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#89 - 09/26/09 08:22 PM Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers [Re: VersatileFred]
VersatileFred Offline

Registered: 09/22/09
Posts: 130
Loc: SoCal

Learn about the Inyo NF Permit Reservation Process

Although Mount Whitney is legally located in Sequoia National Park, it is most accessible from Inyo National Forest trailheads.  The most popular route to the summit is the Mount Whitney Trail (also known as the Main Mount Whitney Trail or MMWT).  The most direct route to the summit requires mountaineering skills to go up North Fork (NF) Lone Pine Creek to the Mountaineers Route (MR).

Wilderness Permits are required year round to hike in the Mt. Whitney Zone.  Though many Inyo National Forest trailheads have entry quotas on the number of overnight hikers allowed per day, both the MMWT and North Fork routes also have a quota on the number of day hikers in the Mount Whitney Zone between May 1 and November 1.  Because of the popularity of the main trail during the quota period, a lottery is held each spring to determine the people who will get day hike and overnight wilderness permits in the quota period and their entry dates.  Since 2008, day hike permits for the North Fork part of the Mount Whitney Zone are also included in the lottery.  People who do not enter the lottery can still check for openings and cancellations later in the year if they are flexible in their travel plans.  As noted in Whitney Permits - Pleasant Surprise, you have an excellent chance of getting a permit just by showing up at the Visitors Center a day early.

The lottery does not apply to overnight permits for the North Fork/Mountaineers Route or the John Muir Trail.  Those routes can be an option for people who have the required skills and are properly equipped.  People with winter mountaineering skills can also take advantage of the non-quota period between November 2 and April 30 to get self-issued permits at the Visitors Center (permits are required all year but there are no restrictions on the number issued during the non-quota period).  It is important to research trail requirements and restrictions before making any plans to summit Mount Whitney.  People without winter mountaineering experience should not attempt to hike on the upper trail when there is snow/ice present, even if they reserved a date inside the quota period (see Fall Conditions on the Main Whitney Trail).  It also is important to understand the wilderness permit process and develop a strategy to either apply for a permit reservation or risk getting a walk-in permit from a cancellation where appropriate.  See the decision tree in Wilderness Permit Options for help in selecting a permit strategy.  The following table also summarizes the permit reservation options.

Inyo National Forest has different rules for reserving permits, depending on which trailhead you begin your trip and whether you stay overnight during the quota period of May 1 to November 1.  For the Main Mount Whitney Trail, you need a permit to stay overnight on the trail and to day hike above Lone Pine Lake.  For the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek you also need a Mount Whitney Zone day hike permit to day hike above Lower Boy Scout Lake.  As noted earlier, the lottery only applies to day hikes in the Mount Whitney Zone and to overnight hikes that originate on the main trail.  The reservation fee is $15 per person (See the next section for further clarification on Lone Pine Lake).  People entering the Whitney Zone via the North Fork (Mountaineer's) route (or via Trail Crest from another Inyo National Forest trailhead) still have to pay a $15 fee for overnight reservations, but the application process is similar to overnight reservations for other trails.  Remember, there is no fee for walk-in permits; the reservation fees cover the costs of processing all the permit requests that get submitted and maintaining the Wilderness Permit Office.  Also, after the lottery is complete (in April), you can call the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office at 760-873-2483 between 8 am and 4:30 pm for permit availability information.

Here is a tabular summary of the information on the Inyo National Forest wilderness permit page for the quota period (Note: There are different rules for hikes that originate inside Sequoia National Park):

Entry PointPermit RequiredLotteryEarliest ApplicationFee
Main TrailYesYesFebruary 1$15
North Fork (MR)YesNo6 Months before entry$15
Other Hikes in Whitney Zone
Hikes Outside Whitney ZoneYesNo6 Months before entry$5

Entry PointPermit RequiredLotteryEarliest ApplicationFee
Main Trail (above LP Lake)YesYesFebruary 1$15
North Fork (above LBS Lake)YesYesFebruary 1$15
All other trailsNoN/AN/AN/A

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Learn the layout of the main trail

Here is a synopsis of the four major sections of the main trail.  Aside from the rocky sections above Mirror Lake and three forks, the trail is pretty easy to follow once most of the snow has melted.

From Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake:
    The trail goes through the hallway of information signs, and after about 4 switchbacks the trail heads straight back for several hundred feet.  After crossing Carillon Creek (with a stone path) the trail turns right and goes east about 1000 feet before turning back west at the next switchback.  The trail then traverses back above the previous segment, crosses the Carillon Creek again, continues west over the trailhead, and eventually crosses North Fork Lone Pine Creek.  (If you are taking the main trail, ignore the cut log just before North Fork, as it is the unmarked entrance to the North Fork/Mountaineer's Route).  Just after North Fork there is a sign for the John Muir wilderness (with the old trail hidden on the left), followed by 10 switchbacks, a traverse, and 14 more switchbacks before you head into a shaded/forested area as you approach Lone Pine Lake.  You eventually will pass over another creek via a series of flattened logs and emerge into a clearing with the fork to Lone Pine Lake on your left.  If you have the time, you can hike downhill for a couple of minutes on a short trail to the lake.  Several hundred feet after the junction you will see a sign stating that you are entering the Mount Whitney zone and that a permit is required.

    Note: Lone Pine Lake is a common stop for people who just want to get a glimpse of the trail.  People can day hike up to the lake without a [day hike] permit, because it is outside of the Whitney Zone.  Nonetheless, a main trail overnight permit is still required to camp near the lake, because the lake is in the John Muir Wilderness.  Although you technically could hike just up to Lone Pine Lake on an overnight hike, you still would have to pay the $15 per person reservation fee if you wanted to reserve an overnight permit for the main trail.  Most of the people with main trail overnight permits camp their first night at either Outpost Camp or Trail Camp.  If you reserve a main trail overnight permit and then decide when you arrive that you want to camp an extra night at Lone Pine Lake, check at the Visitors Center when you pick up your permit to see if there are openings on the previous day.  Note that Overnight permits are good for 14 days -- you are not required to exit on your stated exit date.

From Lone Pine Lake to Trail Camp:
    The trail traverses across a series of flat areas/plateaus at ascending elevations with a series of switchbacks between each level.  The first plateau is the Lone Pine Lake area.  After the fork to the lake, 15 switchbacks take you up the wall of the canyon to the next level.  The second plateau is Bighorn Park where you may encounter some muddy areas on the trail as the creek meanders through a flat meadow.  At the far end of Bighorn Park is a waterfall, a creek crossing, and Outpost Camp before another creek crossing as you exit the area.  There is no toilet facility.  The next level is Mirror Lake.  Above Mirror Lake the trail goes above the tree line and transitions into a path carved in the rock face.  In this area the trail is more rugged as you gain elevation on the knolls (between two canyons) up to Trailside Meadow and eventually up to Trail Camp.  (Note: No overnight camping is permitted at Mirror Lake or at Trailside Meadow).  There are several overlooks of the area as you go up, and eventually you will have several views of Consultation Lake to the south.  Later the view to the south will be masked by rock as you pass through the main part of Trail Camp (next to another small lake).  There is no toilet.  Wag bags are issued at the Visitors Center when you pick up your permit).

From Trail Camp to Trail Crest:
    The trail passes through Trail Camp delineated by a rock boundary and then enters the 97-switchback area (see Wayne Pyle's map in Excel).  After switchback #9 there are two turns in succession that are about 90 degrees, but only the first one is enough to count.  Between switchback #23 and #24 (or beyond #25) there is a spring that usually has water in the summer.  (Note: This is the last source of water on the route, so you should plan on carrying about 3 liters of water with you from this point on).  After switchback #45 you will enter the area with the cable railing (Note: The cables area is dangerous when covered with snow and is one of the last areas on the trail to clear in the summer.  Keep that in mind when you decide when to hike).  After switchback #97 there is a longer traverse over to Trail Crest that eventually goes a little downhill at the end (you will notice this going back).  At Trail Crest there will be the back of a FS sign (13,600 feet) followed by the front of a NPS sign for Sequoia National Park that says "Pets and firearms prohibited."  At Trail Crest, you also cross over to the west side of the ridge line.

From Trail Crest to the Summit:
    There are four main sections to this part of the trail.  The first section goes on the back side of the ridge downhill to the John Muir Trail junction and continues up the right fork to the Mt Muir area (This is one of the areas with the most severe drop-off on the left side and where trekking poles can help out a lot).  After passing a window, the next section of the trail goes up several switchbacks on a less severe slope (more uniform boulders) as you approach the ridgeline and traverse north.  After going right around a bend the third section is more concave and looks somewhat like a lake bottom with redder rock, several rock columns, and various drop-offs along the way (more like section 1).  After another bend you will enter the final concave section and see the summit in the distance.  Like section 2, the drop-off to the left is less severe.  Nonetheless this is the area where persistence pays off, since you are so close and yet so far away as you traverse across to the base of the peak and then hike up to the summit.  (Also keep in mind that there are several sections of the trail on your way back where you hike uphill).  While there may be shortcuts up the right side of the peak, the main trail cuts across the base (including a probable snowfield) and goes up on the left side of the peak.

