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Mt. Whitney Day Hike, Inyo National Forest, California

 

Mount Muir (14,015') guards Trail Crest Pass, seen from

Trail Camp at mile 6.2 of the Mt. Whitney Trail.


Trail Description:

The 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.  

A bit 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. 

The 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 by now.

From 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 BOTTLES HERE!

Above 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.

However, 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.

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