Backpacking Mount Whitney – The Back Route!

Mount Whitney Permit Infor for Alternate Route from Cottonwood Pass
Mount Whitney Permit Infor for Alternate Route from Cottonwood Pass

Hiking and Backpacking the Mount Whitney Trail

If you’re looking to hike or backpack the Mount Whitney trail, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before you get started. Mount Whitney permits can be very difficult to come by. But, if you don’t make the lottery, don’t worry – there are other options!

For those who are just starting your research, Mount Whitney is this incredibly beautiful peak in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. It is the tallest peak in the contiguous US standing at 14,505 feet. The most popular route to hike the Mount Whitney trail is from the Whitney Portal, which starts at 7,851 feet. The hike is about 22 miles round trip with over 6,100 feet of elevation.

Things to consider for hiking or backpacking Mount Whitney:

  • Hiking and backpacking permit dates and information
  • Are you going to hike or backpack to the summit of Mount Whitney?
  • Which route do you want to hike, and how many days?
  • When is the best time for you to hike the Mount Whitney Trail?

In this article:
Mount Whitney Permits and Information for Planning Your Trip
Mount Whitney Trail Alternative Considerations
Training for the Mount Whitney Trail
Backpacking the Mount Whitney Trail, Day 1 from Horseshoe Meadows to Lower Soldier Lake

 

Mount Whitney Permits and Information for Planning Your Trip

The first thing you’ll need to consider for your trek: Mount Whitney permits. These days, it can be very difficult to get permits for the Whitney portal entry and exit, and even the alternative routes can sell out quickly. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! I promise that no matter how you get to the summit of Mount Whitney…it’ll be worth it.

As you consider your Mount Whitney permit strategy, you have to ask yourself if you want to hike, or backpack. If you want to hike, you really don’t have any other option but the Whitney Portal trail. However, if you’re open to backpacking, you’ll want to do some research on which route you want to hike. Below I’ll share information on my preferred hike from Cottonwood Pass or New Army Pass to Guitar Lake, up to the summit of Mount Whitney, and down the portal route. But before we get to that, let’s talk about some more information about how to get Mount Whitney permits.

The lottery for Mount Whitney permits for the portal trail opens February 1 and closes March 15, with all applications processed on March 15.

I believe they let something like 100-day hikers through, and 60 backpackers, each day. I don’t believe that includes through trekkers from other entry points. The Whitney Portal trail is 22 miles with about 6,100 feet of elevation gain. It’s a tough hike, but can be done in a day by those who want to start at 3 am and finish in the dark.

If you are concerned about getting a permit for the Whitney Portal trail in the lottery, you can opt to do a multi-day backpacking trek starting elsewhere and exiting the Whitney portal trail. These trails generally do not have a lottery, but they do have a quota and you will still need a Mount Whitney permit, so you’ll still need to plan ahead. In general, reservations usually open 6 months prior to your hiking date, but some places have their own nuances. Check that specific trail for exact details. That being said, I’d plan to get your Mount Whitney permits at least 6 months in advance because many trailheads will sell out the day they open.

If you’re not sure when permits open for your selected trailhead, look for that local ranger station and give them a call – they’re very nice, helpful, and knowledgeable!

So, now you should have an idea of what route you want to go, and when permits open for that trailhead – next you’ll want to decide when you want to go. If you’re new to hiking or backpacking, I generally recommend going in August or September when the weather is most ideal and you won’t have to deal with snow. I think snow is fun, but if you’re not experienced and don’t know how to properly use an ice axe or crampons, you could end up in serious trouble. If you are experienced with snow hiking and mountaineering, it can be much less crowded and more fun to go in July or October! Everything from November to June should really be reserved for those who are very experienced as there will be a lot of snow to circumnavigate.

Okay! So, you’ve chosen your dates, you know where you’re going, and you know when you’ll have to secure your permits! Oh – I also recommend having backup dates in case your dates sell out. Now, on to details of the trek!

Mount Whitney Trail Alternative Considerations

 

Mount Whitney Permits and Trail Information
Mount Whitney Permits and Trail Information

As noted above, if you’re concerned you won’t be able to get a permit for the Mount Whitney trail via the portal route, read more for my favorite alternative route. This is only for backpacking as it covers about 40 miles, and I recommend doing it over 4 to 5 days.

