Mount Whitney, of the California Sierra Nevada, holds numerous distinctions. It is the highpoint of both Tulare & Inyo counties. It is the highest peak in the Sierra, & indeed in all of California. Finally, it rises higher than any piece of land in the United States outside of Alaska.
Mount Whitney's elevation stature continues to intrigue the human psyche, both from a civilian as well as a governmental perspective. Its elevation seems to be continually evaluated and reevaluated using the newest technologies, perpetually changing (usually in an upward trend) the mountain's height. The NPS plaque on the mountain lists Whitney's official height at 14,496.811 feet. The most recent observations by NGS (National Geodetic Survey)/NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) put it at 14,505' (4,421m)- thanks Eleutheros!
All this being said, it is still no 5,000m (let alone 6,000 or 7,000m) peak. It would be a minor (if somewhat steep on certain aspects) foothill in any of the Earth’s great ranges. It harbors no glaciers. A huge number of people, possessing little wilderness skills or technical expertise, manage to run, hike, &/or crawl their way to the top of this large piece of exposed granite each year via the uninspiring Mt. Whitney trail.
The attributes which make Mt. Whitney a truly great mountain are frequently overlooked. History, commanding position, excellent rock, its great east face & ‘subsidiary’ needles, & a tantalizing selection of routes are arguably the bread & butter of Mt. Whitney. During the winter months, delightful opportunities also exist for the ski mountaineer / backcountry snowboarder.
While its gentle western slopes would hardly inspire the hardened mountaineer, Whitney’s east face, erupting 2,000 ft. above cold & serene Iceberg Lake, draws the climber’s eye upward & makes them yearn. Whitney’s subsidiary needles, (to the south of the main east face), are awe-inspiring enough by themselves, & have their own epics, legends, & lore firmly established.
The proximity of the highest point in the continental US with the lowest point in North America has not escaped notice. The Badwater Ultramarathon, begun officially in 1987, takes some of the most masochistic individuals imaginable from Badwater (Death Valley) to the lofty summit of Mt. Whitney. Before this was ‘en vogue,’ Stan Rodefer and Jim Burnworth of San Diego became the first people to do the Badwater/Whitney (Lowest/Highest) hike in recorded history, in October 1969. They took 2 weeks, crossed the dreaded salt flats and hiked a direct route not using roads or any other conveniences (this was documented by the Park Rangers and in a November 4, 1969 San Diego Tribune article entitled "Hikers View High, Low Sites in the U.S.”). Props. Ouch.
Navigate to the Whitney Portal. This is the trailhead for both the Mount Whitney Trail and the Mountaineer's Route as well as many other mountaineering and climbing routes on Mount Whitney, Mount Russell, and Mount Carillon. Take US-395 to Lone Pine and then turn west on Whitney Portal Road. In 13 miles, you will reach Whitney Portal at an elevation of 8,365 feet. Bears have been known to frequent this trailhead so do not leave food in your car during bear season - there's a reason why all the garbage cans are bear-proofed. During winter, the last 6 miles of this road are not plowed.
The 11-mile Mount Whitney Trail (class 1) is the easiest and most popular route to the summit and is often done as a strenuous 22-mile day hike. During the summer and autumn months, only sneakers are necessary to ascend this summit from the Whitney Portal trailhead at 8,365 feet, however, earlier in the season, an ice axe and crampons may be required. Many people will appreciate taking two days to do this hike, spending a night at Outpost Camp or Trail Camp. An interesting time to visit is the month of April, before the quota season starts, when the snowpack is firmer and Trail Camp becomes a base camp for groups hanging out in the winter alpine scenery using their 2-way radios to talk to those above Trail Crest.
Permits are required year-round, however, a quota is in place for the Mount Whitney Zone from May 1 to November 1 depending whether you are on the Mount Whitney Trail or others, e.g. the Mountaineer's Route (differences described below). Permit information is available on the Inyo National Forest page. During other times, a self-issued wilderness permit is required which can be made at the Mount Whitney Ranger Station in Lone Pine, not at Whitney Portal (see Mountain Conditions section below for the ranger station address). You can also check the Whitney Portal Store Message Board for people who have extra openings on their permits.
Between May 1 and November 1, there is a quota of 60 overnight hikers and 100 day hikers in effect. 100% of these permits are made available via advanced reservations made during February of the same year (reservations accepted by mail or fax), however permit processing does not begin until February 15. These get taken quickly for weekends and overnights, however, weekday quotas often are not filled. For open slots, permit requests can be made after May 1 (reservations accepted by mail, fax, or phone). Reservations cost $15/person, however, walk-in permits, if any are available, are free. There is now also an explicit "Trail Crest" Exit permit/quota for people who just use the Whitney Trail as a descent route, say for the Mountaineers Route. Luckily for those of us who don't want to bother with quotas, travel between November 2 and April 30 requires only a self-issued wilderness permit.
The two popular campgrounds on this trail are Outpost Camp at 10,335' and Trail Camp at 12,000' at 3.8 and 6.2 miles from the trailhead respectively. Those feeling the effects of the altitude will want to stay at Outpost Camp, however, most people making a multi-day trip stay at Trail Camp. During "bear season," you should be prepared for both bears and marmots. In recent years, bears have been known to make it up to Trail Camp so bear-resistant food containers are now required for overnight trips along the Mount Whitney Trail between May 25 and October 31. If you do not have a bear-canister, rangers will ask you to "leave the area." As for marmots, you may want to keep your tent pinned down with rocks and leave it open along with your pack so they won't feel compelled to chew through your gear to satisfy their curiosity.