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The trail is less crowded, but non-maintained and rough at points so route finding can be challenging – particularly around the “Ebersbacher” Ledges. Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,335’), Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,200’) and finally Iceberg Lake (12,400’) at the base of the Whitney’s east face, offer possible camp sites.Crampons and ice axe may be necessary in early season as the gully holds snow and later in summer is a steep talus slope. Above the top of the gully, a you must scramble straight up third class rock to reach the summit plateau, a short distance from
the very summit.
The steep eastern side of the Mt. Whitney offers a variety of climbing challenges. The East Face route is a classic route in the Sierra Nevada and involves technical free climbing (Class 5.7) but is mostly Class 4. Other routes range up to Class 5.10.
South of the main summit there are a series of minor summits that are completely inconspicuous from the west but appear as a series of “needles” from the east (see image below). The routes on these include some of the finest big-wall climbing in the high Sierra. Two of the needles were named after participants in an 1880 scientific expedition to the mountain. Keeler Needle was named for James Keeler and Day Needle was named for William Cathcart Day. The latter has now been renamed Crooks Peak after Hulda Crooks who hiked up Mount Whitney every year until well into her nineties!
Mt. Whitney Resources:
- Mt. Whitney Portal Store – This is perhaps the best resource for people interested in Mt. Whitney. The forum has always has recent posts regarding conditions, preparation, first hand experiences and more.
- Mt. Whitney on SummitPost – This is another good site for general information.
- National Park Service Page on Mt.Whitney – While it doesn’t give much detail, this is the official page. It’s the place to go to see if there are any Park Alerts in effect for the Whitney Zone and Inyo National Forest.