Route: Mount Whitney Trail, John Muir Trail
Peaks Bagged: Mount Whitney (14,508', highest point in the continental United States)
Mileage: ~22 miles
Elevation Gain: ~7000’ (varying between 8,300' and 14,508')
This was it, the main event so to speak, of our trip out to California this August. The prior 4 days of acclimation hikes and rests were all just to ensure success on this venture: to summit the highest point in the lower 48 United States. We tore down camp bright and early at Onion Valley Campground, and hi the road for the roughly 1-hour drive down one winding mountain road and then up another 15 miles South. Arriving at the Whitney Portal, we found a very busy parking lot, but found room to park at the main overflow lot just below the trailhead.
We had breakfast right in the parking lot while we finished packing our packs and then putting all extra food, cooking gear, and anything else smellable into the bear lockers in the parking lot (the bears at the Whitney Portal are known to break into a car if they even SEE anything that could be/be holding food, such as a cooler). A short while later, we saddled up and walked a short distance up the road to the trailhead and began the adventure!
|Mount Whitney Trailhead|
|Early views on the trail|
|Entering the Wilderness!|
Eventually we made our way to Outpost Camp, the "alternative" camping spot to Trail Camp, though it is several mils and several thousand feet of elevation gain from Trail Camp. Here we took a well-deserved break before tackling the steeper terrain to come.
|Near the Whitney Zone boundary|
|Better have a permit past this point|
|A "Gateway" on the trail|
|Nearing Outpost Camp|
|Outpost Camp cascade|
|Outpost Camp cascade|
Eventually, after a seemingly endless series of short steep climbs up switchbacks, we did make it to Trail Camp, where we were able to secure a terrific spot. It was shielded (mostly) from the wind, near the trail, and also not terribly far from the water. Once finding it, we didn't look any further; we were both tired, so we just set up camp and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon, doing a little exploring here and there.
|The Southern Ridge of Mount Whitney - tomorrow's objective|
|Camping at 12,000ft for the next 2 nights - this old Kelty tent has been to some great spots but this one takes the cake!|
|Sunrise at Trail Camp|
|Some hikers already well into the switchbacks.|
Right from Trail Camp the trail climbs to Trail Crest, at roughly 13,700 feet, using the infamous "97 Switchbacks". In truth, there are indeed 97 switchbacks before Trail Crest, but the grade due to them is mild and the footing mostly good throughout. We came upon the cables section roughly half-way through the switchbacks, where the only ice we would come across on our trip was present alongside the trail (not on it though). The cables section is not what you might think, it is merely a section of trail that was cut out of the rock and has a steel cable set up along one edge as a pseudo-railing.
|Leaving Trail Camp (scattered around the right side of the lake)|
|Cables section of the Mount Whitney Trail|
|Icicles alongside the trail in the cables section|
|Eastern pano from high up the switchbacks|
Higher up, the switchbacks are often very short, only a dozen or so feet in length. But after these, there are a couple of long switchbacks before the final long traverse up to Trail Crest. There at Trail Crest we got our first look at the Western side of the ridge, and WOW! What a view!
|The "other" side of Mount Whitney - the John Muir Trail approach|
From here the trail drops a couple hundred feet to the junction with the John Muir Trail before beginning a long traverse that gradually climbs, winding among several spires. In this stretch the rubble path to the peak of Mount Muir appears on the right. We had considered hitting this peak on our descent, but after seeing the short cliffs that one needs to ascend above the rubble field to get to the summit (it is said to be a Class 3 climb after all), we decided that peak would remain un-bagged. After that, we soon came to the "windows", which are a series of narrow viewpoints between the spires, looking back to the East towards Trail Camp and the surrounding area.
|Looking down into the basin on the Western side of Mount Whitney, past a trailside-campsite on the John Muir Trail|
|Looking back to where the John Muir Trail comes up to the ridge from the West|
|One of the "windows"|
|Yet another "window"|
|Looking back towards the long traverse we just finished (left side)|
|The summit of Mount Whitney - trail swings along to the left|
|Looking straight down from the summit to Iceberg Lake, the start of many mountaineering routes to the summit|
|Some climbers getting ready to leave|
|Pano from the summit|
|Summit building on Mount Whitney|
|Mount Whitney summit register|
|Sign predates the latest survey, which puts the elevation at 14,508'.|
|A marmot was hanging out on the summit looking for food - looks like he's found plenty of it over time!|
|We made it!|
|Some of the switchbacks we ascended earlier in the day|
|The backpackers coming up the John Muir Trail mostly left their packs at the junction in order to slack-pack to the summit|
|Heading down the switchbacks|
|Consultation Lake on the way down|
|We heard a loud crash, and looked over in time to see a couple boulders fall down this cliff well off the side of the trail|
- Our acclimation process worked superbly, neither of us had much trouble with the climb, though naturally we needed a few more breathers than normal while climbing
- We saw a lot of day hikers coming down the switchbacks under headlamp. It is a very long dayhike with a lot of elevation gain, even for those who have acclimated to the elevation.
- The terrain and grade was definitely harder than any of the other hikes we did on this trip. There is even a lengthy stretch on the main ridge that reminded us of the Northern Presidentials in New Hampshire. That said, it was still easier than a lot of the Northeast Trails.
To see a TON of additional pictures, click here.
Some video of descending from the summit to Trail Camp: