Mt Whitney Route Guide | The Greatest Peak in the Lower 48
Mt Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, but it’s not a technically challenging mountain to climb. It’s graded as a class 1 hike from trailhead to summit top, however it’s a long 22 miles round-trip, with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Because the mountain is so popular, you’ll need a permit to climb during the best months. Click here to learn more about the lottery permit system. Only climb outside of these seasons if you’ve got serious mountaineering experience and know how to use an ice axe and crampons. Once you’ve got your permit, plan your trip with my Mt Whitney route guide below.
Mt Whitney Route Guide Fast Facts
Mt Whitney Route Guide - Mt Whitney Trail
Mt Whitney is a busy mountain and requires a permit during the prime climbing season during the summer. You can learn more about the lottery and permit system here. If caught without a permit by rangers – who do patrol – you will receive a massive fine. To increase your odds of getting a spot, try to pick week days. Single day permits are also easier to get typically.
Once you’ve got your permit from the National Forest office in Lone Tree, head to the Whitney Portal. I recommend spending a night at the campground to acclimate. You can learn more and reserve a site here. There are also hostels available in Lone Tree.
If you are climbing in one day, start very early, around 2-3am, to ensure to you make it to the summit and down before too late. You can get a more leisurely start if taking two days for your trip. Head out on the Mount Whitney trail along a series of switchbacks as you begin to climb up the steep valley towards the summit far ahead.
A little over 2.7 miles into the hike you’ll pass a turnoff for Lone Pine Lake. It’s below the Mount Whitney Permit Area boundary so it makes for a good acclimation hike if you arrive a day early. Continue past the turnoff to enter the Permit Area (be sure to have yours with you!) and climb a series of switchbacks.
3.3 miles into the hike you’ll enter a meadow area and cross a creek. Continue along the trail to reach Outpost Camp 3.8 miles in, around 10,525 feet. This is a great place to spend the night if you have three days to climb, or if you prefer a longer, lighter summit day. Continue from Outpost Camp up more switchbacks to see Mirror Lake at 4.1 miles in.
From Mirror Lake, climb switchbacks up the large moraine opposite the lake, and then follow the trail along Lone Pine Creek. Climb another short switchback 5 miles in as you approach Trail Camp. Passing Consultation Lake on your left, arrive at Trail Camp 5.9 miles in, around 12,000 feet elevation. This is the more popular high camp for shorter summit days.
From Trail Camp, you face the most daunting part of the climb: the 99 switchbacks (technically there are 97). You’ll follow the trail up these steep sections cut into rock. If you climb in the early summer, be prepared for snow lingering in areas. Microspikes are incredibly helpful. After a good deal of effort, take your last turn at 13,400 feet and hike across and up the slope 150 feet to reach Trail Crest 8 miles in.
You still have 3 miles left to go of exposed hiking near ridgeline. This is a good place to pause and check out the weather. If you see storms building, you should descend to climb another day. Many have been killed or seriously injured by lightning on Mt Whitney’s summit or slopes. If the weather looks good, continue right along the ridge from Trail Crest.
Along this section, you have the opportunity to climb a second of California’s fourteeners, Mt Muir. Click here to see that route. Otherwise, continue along the ridge trail for 3 miles, including several short sections of switchbacks, finally taking you to the summit. You’ll pass the summit house, originally built for research, and find a plaque at the true summit peak, the highest point in the lower 48 states.
Once at the top, enjoy your accomplishment and the stunning views! Be sure you watch for weather and descend with plenty of time to be off the ridge before storms are an issue. Once back to the trailhead, I highly recommend a burger at the Whitney Portal store. I hope you found my Mt Whitney route guide helpful and informative!
My Mt Whitney Route Guide includes this topographical map of the trail and region. You can download this map on your phone or print out a copy to bring with you on your climb. Always bring some hardcopy map in case your digital version fails or breaks.
Use these two sources to check the weather conditions before your trip. Consider the temperature high and low, wind speed, precipitation, and whether there are any storm systems on the horizon to be aware of. No Mt Whitney Route Guide is complete without weather forecasts.
Hiking & climbing 14ers is an inherently high-risk activity – use my Mt Whitney route guide at your own risk, and use the following best practices to help keep yourself safe.
- Bring the Ten Essentials and the knowledge/skill to use them.
- Leave your plans with someone back home along with a detailed itinerary.
- Start early, and end early: Be back at tree line by noon to avoid lightning.
- Check the weather forecast and stay home during inclement weather.
- Research your route and bring a compass & topographic map.
Hiking, scrambling and climbing up California’s high peaks are inherently high-risk, dangerous activities. There is a significant risk of injury or death, even with proper planning and experience. Those using my Mt Whitney Route Guide accept all risks associated with climbing 14ers and do not hold this website or any information they obtain from it liable for any accidents or injuries that occur while engaging in these activities on California’s high peaks. It is each hiker or climber’s responsibility to research their route carefully, bring the ten essentials, and practice other safe practices, though even these precautions do not eliminate risk and danger. Use this Mt Shasta route guide at your own risk.
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.