Trail Landmarks:
     As for mileages on the main trail, you will find different mileages for the same landmarks posted on a number of web sites.  One major reason is that the USDA Forest Service lengthened the trail by about 0.3 mile in 1977 (see Bob R's info) by changing the marked trailhead from the end of the portal loop (see WP Store area) to the current location before the WP Store.  The route from the new trailhead is straighter and not as steep as the old trail, but you have three extra creek crossings along the way.  The old trail is still maintained and starts between the stop sign at the far end of the loop and the big rock in front of it and comes up to the new trail directly below the John Muir Wilderness sign (see note above).  As noted in Photos: Whitney mileage markers, there are places on the trail where mileages from the old trailhead are marked on different rocks in one-mile increments.  The original trail was 10.7 miles long and the new route is 11.0 miles long.  You can read more about the story in several books about the Mount Whitney trail.  You also can find some links to video clips from the trail posted at Mt Whitney hiking and climbing videos.  Here are some approximations for different landmarks:

Whitney Portal (new trailhead)08,360
Lone Pine Lake (fork)2.89,950
Bighorn Park3.510,300
Outpost Camp3.810,300
Mirror Lake4.310,650
Trailside Meadow5.311,300
Trail Camp6.312,000
Trail Crest8.513,600

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Learn facts (and discern myths) about the "windows"

Beyond Trail Crest, the trail lies on the west side of the ridge line and most of the drop-off is on your left side.  There are several places, known as windows, where there is a momentary drop-off on the right side of the trail as well.

Although there are a lot of stories floating around about the windows, the trail is flat and at least four feet wide in the areas next to the openings on the east face (and there are rocks/boulders next to the trail).  Many windows extend several feet from the trail before they drop off.  They should not be any more of a problem than the rest of the trail.  Of course, trekking poles are a good idea on the upper part of the trail because of the uneven terrain.

Actually, the trail is more of a scare just beyond Trail Crest where the trail is cut into the back side of the cliff.  As you descend to the John Muir Trail junction, there is a vertical "wall" on your right, a steep drop-off on your left and straight ahead you can look down toward Guitar Lake (the trail curves to the right at that point so you have a drop-off in your forward view).  At the windows you can at least look straight ahead and ignore the side views, while you cannot easily ignore the drop-off below Trail Crest.  In 2004 a couple of people in our group decided to turn back after going several hundred feet beyond Trail Crest.  This is an area where trekking poles can help out a lot.

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Learn more about altitude sickness

Here are some links on altitude conditioning:

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Pick up a book/video about the trail

There are several books on the subject of hiking Mount Whitney at book sites such as  You can click on books and search for Mount Whitney.  The book Mount Whitney: Mountain Lore from the Whitney Store by Doug Thompson, Elisabeth Newbold (Paperback - December 1, 2002) has Doug Sr. from the Whitney Portal Store as one of the authors.

You can download the Inyo National Forest 4-page booklet that is sent to those who receive a trail permit reservation here:  Hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail

There is a video of the main trail produced by Peter "hikealongpete" Wagenleitner that is available for about $25 at Trail Video.  There are links to 0.1 mile interval clips from the video posted on the Whitney Trail Video threads. (Part 1   Part 2   Part 3)

For those interested in the North Fork route, there is also a video on DVD at Climbing Whitney in Winter - The Mountaineer's Route.

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Check other web sites

Here are some general links on Mount Whitney posted by other members:

Here are general links to the government agencies involved with the trail:

Here are some additional links to general hiking and backpacking forums:

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Decide on a good time of the year to hike

Most people hike the trail in the summer months, when the risk of snow on the trail in the 97 Switchbacks (including the cables area) is minimal.  Even so, there always is a risk of unexpected events and adverse weather no matter what time of the year you go, and every year is different.  If you are concerned about having enough daylight and yet want to minimize your exposure to ice on the trail, July can be a good time to go (but there may be a lot of days with unstable "monsoon" weather).  Note: In 2005, the cables area was still covered with snow in early July.  If you are hoping to see as little snow as possible and have a long lasting LED headlamp, August or September may be a good time to go (depending on the weather).  If you want to celebrate the next anniversary of the trail, go in mid-July (The 100th anniversary was July 2004).  If you are looking for more information on winter hiking, check out Winter Orientation Questions for Whitney First Timers.

