Last week, myself and 3 friends completed a 4 day hike from the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead to the Mount Whitney Summit and down to Whitney Portal.
Day 1 - Horseshoe Meadows trailhead to Long Lake (7 miles, 5 hours). We followed the Cottonwood Lakes trail, and had to seek shelter for about an hour as a lightning storm passed. Easy day overall and plenty of camp sites at Long Lake. We were attempting to take a shortcut from the Cottonwood Lakes trail with a more direct route to New Army Pass but lost the trail after a creek crossing. No big deal as the Cottonwood Lakes trail got us to the same place eventually with little extra mileage. At Long Lake, there were 2 other parties camping at the lake. We all had a spectacular lightning show that evening which kept us awake until midnight.
Day 2 - Long Lake over New Army Pass to Rock Creek (9 miles, 6 hours). The climb over NAP was simple. From Long Lake, its just 800 feet of elevation on simple switchbacks. Since there were clouds lingering, we wanted to get up and over the pass quickly so we could get down in the Rock Creek area before any potential thunderstorms rolled in. Once on top of NAP, the trail heads off towards Mount Langley which seems counter-intuitive since you know you want to be heading the other way. But it quickly rights itself and you are heading towards Rock Creek. This day featured a beautiful hike through incredible meadows. While it was an easy downhill day once we were over NAP, for some reason the actual mileage seemed longer than the map indicated and it took us much longer to get to Rock Creek than we expected. Lots of deer in the Rock Creek area, which I had seen here 6 years ago as well, so I think they are regular residents of this area. We had the whole campground to ourselves and waved to the PCT folks walking past our campground in the evening and the next morning.
Day 3 - Rock Creek to above Guitar Lake (13 miles, 9 hours). Tricky start to the day. The Rock Creek crossing was made this day on 3 logs just prior to reaching the Rock Creek crossing camping area. We walked past this and eventually the trail ran out so we doubled back and with the help of other hikers, we were able to locate the crossing. Everyone is so nice and helpful on this hike, they go out of their way to assist you when in need. Up and over Gayout Pass (or is it Gayot?) and a 7 mile hike to Crabtree Meadows where we had a simple stream crossing and went upstream a ways to filter water. There were a lot of people filtering right there in Crabtree Meadow, but I prefer to be upstream where there are fewer people and cascading water. We hiked to Timberline Lake and then up to Guitar Lake where probably 50 people were camping and there was a major campsite for a group which had their gear brought in on horses. We thought about what a luxury it would be to have our packs carried for us! We continued on up above Guitar Lake and past another 2 small lakes to get as high up as possible while still having a reliable water source nearby. There are quite a few sites to choose from up here, water nearby, and peace and quiet from the many people at Guitar Lake. Someone told us all of the sites here were too close to the trail and therefore we would be woken up in the middle of the night as groups move up to the summit. Not true. There are a lot of options to choose from. Quick set-up and dinner and we were off to bed.
Day 4 - Guitar Lake to Summit to Whitney Portal (15 miles, 11 hours). Temps dropped below 30 that evening making sleeping more difficult and motivation to get up before dawn difficult, but we awoke at 5:30am and were on the trail at 7am. 2 hour hike up switchbacks to Trail Crest where we dropped our packs. The switchbacks were really not that difficult. Slow and steady was the key for us. Another 2 hours got us to the summit. On this day, everyone walked across the small snow field versus taking the alternative trail just before the snow which I had read about. It was a simple crossing taking maybe 30 seconds. Conditions will probably dictate what is the best route on a daily basis. Since there are many reports on the main trail experience, I will not repeat that here except to say that it took us 7 hours to get from the Summit down to the Portal which included an hour back to Trail Crest with just day packs and then 6 hours down to the Portal with full packs. This sounds slow to me even as I write this now, but we moved at a consistent pace and stopped for 15 minute breaks every 90 minutes.
This route is incredibly beautiful and has a fraction of the hikers on it as the main route. I recommend it to anyone with the time to spare 4 days.