The Mt Whitney hike is on every hiker's bucket list. At 14,505 feet, it's the highest point in the lower 48, and is one of those rare high peaks that you can hike to without any mountaineering skills. There is some prep work you need to do, like getting your Mt Whitney permit. This hike guide has everything you need to know to successfully climb Mt Whitney. That includes choosing a route, getting your permit, extra hiking gear considerations, planning your trip, training, and dealing with altitude. Keep reading for all the info.
You can’t just show up and hike Mt Whitney. The hike requires a bit of prep work, including getting your Mt Whitney hiking permit. The directions below explain everything you need to know and do to climb Mt Whitney successfully. The combination of solid prep work with a little luck should get you to the summit.
Before you apply for your Mt Whitney permit, you need to decide on a route. This guide focuses on the Mount Whitney Trail, which you can hike in a day or two. There are some other popular options listed below. All of these options require permits.
If you want to hike Mount Whitney as a day hike or overnight camping trip, keep reading!
You don’t have to tackle all 22 miles of the Mount Whitney Trail in one day, you can also do the hike over two (or more) days and camp on the trail. There are pros and cons to camping. Big on the pro side is that you can split the hike up into smaller chunks, you can acclimatize, and get a beautiful night under the stars. On the con side, permits are tougher to get, and you have to haul a much heavier pack up the mountain.
The most popular place to camp is Trail Camp (12000 feet), 6 miles up the trail. It’s pretty rocky and barren, and doesn’t offer much shelter from the elements. You can also camp at Consulation Lake (near Trail Camp), Outpost Camp (3.8 miles on the trail, 10400 feet), or Lone Pine Lake (2.8 miles, 9900 feet). If you do camp at these spots, pick an established campsite, don’t damage the landscape by creating a new one. All of these sites offer water and are first come, first serve.
Some other tips when camping:
Instead of lugging all your gear to the summit, you can leave your gear at the campsite with a daypack (keep reading for gear recommendations). Make sure all your food and scented items (like toothpaste) are in the bear canister. Leave your backpack loosely packed and tent flaps open so that critters can easily look around. Otherwise they’ll chew through your pack or tent. Also, secure your gear against rain and high winds. If a storm blows through, you don’t want your gear scattered all over the place, wet. It happens.
The hike to Mt Whitney is popular. I mean real popular. In 2016, 64,939 hikers wanted to hike or backpack to the summit from Whitney Portal at some point in prime hiking season. So the parks service enforces a quota system. Only 100 day hikers and 60 backpackers are allowed up from Whitney Portal per day, from May 1st to November 1st. These quota-controlled slots are awarded in a lottery. Getting one of these slots will be your first challenge, and it starts months before the hike.
The first thing you need to do is pick 16 dates that you would like to hike Mt Whitney on. The permit lottery lets you choose 1 main day, and 15 alternates. When picking a date, ideally you want a weekday, full moon in July, August, or early September. These months are the best option to avoid snow, blizzards, and ice on the trail. The full moon will be nice for the pre-dawn portion of the hike. These dates are, of course, the hardest to get.
Then you need to decide on your group size. You can have between 1 and 15 people (for the main Mount Whitney Trail). The more people you have in you party, the tougher your chances for a permit. It’s also tougher to keep a big group together. A group size of 4 is ideal – if there’s a problem, 2 people can go for help and 2 people can stay together. You’ll also need to name a group leader. Usually it’s the person who’s picking up the permit.
Here’s the general process for the Mt Whitney permit lottery (the dates and times may be a little different every year, but this is generally how it rolls).
Once you purchase your permit, you’ll get a confirmation with the actual permit info on it. Print this out and bring it to the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center to get your actual permit the day before your hike. Yes, there is another piece of paper. More on that later.
Visit the Whitney permit lottery page for up to date information on the application dates, process, and links.
If you were unsuccessful getting your permit, there are some other ways you might be able to do the hike.
Often group permits have someone who bails out at the last minute. Join a hiking group on Facebook or Reddit and let everyone know that you’re looking for a group to hike with. I’ve seen this work numerous times.
You can also show up at the Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center the day before or day of your hike and see if there are any unclaimed permits. Weekdays are better than weekends. According to the rangers, no-shows are fairly common. You can’t call and have them hold the permit for you though. You need to be there in person to get it. The good news is that it’s free.
Lastly, you can hike Mt Whitney in the winter (between November 2nd and April 30th). There is no quota, and you can simply walk up to the park office and get a permit. If you are not experienced in winter hiking and/or mountaineering, don’t hike Whitney in the winter.
Oh, and if you are considering doing the hike without the permit, beware. There are rangers on the trail who check for permits, and I have heard stories of hikers without permits being walked off the mountain and fined.
To start, the Mt Whitney hike is very doable. It can also kick your butt. Many of the hikers who try the hike do not make the summit. Training and preparing properly can mean the difference between misery and fun. You have a few challenges to prepare for.
