First called Fisherman’s Peak after the group of fishermen that reached the summit in 1873, California's Mount Whitney stands at 14,505 feet and is the highest summit in the contiguous United States. Thousands enjoy hiking Mount Whitney each year for premiere Serra Nevada views, whether on the lower trails on the mountain’s flanks or on one of the major approaches to the summit. Of these approaches, hiking on the Mount Whitney Trail that leaves from Whitney Portal is the most popular and accessible choice (for examples of alternative hikes, see the Cottonwood Pack Station and Mountaineers Route articles).
The 22-mile round-trip Mount Whitney Trail is often a hiker’s first experience with high-altitudes, which is certainly a factor to consider when planning the pace of an ascent. Strong and experienced hikers can complete the Mount Whitney Trail in one long day, but for most, a two-day approach provides much needed time for rest and acclimatization. Many hikers on this two-day schedule will camp at Trail Camp, which sits at 12,039 feet and a little over 6 miles from the trailhead. Outpost Camp, at 10,360 feet, is another good option.
The 4-hour hike from the Whitney Portal Trailhead to Trail Camp includes stream crossings, bridges, a variety of alpine flowers in the summer, a potential side-hike to Lone Pine Lake, and a constant view of the extraordinary ridges and mountains that surround the trail. The camp has plenty of dedicated sites, and a small lake nearby for a summer water source (filtering is essential). If you do camp in the area, keep in mind that marmot activity is very high; protect your food and your belongings in bear-proof containers and make sure your trash is neatly packed away.
An alpine start around 2 a.m. is not unusual on summit day. Light trails from the headlamps of fellow hikers are visible toward the trail crest in the early morning. A grueling section of ascent known as the 99 switchbacks awaits, though you can console yourself that it is really only 97 switchbacks to Trail Crest, where the John Muir Trail intersects with the Mount Whitney Trail. If you reach Trail Crest by sunrise, you will have incredible views of Mount Hitchcock and Hitchcock Lakes west of the trail. From Trail Crest, you’ll have another 2 miles or so to the summit. A lonely shelter sits atop the peak, and you’ll find a summit book to record your achievement in a box on an outside wall. Once you’ve appreciated the summit views, the daylight descent provides new views of Sequoia National Park. While retracing the 99 switchbacks to camp and then continuing on to the trailhead can feel grueling, the sense of accomplishment and the splendid views are palpable.
This particular trail and camp approach is very popular, and any effort to minimize trail and camping impact is essential. Practice a Leave No Trace ethic, which includes packing out all waste once on the trail. Also, the Forest Service has prepared some helpful planning materials. Finally, be sure to prepare yourself for the trip by understanding the terrain, the weather, the area wildlife, and the tricky lottery permitting system. The Whitney Portal hike to Mount Whitney's summit is one of the most rewarding hikes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so be sure to take the endeavor seriously to ensure a successful and enjoyable trip.