Inyo National Forest: Whitney Portal to Mount Whitney (2 days / 21 miles)

Ah, Mount Whitney. It’s one of the most famous – and most sought after – hiking trails in the United States. Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the Lower 48, standing at 14,505 feet. After multiple unsuccessful attempts landing a permit, in 2023 my group got an overnight permit for a Saturday at the end of August.

We car camped at Horseshoe Meadows (10,000 ft) the night before, then camped at Trail Camp (12,000 ft) on Saturday. We summited on Sunday morning and then made it all the way back to the car Sunday evening. This trip was equally incredible as it was challenging (the definition of Type 2 fun).

Trip Completed: August 2023


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Whitney Portal Trailhead

Ending Point: Whitney Portal Trailhead

Distance: 21 miles

Elevation Gain: ~7000ft

Duration: 2 days

Difficulty: Advanced

Location: Inyo National Forest, John Muir Wilderness

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: No guidebook used.

Map: AllTrails Mount Whitney Trail – I have AllTrails+ so I was able to download the map for offline use.

Permits & Reservations

Permits: Permits for Mount Whitney are issued through a lottery and it can be difficult to get one. According to the USDA, only 28% of permit applications are successful.

This page on the Inyo National Forest website has information on the permit process. Basically, there is a period starting in March when you can apply for a permit. In your application, you can choose up to 10 dates. Once the deadline closes, there is a lottery and it just comes down to luck. If you’re chosen, you’ll have until a certain date to accept the permit and pay the fee.

You need to print your permit and the trip leader needs to sign in. There is a deadline to print your permit – for overnight hikers, you need to print your permit before 12pm (noon) the day before your entry date. Carry your permit on you (a park ranger will check on the trail).

Outfitters & Shuttles

Shuttles: No shuttle is needed, as this route starts and ends at the Whitney Portal Trailhead. 

Outfitter: If you need to rent gear, I recommend getting it from Sports Basement or REI. I recently broke my tent poles, so I rented a tent from Sports Basement for the weekend. If you need a bear canister, you can get one from either of these places or you can rent one from the visitor’s centre in Lone Pine.

Know Before You Go

Season: Whitney permits are available between May and October. You can do the route outside of these periods without a permit, but it requires much more technical hiking and mountaineering skills. Within the regular season, May and June will likely still have lots of snow and chilly nights. Same with late August through October.

Cell Reception: We did not have any cell reception on the trail, and we had spotty cell service on the road leading up to the trailhead. We carried a Garmin inReach.

Water: There are streams / lakes throughout most of the hike to trail Camp. Bring a filter, pump or tablets to purify the water. After Trail Camp, there was basically no water. We each carried at least 2L of water (in hindsight I would carry at least 3L) and I packed my small stove in case we needed to boil water for additional water.

Wildlife: We didn’t see any wildlife except for chipmunks at Trail Camp. Bear vaults / canisters are required on this trail for food storage – the park ranger checked that we had one.

Drones: Whitney is a strict no drone zone.

Waste: All waste must be packed out. And that includes solid human waste. There are WAG bags available at the trailhead. There is also a special garbage receptacle at the trailhead specifically for used WAG bags.

Trip Report

Day 0: Horseshoe Meadows Campground

We left the Bay Area at 12:30pm. We would have liked to have left earlier, but none of us could take the full day off work so we settled for a half day. The drive was long and uneventful. Much of Highway 5 is a straight line south with farms on either side; we got excited when we would hear the GPS signal a turn was coming.

I took over driving just before Highway 58, which runs east under the Sierras. This part was a beautiful winding single lane road. Not advisable at night! After ~7 hours on the road, we made it to Lone Pine, the gateway town to the Eastern Sierras. We got gas and had a quick dinner. It was already getting dark, and we still had 45 minutes to go.

We left Lone Pine and drove west, starting our ascent into the Sierras. Originally, we’d booked a night at the Whitney Portal Campground, which is a car campground right at the trailhead. However, a tropical storm had come through a week prior and washed out the campground, cancelling the reservation (a tropical storm in the driest place in North America… what are the odds). That left us without a campsite reservation, but it worked out for the best.

Campsite: Horseshoe Meadows Campground is part of Inyo National Forest and doesn’t require reservation. It’s about a hour from the trailhead, but unlike Whitney Portal Campground (which sits at about 7800 ft), Horseshoe Meadows Campground sits at 10,000 feet and offers a better opportunity to acclimatize to the altitude. If I were to do this trip again, I would choose Horseshoe Meadows over Whitney Portal.

Even though we arrived at 9pm, there were plenty of available tent spaces. There was a deposit box for paying the $10 campsite fee. Each campsite had a picnic table and bear box for food.

Day 1: Whitney Portal Trailhead to Trail Camp (5.6 miles)

We were up bright and early, around 6:00am. We took down camp, prepared lunch for the next two days (wraps, of course) and ate oatmeal before beginning the drive. We left Horseshoe Meadows around 7:30am and drove to Whitney Portal Trailhead. It took us about an hour; we had to drive all the way down the mountain and then up a different mountain road.

I was anxious about what to expect at the trailhead. I had the permit (signed!) in my backpack and I had read online that you could get WAG bags at the trailhead. But I was still concerned there would be some complication.

Sure enough, everything went smoothly. We parked in the overflow parking lot and walked our gear 300 ft to the trailhead. There was an outhouse, WAG bags, park information and a scale to weigh backpacks at the trailhead. Across the group our bags weighed 28, 31 and 35 lbs. Not exactly ultralight, but not too bad either.

And so, a little before 9:00am, the hike began.

Trailhead to the Whitney Zone Border (2.2 miles): The trail immediately kicks off with elevation gain. There is a series of switchbacks that take your from 8300 ft to 10,000 ft in 2.2 miles. Throughout this section, you can see the desert plain surrounding Lone Pine the entire time, which makes it feel like you’re not making much progress. It’s a beautiful view coming down, but going up I was more focused on the trail ahead.

There are two small streams that flow over the trail in this section. In normal conditions, they aren’t even streams. Just a damp section of trail. With the recent storms, however, the creeks were flowing and we had to use our poles and balance on rocks to avoid getting out boots wet.

Once you reach the Whitney Zone there is a temporary relief from elevation gain. You’ll know you’re in the ‘Whitney Zone’ by the sign – it reminds visitors that they need a special permit to go further (for both day hikes and camping). We had the permit, of course, so we pushed on.

Whitney Zone Border to Outpost Camp (1 mile): The section from here to Outpost Camp is probably the easiest section on the trail. It’s 1 mile and only 200 ft of elevation gain. It was also one of my favourite sections. The trail is lined with towering granite cliffs, with huge trees beneath them. There was even a waterfall. Outpost Camp would be a fantastic place to camp if you were doing Mount Whitney in three days instead of two.

During this section, we encountered a park ranger who checked out permit and that we had a bear canister (I had to open my backpack so he could see it). He gave us an overview of conditions and answered a few questions we had about Trail Camp and summiting.

Outpost Camp to Trailside Meadow (1.6 miles): The elevation gain starts again once we left Outpost Camp. There was a series of steep, tiring switchbacks. Between miles 3.2 and 4.8, the trail gains 1000 ft of elevation.

About halfway through this section, there’s a short detour to Mirror Lake – it’s just an extra 200 ft to the lake, so I highly recommend stopping here for lunch or an extended break. We could see a deer across the lake eating. I took this as an opportunity to swim; the water was expectedly frigid and by ‘swim’ I mean ‘dunk my body in the water and get out as fast as possible’. 

(Note: If I’m going to swim in an alpine lake or sensitive environment while hiking, I have a policy to not have any chemicals on my skin, including sunscreen).

Trailside Meadow to Trail Camp (0.8 miles): My hiking partners thought Trailside Meadow was the prettiest part of the trail. There was a sizeable stream of meltwater coming down the left side of the trail, surrounded by green bushes and purple flowers. After the switchbacks from Mirror Lake, we were tired and took a quick break here.

During our break, we saw a large group coming down the trail; two people were supporting a woman. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. We had just left our break when we heard a helicopter overhead. Over the next 20 minutes, we watched it land on an exposed rock face and we were able to piece together the rest of the story from other hikers. The group had made it to Trail Crest (about 13,000 ft) when the woman became extremely disoriented, acting belligerent and throwing up – definite evidence of altitude sickness. They were able to call for help and walk here down 2,000 ft to be rescued by SAR. It was a sobering reminder that altitude sickness is no joke.

