Hiking and Backpacking Mount Whitney, CA
Looking to visit Mount Whitney in CA? Here is some info to get you started!
Whether you’re looking to hike Mount Whitney in a day or spend a few days backpacking, I’ll share some basic information for elevation, distance, and permitting.
After that, I’ll share more specific tips to get you to the summit of the beautiful Mount Whitney and down successfully!
Information About Mount Whitney in CA
- Mount Whitney in CA is the tallest mountain peak in the lower 48 states.
Mount Whitney Elevation: 14,505 feet
- Mount Whitney stands in the Sierra Nevada mountain range just West of the small town of Lone Pine, California.
Lone Pine and the surrounding area is home to many, many films because of its diverse landscape – including Iron Man, Star Wars, and Tremors.
- With its increasing popularity over the last few years, they have had to add a lottery for hiking and backpacking Mount Whitney via the Portal route. This route goes from the Whitney Portal to the summit and back down the same route.
The lottery for Whitney Portal trail permits is open from February 1 to March 15, and all applications are processed on March 15. If you are selected, you must accept by April 30.
- The Mount Whitney CA trail starts around 8,360 feet. You hike 22 miles round trip with about 6,100 feet of elevation gain. It’s no easy task, that’s for sure! There are people who do it in a day, but others will hike up and camp at either Outpost Camp or Trail Crest Camp. If you’re camping, you can do the trail in 2 or 3 days (sometimes more if you really want to take it slow and enjoy).
Important note: In the Mount Whitney zone, if you have to poop while hiking or backpacking you are required to poop in a wag bag and carry it out. You can buy wag bags online or at the Ranger Station, and although the concept is a little weird, it’s very important for preservation. Far too many people manage to poop in the bag, but then irresponsibly leave their wag bag around for someone else to pick up. Please don’t be like those losers. With the amount of traffic that this poor mountain sees, we need to protect her and keep her clean. If you’re not comfortable pooping in a bag, hold it, or please consider not hiking.
- If you want to avoid the lottery to hike Mount Whitney in CA, there are other routes you can take to the summit. You can be a real badass and mountain climb up the Eastern face or you can find some connecting routes off the JMT. I like the route from Horseshoe Meadows Campground through the Cottonwood area, to Guitar Lake, and down the Portal route. So many options!
- The weather at Mount Whitney in CA varies by season, obviously, but if you don’t have experience with snow, your best bet is going around August or September.
- In heavy snow season,s much of the trail will still be covered in July, and October always has the chance of new snow.
- The weather along the hike in August and September is generally warm, but as you get towards the summit, it can get pretty windy. Layers are important.
- With the crazy mountain weather, there’s always a chance of thunderstorms on Mount Whitney! It’s best to plan for a summit before 2 pm to avoid afternoon storms.
- If you go the route I do, the weather of Mount Whitney from Guitar Lake could very well be downright cold in August (it was for us!).
- Basically, as far as the weather on Mount Whitney – layer up, and check the weather close to your trip. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean it will be warm!
Whichever route you go, read on for a few tips and tricks that will help you have the trip of a lifetime hiking or backpacking Mount Whitney in CA!
Tips for Hiking or Backpacking Mount Whitney in CA
Do your research
This pretty much applies to any trek, and you’re reading this so that’s a good start! But in doing your research, you’ll at least be prepared to secure your permits for Mount Whitney in CA before they’re gone (or get into the lottery in time). And you’ll know your route and what it entails. What will the weather be on Mount Whitney when you’re going? Hot, cold, rain, snow? You don’t want to be stuck cold at Guitar Lake. I’ve done it. It’s unpleasant without the right gear.
You’ll want to know where you’ll be able to get water along the way – you definitely don’t want to be stuck out there without water! And you’ll want to know where you’ll be able to camp along the Mount Whitney trail. And, are you prepared for marmots? You should be!
Backpacking Mount Whitney in CA is no joke. I’ve heard stories of people in great shape ending up with altitude sickness close to the summit and having to turn around, so please don’t underestimate her.
Whichever route you take, it will be difficult and you want to be smart, and be prepared. If you don’t live at altitude, it’s hard to train for that, but you can train your body for the hills that it will meet. Run sprints uphill, get on the stair master, do a bunch of squats (come on, you can hold more than those 5lb dumbbells, girl!). Throw some rocks in a backpack and go for a bunch of long hikes.
