Mt. Whitney Day Hike, Inyo National Forest, California
Muir (14,015') guards Trail Crest Pass, seen from
Camp at mile 6.2 of the Mt. Whitney Trail.
Mt. Whitney Trail starts climbing right away --
switchbacking upwards through the dry bushes and deadwood
trees that are so characteristic of the eastern escarpment
of the Sieera. If you are dayhiking, you will be in
the dark at this point, hiking with a flashlight/headlamp,
so the scenery won't really matter. Because the trail
is crowded, you will see the firefly-like movements of
hikers above and below you on the many switchbacks.
After about a mile, the trail crosses the North Fork of Lone
Pine Creek over a series of stepping stones.
farther, the switchbacks end and the trail begins climbing
more gradually, finally leaving the hillside over the
Portal. About two and a half miles from the trailhead,
you'll reach a waterfall on Lone Pine Creek. Just past this
is a trail junction leading to Lone Pine Lake. The
main trail continues ahead, and permits are required beyond
this point. The trees and vegetation thin out
perceptibly as you climb through the rocky switchbacks above
Lone Pine Lake. If it is high summer and you left the
trailhead at 4am (my recommendation), the sun will be rising
over the Inyo Mountains to the east right about now,
painting the desert sky in marvelous shades of pink and
blue. As you travel through the moonscape, the rising
sun plays tricks with the flat light on the rocks and sparse
trees. The views back down to Lone Pine and towards
Death Valley are absolutely incredible.
trail flattens out somewhat at Bighorn Park as views upwards
towards Pinnacle Ridge reveal the characteristic granite
spires native to the Whitney region. The trail
eventually feeds into Outpost Camp, a small meadow area
about three and a half miles from the trailhead.
Already above 10,000', you should start feeling the altitude
Outpost Camp, cross the creek (it can be tricky in
high water periods) and ascend more
switchbacks right above the meadow. After about a
mile, you will reach beautiful Mirror Lake, perched below
the impressive buttress of Thor Peak. More climbing on
a rocky, desolate trail brings you to Trailside Meadow,
where a small but beautiful waterfall cascades into an
improbable meadow tucked into the rocky desolation of the
Whitney area. Above Trailside Meadow, you will begin
to see the high peaks, including Mt. McAdie and Mt. Mallory,
to the south of Mt. Whitney. Below these impressive
summits, and after hiking a bit further, you come upon
Consultation Lake (11,700'). About 0.4 miles further,
a small tarn is reached at the top of a small rocky bench --
this is Trail Camp (12,000'), the most popular overnight
spot on the Whitney Trail, and the last reliable source of
water before the summit. FILL UP ALL YOUR WATER
Trail Camp rise the infamous 99 switchbacks that ascend to
Trail Crest Pass (13,600') in about 2.3 miles.
Although the view from the switchbacks down to Trail Camp
and below is gorgeous, the serpentine trail can quickly
become boring as you climb back and forth with the same
views for over two miles. Reaching Trail Crest itself
is a highlight of the hike second only to the summit.
The views open up westward out over Mt. Hitchcock into
Sequoia National Park. From the pass, the trail
descends slightly to a junction with the John Muir Trail,
then climbs another 1,000' or so to the summit. The
2.5 miles from Trail Crest to the summit is unquestionably
the most difficult part of the hike, since you are at such a
high elevation, and the climb, while not steep, is
relentless and the summit always seems so far away.
The last quarter mile below the summit involves hiking up
through a small boulder field -- although on a trail the
entire way. Once on the summit, congratulate yourself,
take some photos and don't forget to drink some water.
don't congratulate yourself too much. Although you've
done 95% of the climbing by this point (there's that small
climb back up to Trail Crest that is a killer), you still
have to hike out ELEVEN MILES. Eleven miles is not to
be taken lightly -- it is the same distance as walking from
the tip of Manhattan to Yankee Stadium. Only this
time, you're descending nearly 6,400 vertical feet, and
you've also just walked eleven miles, straight uphill.
What's more, if you are the average Mt. Whitney dayhiker,
you are probably dehydrated, you have a headache, and you're
either too cold or too hot. Oh yeah, and your feet
hurt like hell.