First, you need to be used to the distance and effort. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with lots of mountainous climbs, you should have lots of options. If not, you’ll have to improvise. Sometimes this means doing loops of the same hikes to get the numbers in. I’ve even heard of people getting on a treadmill, setting the grade to 15%, and hiking until they had the elevation and distance (which sounds soul crushing to me). Likewise, you could use a stair climber.
A good weekend progression for a hiker who can do 10 miles comfortably would be something like this:
Ideally, these hikes would be done at altitude. But not everyone has that luxury, so do them the best you can. We will deal with altitude later.
In Southern California, a good training progression for Mt Whitney is:
(This is just a recommendation, there are literally 100’s of hikes you can do in SoCal that would work. Adapt your plan based on your needs.)
In addition to your hikes, I’d strongly recommend doing some other exercise regularly during the week. Just 30 minutes a day of vigorous biking, running, circuit weight training, or exercise classes will work. HIIT training is effective and doesn’t take long. The fitter you are in general, the more pleasant the hike will be. Exercise will also increase your body’s ability to use oxygen, something that will be crucial when you’re above 14,000 feet.
I’d say altitude is what stops most people who attempt to hike Mt Whitney and fail. There are two main challenges with altitude, getting enough oxygen to continue and avoiding altitude sickness (also known as acute mountain sickness, or AMS), which can occur in hikers when they go above 8000 feet. If you already live or train at altitude, AMS should be much less of a problem for you than most.
To start, air always contains 20.9% oxygen, at all altitudes, no matter what. But lower air pressure at high altitude makes it feel like there is a lower percentage of oxygen. On the summit of Mt Whitney, your effective oxygen percentage is not 20.9%, but about 12%, because of the low air pressure. If you do the math, that means your getting about 57% of normal oxygen levels with each breath. Think of it as exercising with one nostril plugged.
As mentioned earlier, being fit will be a big help when hiking Whitney. In very rough terms, exercising increases your body’s ability to use oxygen effectively. So you can do more with each breath you take. Your body will also do much better if you’re hydrated, so take extra water during the hike, and drink tons of water the day before. We’re often dehydrated when we wake, so hydrating before will help offset that. And lay off the alcohol until after the hike.
To increase your chances of dealing with altitude effectively, you should plan to acclimatize. Acclimatization is simply the process of getting your body used to extracting the oxygen from the lower air pressure. In an ideal world, you would spend 1 week acclimatizing for every 2000 feet of difference in altitude. But you don’t need to go to those extremes to hike Mt Whitney. Here’s an acclimatization plan that has worked well for me, based on the old climber’s adage of “climb high, sleep low.”
I live at sea level, and this acclimatization plan had me feeling very good on Whitney. I did have mild AMS symptoms on White Mountain Peak though. It’s different for everyone, so stay flexible and always stay alert for symptoms of AMS. It’s onset can happen regardless of your fitness, and tends to be a bit random. Which brings us to our next point…
To put it bluntly, altitude sickness (AMS) can kill you. But you’d be surprised at the number of hikers you’ll see trying to push through it, treating AMS like it was a sore foot or blister. When hikers do that, they not only put their own lives in danger, but also endanger any other hiker or ranger who would potentially have to be involved in a rescue. The last time I hiked Mt Whitney, there were at least a dozen hikers ‘grinding it out’ through severe AMS symptoms. Not smart, not worth it.
How do you know if you have AMS? The symptoms are usually subtle to start, and progress in intensity as you climb. They include headache, nausea, lack of appetite, swelling, diarrhea, and lightheadedness. For example, a light, dull headache is fairly common, a sharp, intense headache means you’re in the danger zone. AMS can progress to swelling of the brain or fluid in the lungs, both acute, life threatening conditions.
If you start getting symptoms of AMS, stop climbing, take a break, and see if they subside. Mild symptoms can be manageable, but if they intensify, you must descend immediately. It’s the only way to get better quickly. Don’t expect a helicopter rescue, plan on walking off the mountain yourself. If you’ve climbed to the point where you’re vomiting or lost your balance, you’ve gone way to far. Believe it or not, I’ve seen people with these symptoms trying to summit.
Some folks also have luck with a medication called Diamox. If you want to go that route, see you doctor and have them prescribe it for you. Another option is simple Ibuprofen. A Stamford study (that took place in the Eastern Sierra) found that popping 600mg of Ibuprofen can help with AMS too.
Unless you live close to Mt Whitney, you’ll probably end up staying in Lone Pine, CA. If you stay in Lone Pine, it’s a 13 mile drive (with 4000 feet of uphill roads) to the trailhead at Whitney Portal.
There are a few options: off-brand hotels, chain hotels, AirBnB, campgrounds, and the Whitney Portal campground. My goto hotel has been the Best Western, which tends to fill up far in advance. The rooms are big and clean, the staff friendly, it has free (early) breakfast, and you can park right in front of your room to unload your gear. Otherwise I’d turn to TripAdvisor for other options.