It may sound uncomfortable right now, but I guarantee it will help you when you’re up on that mountain climbing 1,000 feet of elevation over a pass at 11,000 feet elevation. And certainly when summiting Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet of elevation! The last 1.5 miles is certainly the hardest, but your training will help you.
3. Plan out your food ahead of time
If you’re going to hike or backpack Mount Whitney in CA with a group, it’s easiest to share your meals so that you don’t double up on things. Coordination will help cut away unnecessary weight, even for you day hikers.
For backpackers, pre-packaged meals are nice and light for dinner, or if you have a dehydrator and want to learn how to make your own meals you can try that route (hit me up if you want more info!). They also have great breakfast meals, but hard boiled eggs or oatmeal always work great.
For lunch, you likely won’t want to stop and prepare a whole meal. It’s usually best to plan on things like peanut butter and tortilla rolls, protein bars, jerky, salami, hard cheese and other snacks. Have one person carry the tortilla rolls, and the other carries the meats and cheese.
Whatever you do, make sure you eat plenty of calories and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! At elevation, you’ll need those calories and hydration to keep you from getting altitude sickness as you reach the summit of Mount Whitney.
4. Coordinate your gear
Again, if you’re backpacking Mount Whitney with a group, you likely don’t all need a stove and fuel. It’s best to sit down with everyone ahead of time and make a backpacking checklist of who is bringing what. Also, please don’t be like Cheryl Strayed from Wild and wait until the morning of your trek to pack your gear into your pack.
Don’t wait to try your gear until you need it. Do a trial run when packing! Make sure you have spare batteries for things like your headlamp or other electronics. Is your water purifier cleaned out? Any new holes in your sleeping pad? Trial runs will help a ton!
Also, during your trial run, pack everything in once or twice to make sure it will all fit, and that it’s not too heavy! You’d be surprised how many things you’ll likely end up leaving behind that you really don’t need. And, on that summit day, you’ll be grateful you did.
5. Be smart with the altitude
After going to Everest Base Camp at just under 18,000 feet, 14,505 doesn’t sound all that bad. But, if you’re coming from sea level….it’s exactly all that bad. Don’t let it fool you.
If you’re able to, camp at altitude the night before your trek so that your body has the night to try and acclimate. Also, consider talking to your doctor about getting Diamox. I used it for the Everest trek and had no altitude issues (but I also ate plenty and hydrated well!).
On the trail, take it slow. Pace yourself. Don’t be the one who books it to the top, only to throw up 2 miles from the summit and have to turn downhill. This actually happened to the people who passed us on day 3 heading to the summit of Mount Whitney from Guitar Lake…poor girl.
Hydration tablets or powders are a great idea – they’re light and help fill your body with electrolytes.
The best advice my friend gave me the first time we backpacked Mount Whitney in CA was to bring my absolute favorite snacks. You’ll need something your body will tolerate when it doesn’t want anything else at altitude. My go-to is chewy chips ahoy cookies and Oreos.
6. Have a map, and know how to use it
If you’re backpacking Mount Whitney in CA via the portal route, a map isn’t super necessary. You’ll be trekking with everyone else and the trail is pretty clear (unless you hike when there’s still snow).
But, if you’re going to go a back route, it’s a really good idea to know where you’re going. There are many more trails and mini trails that break off and we don’t want you getting lost out there! Have a compass on hand and know how to use it with your map.
7. Consider bringing a good, quality camera
Especially if you’re going one of the back routes to the summit of Mount Whitney in CA, it may be worth the weight. It is SO incredibly beautiful out there. iPhone cameras do just fine, but with the stars, you’ll see and the mountains and the colors…wow. If you like photography and beautiful memories, leave something less important behind and take your camera. You won’t be disappointed.
8. Treat yo’self!
The last few miles of any hike suck. Your body knows you’re almost done, almost to the end, soon you can give up, and it starts to give up on you. It starts to get tired. You start to feel the pain. It’s that much harder to take each step.
I personally like to use food as a motivator, and I treat myself for the hard work. In&Out works great, but unfortunately, there are no In&Outs close to Lone Pine, so at least the pancakes and bacon at the Whitney Portal will hold you over after your Mount Whitney summit and keep you moving! Just make sure to pay attention to the time as they stop serving breakfast at I think 11. We made it just in time our last summit! They’ll still serve you lunch, but no pancakes.
And you want the pancakes.