My (actual) life of adventures started back in 2010, and it came on fast and strong. I suddenly hit this point in my life where I realized I wanted something more, something bigger. The solution? All things outdoors that I thought were hard and scary. I started running, something I had never pushed myself to do before (seriously, not even a mile). I started hiking more. And I decided on hiking the Mount Whitney trail, with a backpack, for 4 days.

One way to skirt around the lottery is to find another route nearby where you can secure Mount Whitney permits. There are a few out there – many people get Mount Whitney permits along the John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. It’s also accessible from other trailheads in Inyo National Forest, depending on how much time you have. My friend had previously done the trek from Horseshoe Meadows campground (south of Mount Whitney), so we decided to try that route!

Although you don’t have to worry about the Mount Whitney Portal lottery with these alternative routes, you do still have to consider the quota for your dates. In 2011 there were a ton of open Mount Whitney permits entering at Horseshoe Meadows and exiting at the Whitney Portal trail so we had no problem. Most recently in August 2016, the permits sold out within the first month.

So, we booked our Mount Whitney permits, and then it was time to train and get all the gear we needed. I had never actually gone backpacking before. Some of my friends were very experienced backpackers and mountaineers, and I was ready to learn and do all I could to be ready. I had gone camping enough that I wasn’t afraid to get dirty, but I had never had to carry all I needed on my back. I was ready for the challenge.

Read on and follow my friends and me as our rather-difficult-hike turned into so much more than that! And if you’re looking for a backpacking checklist or gear recommendations, click the links to read more to get you prepped!

Training for the Mount Whitney Trail

To train for the long Mount Whitney trail from Horseshoe Meadows campground, we hiked…a lot. I’d put rocks and cans of food in my pack to add weight, and I’d hike all around San Diego whenever I could. Cowles Mountain was great (also much less crowded a trail in 2011). It’s only 1.5 miles to the top with about 1,000 feet of elevation, but if you move quickly with some weight on your back, it’s really great training. We did El Cajon Mountain which is a SUPER bitch – make sure to bring enough water! Mount Woodson with our full packs which was great, Mount Baldy is a favorite, and we did a quick overnight at Mount San Jacinto to get used to the elevation.

As July got closer, we felt relatively conditioned for a difficult trek, but what we didn’t expect is how much snow there would still be! Of course, the first year we decided to hike the Mount Whitney trail was a record breaking year for snow levels and in July there was still a ton of snow in some areas.

Backpacking the Mount Whitney trail was now looking like it was going to be exponentially more difficult, and we would need crampons and ice axes. My friend sent me a video of people glissading to get me and my fear of heights prepped for what I may need to do at some point. He wanted me to be able to cry ahead of time rather than as we’re ready to go down the hill.

We got to Lone Pine the night before our trek and set up camp at Horseshoe Meadows. From Lone Pine, you start down the road to Whitney Portal, but a few miles down you make a left turn. Then it’s about 20/30 minutes to Horseshoe Meadows campground where you begin the hike to Mount Whitney.

We had some work to do in shuttling cars which took some time. Since our Mount Whitney trail permits were for a through-hike, we’d be leaving one car at Horseshoe Meadows, and another at the bottom of Whitney Portal. We dropped our gear at Horseshoe Meadows, drove the other car to the Portal trail, and then back up to Horseshoe Meadows for the night. It was helpful sleeping at Horseshoe Meadows campground which sits around 9,000 feet to get our bodies started on acclimatizing.

The next morning, my experienced friend and our team leader had us empty our bags so that he could go through and get rid of whatever we didn’t really need. We would be backpacking the Mount Whitney trail for 4 days and covering about 40 miles or so, so the less weight the better. Especially for those of us whose bodies were not at all used to this!

Backpacking the Mount Whitney Trail, Day 1

Horseshoe Meadows to Lower Soldier Lake (~10 miles)

Mount Whitney Trail Day 1 from Horseshoe Meadows Campground to Lower Soldier Lake
Mount Whitney Trail Day 1 from Horseshoe Meadows Campground to Lower Soldier Lake

Our Mount Whitney permits had us start day one towards New Army Pass (note, you can also take Cottonwood Pass – both will get you to the same place). Both are around 10 miles or so – click the map above for more details.

