25 routes · Alpine Climbing · Hiking
Mount Whitney via Whitney Portal
The famous day or overnight hike to stand atop the contiguous United States' highest summit.
Alpine Climbing Moderate
- 33 km
- 2 km
- 2 km
- Low Point
- 2.5 km
- High Point
- 4.4 km
At 14,505 feet above sea level, the top of Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States. In the Sierra Nevada, the chain of huge granitic peaks stretching through California, Whitney happens to be the tallest, but it's not actually that formidable to summit. Though technical climbing routes do exist, the Mount Whitney Trail allows passage for fit hikers of average ability. The steepness and altitude ensure this hike isn't easy endeavor, but it is reasonable with a bit of training and planning.
Hiking to the summit requires a 22-mile round trip with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain. If you are not used to altitude, you will need to allow time to acclimate. The hike can be done in one long day (you will want to start well before sunrise), or in two more leisurely days if you carry camping gear. Camping on the trail is recommended if you want time to acclimate to the altitude before your summit push, though nights up here can be quite frigid.
The trailhead is at Whitney Portal, a US Forest Service recreation site on the east side of the Sierras at 8,400 feet elevation. There is a campground and ranger station here, as well as restrooms and water supply. Note that a permit is needed for any hikers who access Mt. Whitney from this trailhead. From May 1 to November 1, the number of permits per day are capped and controlled by a lottery system on Recreation.gov.
The hike begins in dense pine forest along a tumbling creek. As the path steepens and climbs higher, vegetation thins gradually, giving way to dwarfed spruce and shrubs. You’ll pass peaceful alpine lakes framed beneath the looming hulk of the mountain.
Finally, there’s nothing but bare rock between you and the summit. To surmount the steep talus field above treeline, the trail takes the infamous “99 switchbacks” to Whitney’s south ridge. Leg-burning work is rewarded with ever-expanding views over surrounding peaks and the east face of the Sierra behind you, and finally, you’ll reach the ridge at Trail Crest, and the entire other side of the range spills into view.
From there, take on another 2 miles of less steep but thrillingly-exposed trail along the spine of the mountain, among pointed granite pinnacles and broken rock slabs. When passing the “windows” between giant granite needles on the east face, you’ll catch precipitous points of view straight down to the valleys below. You may have to contend with high winds or, in the early season, navigate patches of snow. Beware of thunderstorms that can pop up suddenly and violently, especially in summer.
Once on the summit, you will hopefully have good conditions to pause and take it all in. The earlier in the day you arrive, the better the chance for good weather. When ready, return the way you came and enjoy the panoramas all the way down.
Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MountWhitneyTrail https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSEDOCUMENTS/fseprd498765.pdf
May involve slightly more complex glacier hikes, easy but possibly long rock ridges and steep snow up to 45 degrees. Equivalent to PD, PD+
Best time to visit
Guidebooks in this area
5 routes · Alpine Climbing · Hiking
5 of the Best Day Hikes in California
7 routes · Alpine Climbing · Hiking
Towering Trees & Mountain Peaks in Sequoia National Park
10 routes · Alpine Climbing · Hiking
Highpointing the Most Mountainous States in the Lower 48
63 routes · Alpine Climbing · Hiking
The Most Famous Hike in Every US National Park