Climbing Mount Whitney: Tips for tackling the highest peak in the continental United States

One of the most famous climbing or backpacking trips in Northern California is Mount Whitney. At 14,500 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States, and this must-do trek draws intrepid hikers and climbers from around the world. Whitney also marks the southern end of the John Muir Trail and makes for a dramatic end or beginning for through-hikers doing the whole trail.

Very fit hikers can walk the trail to the top, even without ropes and carabiners.Mount Whitney is located at the far eastern edge of Sequoia National Park, just west of the town of Lone Pine. You can see the impressive peak from a few places in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, but you can’t get there from within the parks. There is no road that crosses the parks all the way from west to east. If you’re coming from the west, you have to circle around the parks and enter from the eastern side.

Although Mount Whitney is a very challenging climb, it need not be a technical one. You can climb all the way to the top of Mount Whitney and back in one day if you’re in good shape and prepared properly for the journey. Very fit hikers can walk the trail to the top, even without ropes and carabiners. The climbs up the steep East Face of the mountain or up the Needles are not beginners’ journeys, but the East Face isn’t out of reach for intermediate climbers. Most of the East Face is rated a Class 3, with the toughest bits rated 5.4. It’s important to plan ahead, start early, bring all the right safety gear, and prepare for extreme weather.

High Camp in the morning at Mount Whitney

High Camp in the morning at Mount Whitney. Photo © Mary Loh/123rf.

Preparing to Climb Mt Whitney

Permits are required for anyone entering the Mount Whitney Zone—even day hikers. May-October, there’s a quota for hikers; those who want to hike must enter the February lottery in order to have a good chance of getting a permit for the following summer. For more information about the lottery, and to download an application, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo or call the wilderness permit information and reservation line for Inyo National Forest (760/873-2483). November to April, hikers still need a permit, but there are no quotas in place. Pick up a permit in person at the Mount Whitney Ranger Station within the Interagency Visitors Center (U.S. 395 and Hwy. 136, 1 mile south of Lone Pine, 760/876-6200, 8am-6pm daily Apr.-Oct., 8am-5pm daily Nov.-Apr.). During the off-season, you can self-register for a permit if the visitors center is closed.

Hikers should plan to stay nearby and get an early start in the morning—very early if you’re planning to summit. The nearest campground is Whitney Portal (end of Whitney Portal Rd., 6 miles west of Lone Pine, 877/444-6777, 47 sites, late April-late Oct., $21) in the Inyo National Forest; it’s seven miles from the trailhead. If you’re planning to climb the summit, you’ll want to stay even closer to wake up in the wee hours and start your ascent. Twenty-five walk-in sites are located near the Mount Whitney Trailhead (first-come, first-served, one-night limit, $12).


Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.