I’ve also stayed at the Whitney Portal campground and it’s an attractive option, since it’s right at the trailhead. There’s a general store that has food, drinks, beers, gifts, and limited gear. On the down side, it can get busy and loud with kids running around. The Whitney Portal campground doesn’t just have hikers. It’s full of folks just enjoying the scenery. Lots of hikers also sleep in their cars at Whitney Portal before an early departure.
If you want to camp at altitude, try the Cottonwood Pass Campsite at 10,000 feet. You can drive in and spend the night, and there are toilets and running w
Wherever you stay, I recommend booking as far in advance as possible. It’s not uncommon for Whitney Portal to be booked full 6 months out. Lone Pine is a popular spot for tourists doing the Sequoia/Yosemite/Death Valley route, and gets a lot of through traffic.
Lone Pine is a small town. If you’re coming from a major metropolitan area, set your expectations accordingly. I recommend checking out TripAdvisor and Yelp beforehand to get an idea of the eating options. There’s a small supermarket, and a couple of gas station convenience stores. If you need hiking gear, your choices are limited to a few small shops and the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center gift shop, so make sure you have what you need before you leave home. There are some interesting attractions in the area and it’s worth a day of exploring and relaxing.
Okay, back to the paperwork. Before you do your hike, you need to visit the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, just south of Lone Pine on 395, and pick up your actual permit. Some important points:
At the end of the permit process, you usually get three pieces of paper. Here’s what to do with them.
Hopefully, the weather will cooperate with you on your hike to the summit. If the weather is bad, you need to play it safe and do the hike another day. Winter storms can still hit on the fringes of the summer season. If the weather is okay, you still run the risk of summer thunder storms and lightning on the summit. These storms generally bubble up after noon. You’re in an alpine climate and the weather can change quickly.
To avoid thunderstorms, most hikers leave in the early hours of the morning. 3am is a popular start time from Whitney Portal. That should get you on and off the summit before noon, unless your pace is very slow. The only downside is that there will be a lot of folks hiking at the same time. You can try and leave a little earlier to avoid the big rush. Alternatively, if the chance of rain is low to none, and you have the daylight, you can leave at dawn and maximize your daylight hiking time. Of course, you run the risk of having the weather turn, which would stop your summit attempt.
As you climb towards the summit, always keep your eye to the sky. Building clouds are not a good sign. When you reach Trail Crest (see directions), scan the horizon toward Sequoia National Park. If it looks bad there, that weather will probably be at Mt Whitney shortly.
When you do the final stretch of the Mount Whitney Trail (past the JMT junction to the summit), you’ll see a lightning warning sign. There have been some much publicized deaths on the summit from lightning, including the death of a hiker in the stone hut at the summit. The best way to avoid getting struck is to turn around the second you hear thunder. It’s a bummer, but hey, you’re still alive.
If you’re caught on the summit in lightning, your best bet is to take refuge in the stone hut. There’s some controversy around this, and the official park signage indicates that it isn’t safe in the hut, but this discussion was good enough for me to feel good about that option.
To throw a wrench into this whole lightening issue, military jets often fly by the summit. They’re loud and sometimes break the sound barrier, and can be confused with lightening.
Google Maps trailhead:
Mt. Whitney Trailhead, Whitney Portal, CA, 93545, USA
If you have GPS device (I use this one by Garmin and I love it) for your hike, load the GPX file below into your device to navigate the hike. For help on loading the GPX file, read this article on converting and transferring to a Garmin GPS.
Also, don't rely on electronics as your sole means of navigation. There's a basic printable PDF map below, and I strongly picking up a good topo map too.
If you’re arriving at Whitney Portal for the first time, early in the morning, finding the right place to park and trailhead can be your first challenge.
If you want to use a real bathroom, the toilets across from the trailhead are your only choice on this hike, so take care of business before you start.
It helps to break the hike into sections, both for navigation and mental consumption. Don’t look up to the Whitney summit and think about how long it will take to get there. Just focus on the current section and the next landmark, it will help mentally break the hike up into digestible chunks.
After the summit, head back the way you came. You still have 11 miles of hiking, and you should still be trying to eat and hydrate. If you’re feeling the effects of AMS, I’d recommend taking it slowly and making sure your footing is solid as you descend. Most of the times that I’ve rolled an ankle or slipped, it’s because I was cruising back down the trail from a big climb, tired, and not paying full attention to my footing. If it’s dark, take extra care. People have died descending in the dark.
A quick note. These directions are meant as a guide for the hike, and not a definitive source. Conditions change, and the information here can be different based on time of day, weather, season, etc. There can be small side trails that you might see but I missed. I have made every effort to include all the information you need to complete the hike successfully. I recommend using this guide in conjunction with a map, GPX file, common sense, and call to the ranger station or park office. If you do the hike and notice something has changed, please contact me and I will update the guide.