Whitney Portal Route
Single day, 12-18 hours roundtrip
Distance: ~22 miles
Drive to the Whitney Portal. Spend the night at the trailhead. Wake up at 2 or 3 AM. Get on the trail and start walking. If you’ve trained, you should make the summit in 6-8 hours (8 – 10 AM). Spend an hour on the summit. Descend. 5-7 hours to return. Get back to car around 4-6 PM. Fall asleep in your car.
This is a good and reasonable trip plan.
You want to get as early of a start as possible. The later you leave, the higher your chances of encountering mid-afternoon thunderstorms and the lower your chances of success.
Whitney Portal Trailhead
Distance from Trailhead: 0 miles.
Leave the Mt. Whitney parking lot.
Yeah, that’s me on my first Whitney hike. Damn, I was young.
A little ways in, you’ll encounter the John Muir Wilderness sign.
Welcome to the John Muir Wilderness.
Head up the trail past some easy switchbacks and you’ll soon encounter a log bridge over a low creek.
Sometimes there’s a creek here.
After the bridge, you’ll come to Lone Pine Lake.
Lone Pine Lake. I’m a little older here.
Above Lone Pine Lake, you’ll enter the Mt. Whitney Zone (where permits are required). You’ll follow the edge of a beautiful alpine meadow and reach the first campsite.
Looking back from Outpost Camp toward the trailhead.
Distance from Trailhead: ~3.5 miles.
Outpost Camp is a very nice little campsite nested in some shade with a small stream running nearby. Water quality is good (still needs filtration), and the campsites are nice. This is a great place to overnight if you are backpacking.
After Outpost, you’ll start climbing up to Mirror Lake. Ascending up from Mirror Lake, you’ll follow Lone Pine Creek and pass Consultation Lake on your left. After Consultation Lake, you’ll enter the Trail Camp area.
Distance from Trailhead: ~5.5 miles
Camping at Trail Camp in wintery conditions.
Trail Camp is the closest campsite to the summit. Whitney’s peak will be ahead of you and a large ring of high ground surrounds you. It’s above the treeline and you’ll be exposed to weather with no shelter except the large boulderfield you’re in. Be warned, thousands of hikers and campers come through here and the water quality is very poor. Make sure to filter any water you draw from the small lake here. It’s not a very scenic campsite, but it is close to the summit and makes a great place to stop for a summit push. Another great campsite if you are overnighting up here.
Looking from Trail Camp to the summit. Summer conditions.
Crossing the Trail Camp valley, you’ll start the real climbing. Ahead of you is the infamous Hundred Switchbacks section. It’s steep and long and high up. Enjoy the pain.
One of a hundred switchbacks! Fun!
Once you get on top of the Hundred Switchbacks, you’ll be at Trail Crest.
Distance from Trailhead: ~7 miles
Trail Crest. I’m so frickin’ epic right now.
Congratulations, you’re almost certainly going to summit. You’re at ~13,500’ and only a few more miles of trail are between you and the summit. At Trail Crest, you should check the horizon. Make sure it is clear of thunderclouds. Storms roll into the Sierras from the west in the mid-afternoon, and you do not want to be on the exposed summit during a lighting storm.
Near the summit, looking back toward Trail Crest.
A few miles of easy hiking takes you to the summit hut. A note here about lightning:
THE SUMMIT HUT WILL NOT PROTECT YOU FROM LIGHTNING.
Despite the presence of lightning rods on the hut, it is not designed to protect its inhabitants from lightning. People have DIED INSIDE from lightning strikes. Do not shelter there during a thunderstorm. DESCEND!
Summit hut. Does NOT protect you from lightning.
Mt. Whitney Summit
Distance from Trailhead: ~11 miles
One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.
Tag the summit, sign the summit register, take some pictures, and enjoy the view. You’ve earned it.
Summit register. Easy button?!?
Here’s the one buzzkill. You’re only HALF WAY done. There is still the descent. And guess what?
Most people who get injured on mountains get injured on the descent!
Being tired and in a rush to get back to the car is a surefire way to an ankle injury. Downhill is also much harder on your joints. Take your time getting down. Unless there is weather rolling in, there’s no rush. (You brought a headlamp along right?) Go slow and get back safely.
If you get to Whitney early or late in the season, there is a good chance your hike will turn into a winter climb. Snow and ice will make the Hundred Switchbacks section treacherous and impassable. Most people take the direct route to Trail Crest by climbing the low-angle snow to the right of the switchbacks.
If it looks like this, you’re not “hiking” anymore.
It is not a very technical route, but it does require ice axe and crampons (and the knowledge to properly use them).
Climbing low angle snow. No helmet, bad example!
Winter mountaineering requires (in order):
3) ICE AXE.
KNOW HOW TO SELF-ARREST BEFORE YOU ATTEMPT A SNOW CLIMB.
Let me say that again.
KNOW HOW TO SELF-ARREST BEFORE YOU ATTEMPT A SNOW CLIMB.
Too many people get killed up here trying to fake it. This is not a place to learn on the fly. Know what you are getting into and PRACTICE.
Yep. There’s a section here on poop. Get over it.
When you pick up your permit, the rangers will give you a Wag Bag. It’s a bag to poop in.
Yes, you have to use it. It is required.
With the thousands of hikers coming into this zone, human waste accumulates faster than it can decompose. To address this problem, all overnighters must carry (and use) a human waste bag. If you are a dayhiker, it is optional. I recommend carrying it anyway.
The kit includes a large plastic “target” sheet, a few heavy duty bags, odor-absorbing chemicals, and some toilet paper. The “target” sheet is huge. You can’t miss. However…
WEIGH THE EDGES OF THE SHEET DOWN WITH ROCKS BEFORE YOU POOP.
There’s nothing more disgusting than having the wind pick up your poop and throw it on your leg.
You do your business and add a little water to the chemicals and wrap the whole thing up in the bags. It’s actually a pretty sturdy system. Dispose of the bag at the specially marked waste containers at the trailhead.
If you are overnighting, I suggest carrying two. They can be reused, but you DON’T want to do that. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.
Walk all day, destroy your legs on the Hundred Switchbacks, risk snow and ice and rain and lightning, bake in the sun, get sick from the altitude, and poop in a bag. Sounds like a good time! Where do I sign up?
Go do it. It’s either that or live your safe boring life on your couch.
Don’t be lame. Be awesome.
Good luck and be safe!