Flora and fauna
The mountain is accessible via the city of Lone Pine on US-395, running along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.
Although the western slope of Mount Whitney lies in Sequoia National Park, there are no roads over the crest of the Sierra Nevada (which also hides Whitney from view from Sequoia) to the mountain. The nearest routes to the other side are Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park (which is only open in the summer) to the north, and via Bakersfield to the south.
Most hikers, including all day hikers, will drive to Whitney Portal, where the trailhead for the Mount Whitney Trail is located. This trail is the canonical route up the mountain, and is 22 miles round-trip with more than 6000 feet of net elevation gain.
Everybody in the Mt. Whitney Zone (between Guitar and Lone Pine lakes) must possess a valid wilderness permit. This includes BOTH backpackers and day hikers, for which separate types of permits are issued. From May 1 to November 1, entry and exit quotas limit the number of permits that are available. From November 2 to April 30, an unlimited number of permits are available.
Permits are issued at the InterAgency Visitor Center, 1 mile south of Lone Pine, CA. Permits for the quota period may be reserved in advance, or obtained on a "walk-in" basis. Most permits for the Mt. Whitney Trail are reserved during the Mt. Whitney lottery in February. The lottery is for Mt. Whitney Trail permits only. Lottery applications can be obtained from the Mt. Whitney lottery web site or by calling (760) 873-2483.
Whitney Portal Road is the access road for Whitney Portal. The road is narrow and has no guardrails, although the number of switchbacks is relatively low. It and Whitney Portal as a whole are closed during the winter snow season, forcing winter climbers to add it to the length of their trip. Above Whitney Portal, the only marked trail until the summit is the Mount Whitney Trail. The John Muir Trail reaches its southernmost terminus on the summit, and to multi-day backpackers, offers access to the remote backcountry of Sequoia National Park. As stated above, permits are required in the Mount Whitney zone, and other permits are required for backcountry camping in general. The Mount Whitney Trail does not admit bicycles or stock; it is for hikers only. The Whitney Portal Road itself strictly has no prohibition on bicycles but is narrow, so cars have little leeway to pass bicycles.
The mountain itself is a sight to see, even from far from the summit. The summit is not, however, visible from much of the trail, due to the trail's route through the canyon of Lone Pine Creek, which is oriented south of the mountain. During periods of significant flow on Lone Pine Creek, the waterfalls on the creek, particularly the one immediately above Whitney Portal, also attract attention; however, they will not impress as much as the waterfalls on the west side of the Sierras, which have larger watersheds and deeper glacial valleys.
The summit itself naturally affords wide-sweeping views, but you cannot see as far as you might expect from a mountain of this height, especially to the west. This is because of other nearby mountains; in particular, the Kern Divide limits your view westward into Sequoia National Park to no more than a few miles across the Kern River's valley. The view eastward is somewhat further, although it too is obstructed by the White Mountains. Hence, your view from the summit is best thought of as a sweeping vista of the high Sierras, the highest they get. Look for Guitar Lake on the west flank; its shape is unmistakable. On the summit you will find fulgurites from lightning, the Smithsonian Institute Shelter, a hut built in 1909 for housing scientists. You will also find a large plaque on the ground that certifies Whitney as having an elevation of 14505 feet (this figure will vary in different publications but is also the one quoted by Wikipedia).
Getting all but distant glances of the mountain necessarily entails hiking or climbing into the backcountry. Hikers intending to summit Whitney must acclimate accordingly due to the massive elevation change involved; the summit of Mount Whitney is about 8000 feet above the floor of Owen Valley where Lone Pine is located. Day hikers will need 10-21 hours to complete the hike, which means starting the hike early in the morning and finishing late at night, especially for slower hikers. This hike should not be attempted without proper preparation, like any hike.
There is a guestbook on the wall of the Smithsonian hut on the summit; the hut itself is closed to entry.
Food, gas and other supplies are available at the base of the Mount Whitney trailhead in the town of Lone Pine. A small general store also seasonally operates at Whitney Portal to serve campers and hikers; the store also sells souvenirs such as t-shirts boasting of having summited the mountain.
Whitney Portal campground provides 47 sites of varying types, the majority of which are non-electric. The campground is only open during the summer season.
There are two backpacker campsites on the Mount Whitney Trail, described here. There are also many others in the remote region west of the mountain. All require permits, and for all refuse to be carried out. The only water source is the creek, which must be purified (see "Safety").
- Outpost Camp is situated new Bighorn Meadow, at an elevation of more than 10000 feet. It is below the treeline and hence sheltered from most winds. However, its location on a slow-moving portion of Lone Pine Creek means mosquitoes are a problem here.
- Trail Camp at 12000 feet is above the treeline and hence exposed to the elements. Water sources here tend to be very limited unless substantial snow remains on the ground; unless there is melting snow, there is no water available anywhere beyond this point on the hike.
As with any backcountry area in the high Sierras, there are many dangers that hikers must beware of. These include but are not limited to:
- Bears: All food must be stored in bear-resistant containers of some kind, whether they be lockers in the Whitney Portal campground, or bear canisters elsewhere. If you are attacked by a bear in this area, you should fight back. Maintain a safe (50 m) distance from all bears.
- Weather: In the summer, thunderstorms are frequent, and lightning is especially a major hazard above the treeline. Although the hut at the summit was originally designed with lightning protection in mind, it cannot and should not be used as a shelter against this; the fulgurites on the granite near the summit say it all. In the winter, major snowstorms and freezing temperatures present their own dangers, and most hikers hike when there is no snow. Accordingly, check the local weather forecast, bearing in mind that descending to a relatively lightning-safe elevation from the summit can take hours.
- Terrain: The trail is uneven, and when snow is present on the trail, footholds can be slippery. Sturdy shoes and hiking poles are strongly recommended. The trail also has a sizable handful of unbridged stream crossings, some of which can be difficult during peak spring runoff during wet years. When there is much snow remaining on the ground, many of these crossings, especially towards the higher elevations, can be masked by massive banks of snow, which may or may not form stable snow bridges, under which the creeks flow unnoticed. The collapse of these can be hazardous. When approaching Trail Crest, the steep slope the trail traverses can be especially hazardous, particularly when snow covers the trail. In this eroding environment, rockfalls and other mass wasting also present a danger.
- Altitude: The summit of Mount Whitney is more than 6000 feet (1800 m) above the Whitney Portal trailhead and is, after all, the highest point in the lower 48 states. If you are inadequately conditioned, you may find yourself beginning to have trouble breathing past the treeline. Descend immediately if you do not feel like your respiratory capacity is sufficient for making the whole journey. The altitude also causes you to be thirsty; drink and bring plenty of water and other fluids.
- Water-borne illnesses: All natural water must be purified accordingly. Failure to do so can result in infection from pathogens that are naturally present in the water sources.
Just 90 miles (145 km) to the east (and nearly 2.8 miles [4.5 km] down) from the highest point lies the lowest point, in Death Valley.
The nearest town is the small town of Lone Pine