An 8 hour drive from Scottsdale, Lone Pine, California is the gateway to Mt. Whitney. My buddy TUBS and I started out on a Sunday after work and drove late into the night, eventually pulling off Highway 395 about an hour south of town. After a night in the car, we worked up the next morning and headed straight to the Inyo National Forest Office to retrieve our backcountry permit.
Heading west, a 12 mile drive takes you through the picturesque Alabama Hills with sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada mountains just behind. Some switchbacks and a few miles of steep grade brings you to Whitney Portal (elevation 8,000 ft). It was a bit hard to believe we still had another 6,000+ feet to ascend to the top. That’s more than climbing out of the Grand Canyon!
Whitney Portal consists of a campground, a store. and a small restaurant that cooks pancakes big enough to feed an army. It was hard to resist chowing down, considering the next two days would be filled with ramen, pretzels, and granola bars. We weighed our backpacks at the trailhead, around 30 pounds each, and set off to climb the highest mountain either of us had ever ascended.
To infinity and beyond!
…Or just the summit and back.
The Mt. Whitney Trail
From the trailhead, it’s about 3 miles of climbing to Lone Pine Lake. It is a beautiful alpine lake and the clearing provides some great views of the granite outcroppings and sparse pine forest that make up this landscape. We hung out at the lake for a while before pressing on.
Soon after the lake, the trail skirted a wonderful meadow. The lighter yellows of the grass made a wonderful contrast to the grays of the granite and bright blue sky. After the meadow came another beautiful lake called Mirror Lake.
Continuing our climb, we left the big Ponderosa pines behind as we ascended above tree line. From here on it, it was small grasses, moss, and scattered boulders to keep us company. Sometime in the late afternoon we reached the popular Trail Camp.
Trail Camp is around 5 miles from the summit, and makes the summit ascent much more manageable. For this reason it definitely fills up. There aren’t really any designated campsites… any flat spot amongst the boulders will do. At 12,000 feet, it is a desolate and cold place to camp for the night. Us Phoenix boys were downright freezing!
I threw on my long undies (look out ladies!) and we huddled around our stove cooking ramen. When the meal was consumed it was straight to the warmth of our sleeping bags. Sometime in the night a helicopter could be heard flying overhead. I didn’t think much of it and of course TUBS snored right through it!
The Push to 14,000 Feet
The next morning we headed up the toughest part of the trail: the “99 switchbacks” to trail crest. We managed alright and soon were hiking behind the famous pinnacles of Mt. Muir. It was here that we ran into a couple of search and rescue guys; the helicopter last night was part of their mission. Apparently, when the injured hiker learned the steep cost of the bill he suddenly decided he could make it down on his own!
Another hour or so and we were sitting on the summit. At 14,505 feet, Mt Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Incredibly, the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin (-280 feet), is only 85 miles away. The views from the summit were simply phenomenal. The Sierra Nevada Mountains to our west were gorgeous and glacial lakes were aplenty! To the east lie the deep Owens Valley and Lone Pine, far, far below.
We sat on top for awhile and took a sip or two of whiskey from a fellow hiker’s flask. Then it was time to turn around.
The Way Back Down
The way down was long and arduous as always, especially once we had the heavy backpacks over our tired shoulders. What kept me going were the people we met along the trail who had hiked the entire John Muir Trail. The trail runs 210 miles from Yosemite, ending at Mt. Whitney. Even after hiking for weeks straight, they were nothing but smiles.
We ended up grabbing some celebratory burgers and beers with an older couple who had just finished such a journey. I was blown away by their wilderness stories. I thought our trek to the summit of Mt. Whitney had been difficult, but for them it was simply the final few steps of an incredible trek. Maybe someday I will hike the John Muir Trail myself.
For more information on Mt. Whitney check out this website.
As well as the Inyo National Forest website.