The camping area we wanted by Lower Soldier Lake was supposedly just on the other side of the pass, and we were ready to go! There were some thunderclouds in the distance so we all discussed procedures if a storm came through, and we set off on day 1.

The hike started out flat on a sandy trail through the trees, crossed a stream, and gradually went a bit uphill. We passed a beautiful lake and stopped for pics as we looked up at New Army Pass. New Army Pass reaches 12,300 feet at the top, and the bottom of the pass is around 10,000, so there’s a bit of elevation gain. We started up the switchbacks, and before we knew it…we were out of trail and there was only snow left. The only way over was to climb up the snowy mountain pass. Yup. Straight up.

Of course, my first reaction was a “you want me to hike up there?!?” look, but before I could really protest, we were all putting our crampons on and following our fearless leader. We had 2 well-experienced dudes, 1 dude who wasn’t very experienced but is like a darn mountain goat and can climb anything with the biggest pack, and then us 2 fairly inexperienced chics. Us girls were outdoorsy, but this was really the first time we had done anything like this.

Up we went, one slow step at a time until we realized there was a large cornice we could not get over. (Note – we did consider ropes to hold us together, but the conditions of the snow were favorable enough that our crampons and our poles held us very well. However, hindsight certainly is a thing.)

To the side of us, there was a rock face that looked like our only option over the pass, so we headed towards that. It was terrifying. One foot, two foot, pole, pole, breathe. One foot, two foot, pole, pole, breathe. The whole way. Earlier in the day, we had gotten warm so we unzipped the bottom part of our pants which felt lovely. Now that we were leaning up against the snow so as to not fall backward from the weight of our packs, our knees were bright red! It was a slow process, but we all moved together, careful not to make any mistakes.

A very dark storm cloud appeared in the distance and seemed to be heading our way, and that had my very red knees shaking a bit as I held onto my two lightning rods (hiking poles). Luckily, a larger puffy white cloud came and seemed to push the storm cloud in a different direction, and we pushed on towards the top of the pass.

Finally, after a LONG and tedious struggle with the snow, we made it to the rock face! Woohoo!

HA! Nope. Not that easy. We all stopped to take a breath while our leader went to check things out and I heard him say “uh, guys, I don’t know if we can get up this way…” and that was it. “Call the helicopter, I’m done!” was my first reaction (I can be a bit dramatic sometimes…). He quickly followed by telling me to drop my pack and come over to where he was.

He had hoisted himself about 15 feet up the rock face with a rope hanging down for me to put around my body. I climbed up to him, and then above him and was able to make it up to the pass. I removed the rope, kneeled down on the ground, and cried for about 5 seconds out of pure happiness. We worked to hoist all the packs up to me at the top, and then one by one, each of our group made it up as well. We enjoyed a delicious celebratory lunch of salami and cheese and rested, feeling like we were almost there.

Ha! Nope.

The top of New Army Pass was flat and there was no snow, which was exciting. We weren’t quite on the Mount Whitney trail, but we knew where we needed to go, so after lunch, we set off towards the campground. Our Mount Whitney permits had us spending the night a Lower Soldier Lake which was really just on the other side of New Army Pass. To get there sounded easy in theory. It wasn’t. Normally without snow, the trail is pretty easy to follow, but under our conditions, it was a very different story.

The other side of New Army Pass was, unfortunately, a complete scree. Even large boulders that you thought were secure would go flying down the pass from a light step. The mountain goat, of course, had no problems and skipped down easily, while us girls were…well…slightly terrified. At some points, I would literally sit on my tush and scooch down because there was no place for me to safely plant my feet!

Eventually, we all made it down in one piece. We got to the camping area at Lower Soldier Lake just before dark, and I barely had enough energy to stay up long enough to eat dinner. I was told it was a must, so I ate what I could, and then slept harder than I ever have before. The campground has designated camping areas, and they have bear bins which are nice to store all your food and toiletries.

Heading down the scree - no trail in sight...
Heading down the scree – no trail in sight…

 

Day 1 of backpacking the Mount Whitney trail had been far more difficult than we anticipated, and we still had 3 days to go. Day 2 to Guitar Lake was scheduled to be a lot longer, in terms of mileage, but we were hoping the trail would at least be clear of snow! We were tired, but we had come too far to turn back now.


Follow along on my Mount Whitney backpacking adventure:

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