Whitney or Won't We?

Hiking to the Highest Point in the Lower 48
  |  Gorp.com

The Mt. Whitney Trail is easily the most beaten path in the Sierras, and perhaps the most popular trail in the United States. If you are jonesing for a solitary backcountry experience, look elsewhere. The convenience and novelty of this hike along with the explosion of outdoor sports in the '90s have all combined to transform what was once a remarkable wilderness journey into a lug-soled circus. The path to the highest point in the Lower 48 attracts Lycra-clad tourists from around the globe, who jump at the opportunity to drive a well-paved road all the way up to the trailhead at 8,361 feet, then bag the 14,494 feet, which sits in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. As many as 300 people a day begin the tramp up this famous 11-mile trail. The nutcases among them are actually intent on completing the round trip in a 24-hour period. Some make it, most don't.

There are many other pristine trails in the vicinity of Mt. Whitney where you won't have to jockey for position while you eat lunch beside a gurgling brook, nor wait in line for a seat in a solar latrine. But if you must check off the Whitney summit from your life list, there are hoops to jump through and serious precautions to take.

When three local fisherman — Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas and Al Johnson — became the first to top Whitney in August, 1873, they couldn't have had any idea that 125 years later folks would be forced to book a spot on the trail half a year in advance. Between May 22 and October 15, the U.S. Forest Service requires both day and overnight hikers to obtain a wilderness permit for the Mt. Whitney Trail, which can be reserved up to six months before the day of departure. Do not waste a minute, as quotas for Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays in June, July, August, and September fill up very quickly. Call the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Reservation Service at (888) 374-3773 or (760) 938-1136, or fax them at (760) 938-1137. The phones lines are open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. PST Monday through Friday but are closed between October 30 and November 22. Between October 16 and May 23, only overnight hikers need a permit, which can be self-issued at the Forest Service station in Lone Pine, 640 S. Main Street, 93545. Be sure to acquire overnight permits.

If You're Headed for Mt. Whitney

The town of Lone Pine, California, is the gateway to Mt. Whitney and Cottonwood Lakes. Lone Pine is located on US 395 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, about 207 miles north of Los Angeles and 260 miles south of Reno, Nevada.

Mt. Whitney Trail
The Mt. Whitney Trail begins in the Inyo National Forest about 13 miles west of Lone Pine via Whitney Portal Road. There is ample parking and a small store nearby. From the trailhead at 8,361 feet, the Mt. Whitney Trail winds up 11 miles to the peak at 14,494 feet, the highest point in the continental U.S.Hikers should be prepared for high-altitude conditions and the possibility of severe weather. Practice Leave No Trace camping and avoid lighting any campfires.

Cottonwood Lakes Trail
The Cottonwood Lakes Trail to New Army Pass is reached by driving three miles west of Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road, turning left on Horseshoe Meadow Road, and heading 20 miles to the parking lot. Leave one car at Whitney Portal and drive a second car to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead to begin the hike. From the trailhead at 10,090 feet, the hike covers a total of 42 miles.

For the Mt. Whitney Trail, all hikers must have a U.S. Forest Service permit between May 22 and October 15, which can be reserved up to six months in advance from the administrators of the Inyo National Forest. The quota period for the Cottonwood Lakes Trail is the last Friday in June through September 15.

The Mt. Whitney Trail is shown on the Mount Whitney and Mount Langley USGS topos. Better yet, refer to the Map of the Mount Whitney High Country from Tom Harrison Cartography.

The Cottonwood Pass route is shown on the Cirque Peak, Johnson Peak, Mount Whitney, and Mount Langley USGS topoi.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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