Once you decide the time period to hike, you can decide if you want to have moonlight.  If you would like to have the moon up in the morning when you start your hike, pick a date several days after a full moon.  If you would like to have the moon up after sunset, pick a date several days before a full moon.  You can also calculate moon almanac information for your date on various web pages such as the US Naval Observatory sun and moon data page.

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Decide whether to day hike or stay overnight

Both day hikes and overnight hikes have their advantages and their disadvantages.  Overnight hikes let you acclimate at different elevations and let you see more of the trail in daylight.  Day hikes give you less exposure to temperature/elevation extremes and require less equipment.  See further discussion on day vs overnight hikes.

Another thing that overnight hikers need to consider is where to set up camp.  Trail Camp is a popular location because it is just over half-way to the summit.  Nonetheless, if you stay overnight at Trail Camp, you can easily spend 12 hours up at 12,000 feet before you start your hike to the summit.  That can promote altitude sickness in some people.  On a day hike, you probably will not stay more than 10 hours above 12,000 feet (and about half of that time you will be hiking downhill).  Some people counter the high elevation of Trail Camp by staying one night at Outpost Camp followed by one night at Trail Camp.  Other people stay two nights at Outpost Camp and day hike the second day (15 miles round-trip) from there.  Outpost Camp is less rugged than Trail Camp, and you do not have to lug gear over the rocky two-mile stretch of trail between Mirror Lake and Trail Camp if you day hike from there.  If you want to avoid people, you also can camp near Lone Pine Lake or Consultation Lake.  (Camping is prohibited at Mirror Lake and at Trailside Meadow).

Unless you are an experienced mountain backpacker, you probably would find a day hike easier to plan for your first hike on the main trail.  Don't assume that a 6-mile backpack trip to Trail Camp is easy (see Barely made Trail Camp).  You also have better odds of getting your desired entry date with a day hike, since the daily quota is higher and the demand is less for day hike permits.  Just be sure to train well, acclimatize before starting the trail, and carry along some emergency supplies just in case something unexpected happens (See the reports 3 ladies survive the night outside, storm on July 28, storm on August 15).

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Develop your pre-hike conditioning strategy and set your group limit

Although most sections of the main trail are not very steep, you still gain over 6,000 feet in elevation on the way to the summit.  Most people take several months to train for a Whitney hike with a variety of aerobic exercises and progressively longer uphill hikes to increase their endurance level.  If you do not have any hills in your area, you can still do uphill training by going up and down a series of steps (One summer when I was on travel for work I alternated stairwells in my hotel).  Many people in southern California train for Mount Whitney by hiking up the Vivian Creek Trail to Mount San Gorgonio a week or two before Mount Whitney, since the elevation gain is 5,500 feet in about 8 miles (Day hike permits are required.  See permit info.  Also, check the following topic for links on San Gorgonio and San Jacinto).  Other people like Half Dome in Yosemite NP because of its 4,800 foot elevation gain in about the same distance or Clouds Rest because of its 5,900 foot elevation gain (and fewer people).  Nonetheless, the summit of Half Dome is only 8,800 feet, so a hike from Tioga Pass up to Mount Dana (from 10,000 feet up to 13,000 feet in 3 miles) the day after Half Dome would give both distance and elevation conditioning.

Regardless of your conditioning plan, it is always a good idea to team up with somebody who has done the trail before on your first hike since a number of things need to be considered as you experience the trail.  If you do not have that option, a previous post by another member suggests doing a dry run day hike up the lower part of the trail (see dry run) before your main trip if you have the time.  The whole idea is to not push yourself too far too fast even if you have done plenty of training hikes.  As noted in other posts, it is not that hard to get a walk-in permit for a day hike.  You also can hike up to Lone Pine Lake without a permit and can train on the trail to Meysan Lake from the Portal.

Another thing to consider is setting a firm limit on the size of your group before you get to the point of filling out your permit application.  Although a group can contain up to 15 people, the FS recommends a group size of four people since two people can go for help in an emergency (and one person can stay to provide assistance).  Practically speaking, it is hard for large groups to stay together above Trail Camp without impeding each other's progress, and you decrease your odds of getting a permit for your desired date when you add more people to your group.  It also is harder to work out contingency plans with a large group of hikers.  See what happened to a family of eight that got separated on the mountain.  The easiest thing to tell any extra friends who pop in out of the woodwork after you submit your permit application is that, "The mountain will still be there next year."

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Entire topic
Subject Posted by Posted
Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:17 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:22 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:27 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:30 PM