The section to Trail Camp had yet more elevation to gain. I had mistakenly expected that the lack of switchbacks might indicate the elevation gain would slow down; it did not. By this point, there were very few trees around us. Just a lot of granite and, even in late August, snow. Although the snow would suggest otherwise, it was very warm with no trees to offer protection from the sun. (Considering my previous comment, it should be noted that put sunscreen on my face after the swim and wore a hooded sun shirt).

Despite the lack of notable features, the trail was quite easy to follow. There are frequent ‘steps’ in the rocks (big thanks to whomever is responsible for those), indicating where to go.

At last we reached Trail Camp and 12,000 ft of altitude. It was 3:00pm, meaning it had taken us about 6.5 hours to go 5.6 miles and 3,700 ft of elevation gain.

That sounds impressively slow, but hiking at this altitude was new to all of us and we wanted to pace ourselves, especially given the tough day we would have tomorrow. I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude; the final section, from Trailside Meadow had been much more tiring than I expected. Even on flat parts, I was breathing through my mouth exclusively and was constantly thirsty.

Campsite: Trail Camp is the last campsite before Mount Whitney and the most popular place to camp on the overnighter. The area is a large expanse of granite that can be very windy. Some people have erected little rock walls around the flattest areas to protect tents from wind. If you see one free, these are great places to camp, but the park staff ask that you don’t construct them because they are not natural.

There are no facilities here. Food should be stored in the bear vault at least 100 ft from any tents. Use your WAG bag if you need to poop.

Since we arrived at camp early, we relaxed for a bit. I took a 30 minute nap before starting dinner for the group. A word of caution – be careful when standing up after sleeping at altitude! I was immediately lightheaded and had to sit down a moment before walking to the lake to fill the pot with water.

We had dehydrated meals for dinner, but none of us had a huge appetite. I can usually devour a 2 portion backpacking meal no problem, but I barely finished 2/3 this evening. We went to bed early, knowing we had a very early start to the day.

Day 2: Trail Camp to Whitney Portal Trailhead via Mount Whitney (15.5 miles)

I got up after a restless sleep at 4:00am. After retrieving the bear vault, I got water in the pot and began breakfast. Quick oatmeal to fuel the long day ahead. We didn’t pack up camp (no one does); we just packed water (lots of water) and snacks, and we wore warm layers, headlamps and had microsomes in our backpacks. We met up with another hiker (now four of us in the group) and left camp at 4:45am.

Trail Camp to Trail Crest (3.6 miles):This is a famous section of the trail known as the 97 switchbacks. Yes, someone counted and there are 97 switchbacks between Trail Camp and Trail Crest. You’re basically just walking up the side of the mountains that tower over Trail Camp, gaining 1600 ft over 3.6 miles.

There was short section of flat trail over a patch of snow between Trail Camp and the start of the switchbacks. We’d taken a look at it the night before so we’d be able to find the trail in the snow in the dark morning.

Soon enough, the switchbacks started. I don’t have much to say about this section other than the fact that it’s hard. Some experienced alpine hikers had given us the advice to be very careful about pushing ourselves; don’t let your heart rate get too high. For that reason, we took lots of breaks. Pretty much every 15 minutes, we stopped for a break.

I was really wishing I’d packed electrolytes now. I was feeling so thirsty, but I was frequently peeing – a telltale sign that I was dehydrated, but my salt levels were low and my body couldn’t afford to dilute my blood with more water. I ate beef jerky, for the first time relieved to see how much sodium (and surprisingly, potassium) there was in gas station beef jerky.

The storm had brought in more snow than typical for this time of year, and there were three sections where we needed to cross snowy/icy patches. Had we not had the poles and micro spikes, I don’t think I would have felt comfortable crossing (I understood why so many people had turned around before reaching Trail Crest).

I took us 2.5 hours to climb the switchbacks. We saw the sunrise during this part and were able to remove the headlamps.

Trail Crest to Mount Whitney (1.3 miles): Trail Crest is the point where you go from hiking on the front east-facing side of the mountains to the west-facing side. This brought with it a whole new set of views. There were a few alpine lakes beneath us, and new mountains beyond the lake. The trail itself was cool too – there were sharp, jagged rocks sticking into the air and in between mountains we could see their sharp cliff-like faces.

Up until this point, we hadn’t been able to see Mount Whitney, but after leaving Trail Crest, Whitney came into view. Some people found this disheartening (it looked so far away!) but I found it to be a huge relief. I could see the destination. And it didn’t look that far.

The trail beyond Trail Crest has more elevation gain, obviously, but it’s more varied and less relentless. There are periods of flat terrain and even a few downhill sections (which I took relief in now, but would loathe on the return trip). Although difficult, I liked this section infinitely more than the switchbacks.

Similar to before, we took lots of breaks. I was beginning to develop a tiny headache (dehydration, or altitude – I couldn’t be sure). I monitored my heart rate using my watch and never walked at a pace that got my heart rate above 155 bmp. At times it felt like I had to walk so slowly to maintain this. 

The most challenging part of this section was the final push to the summit. The storm had brought it so much snow that the trail was completely concealed. The alternative was to walk straight up the bolder field, a slightly more challenging route. Since there wasn’t a predefined path, we all took slightly different routes up.

Knowing this was the last elevation to gain, I had a newfound determination to push. If only I’d had the oxygen to match it. I was able to take 20 steps at a time, then pause for five breaths, then take 20 steps again. I took about 10 minutes of this, but at last I made it to the top. YES.

From Trail Crest, it had taken us two hours to go 1.3 miles and 1,100 feet.

Whitney Summit: We spent an hour at the summit, taking in the view, taking photos with the Mount Whitney signs and signing the visitor book. I was beginning to feel the effects of altitude and was developing a slight headache. Our new hiking friend had some canned air and gave me some. Call it the placebo effect if you want, but a few whiffs of that did make me feel better.

Whitney Summit to Trail Crest: We lost about 15 minutes of time trying to figure out how to get down Whitney. We tried the snow covered trail, following AllTrails, but that was a bust and we returned to the boulder-scramble section. From there, the return journey to Trail Crest was much quicker than it had been toward Whitney, but there were still numerous, short uphill sections that winded me. The final 300 ft to Trail Crest were among the hardest steps I took on the entire trip. Thankfully, that was basically the last uphill section for the rest of the day. Including the slowdown at the beginning, this section took us about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Trail Crest to Trail Camp: Getting down the switchbacks was so fast and easy. If you have bad knees, I could see it being difficult (but poles help a lot). We got this section done in around an hour, with no breaks.

We spent about 45 minute packing up camp, eating lunch and resting before the final push to the trailhead.

Trail Camp to Whitney Portal Trailhead: Getting down this section was similarly fast. It took us about 3 hours to retrace our steps down the mountain, and the trail was very easy to follow.

We reached the car at 7pm, threw out our garbage (and WAG bags) and began the long drive home.

Reflections

Day Trip vs Overnight: About half of the available permits are for the day hike. These hikers typically start at 2am and do the entire hike up and back down in a single day. I personally cannot fathom doing that. 1) I need more time to acclimate to the altitude. 2) That is so much elevation gain for a single day. Unless you are a hiking beast, I would not suggest attempting it as a day hike.

Additional Items to Pack: As mentioned above, I strongly recommend bringing hiking poles and ice cleats / micro-spikes. There can be snow at the top of Whitney at any time of year, and these items will make it much safer to cross snowy/icy patches.

Be Careful with the Altitude: 14,000 feet is a lot! Take is easy and pace yourself. Ibuprofen, hydration and electrolytes help a lot. Someone in our group also brought canned oxygen, which I really liked (probably a placebo effect, but it still make my headache ease at the summit). Definitely don’t bring alcohol/cannibas.

Pack as Light as Possible: If there’s anytime to experiment with lightweight backpacking, it’s here. The elevation adds up quickly. My backpack wasn’t terribly heavy (31 lbs including 2L of water and food), but I wish it had been even lighter.


Author Bio

Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading canoeing and hiking trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. She now works in business by day and crafts outdoor education resources by night. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.

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