Hiking Mt. Whitney and Applying for Permits Through the Lottery

Hiking Mt. Whitney is on the adventure bucket list for many outdoor enthusiast. With an elevation of 14,508 feet, Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous US states.

Mt. Whitney is a part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and its trail starts in the Inyo National Forest and enters Sequoia National Park. The summit is also the southern end of the John Muir Trail, “JMT.” Climbing to the summit and back can be done in a day trip or an overnight backpacking trip. Permits are needed for this hike from May 1st to November 1st each year. You can apply for a permit during the Mt. Whitney Lottery between February 1st and March 15th. Lottery results will be available on March 24th.

Mt Whitney in the distance (photo by Monique Tejada, @m00niquee)

On our way to the Whitney Portal

Lottery application

Applying for Mt. Whitney permits is the easy part. You and your group will first need to decide if you would like to apply for a day-use permit or an overnight permit. Only 100 day-hikers and 60 backpackers are permitted each day.

Please see the Forest Service site for more information on the Lottery Application Statistics. 

Picking up our permits at the ranger station
We originally had day-use permit but there were some cancellations and we were able to get overnight permits. A lottery happens in-person at the ranger station at 10 am on the dot. Arrive 15 minutes prior so you can enter the lottery.

With the overnight permit, you will need to select an exit date. Take into consideration your group’s size, physical capabilities, and speed. Don’t forget to take into account the total trail length of 22 miles and the elevation gain of 6,100 feet, along with your group’s experience with backpacking.

There’s only one option for the start point which is the Whitney Portal, “Mt Whitney Trail JM35” and you’ll have to select your exit point. Most people who are doing the day-use or a one-night, overnight permit select “Mt Whitney Trail JM35” as the exit as well. This means you are returning to the same point of entrance, where you likely parked your car. I have no experience exiting any other way so I can’t shed any light on that.

If you’re selecting an overnight permit you will need to input your “trip itinerary.” This is where you plan to camp for the night. The main campsites in the Whitney Zone are Outpost Camp and Trail Camp. If you’re doing a one-night permit I recommend starting no later than noon (the earlier you start, the better so that you can reach your camp before sundown) and setting up camp at Trail Camp. This is the closest campsite to the summit and is 6.3 miles from the Whitney Portal. This is where myself and my group stayed the night during our one-night trip. We then woke up before sunrise the following day to summit Whitney. We also left our gear and only took a day pack to the summit. We finally reached the Whitney Portal around 7 pm. It was already dark since we did this in October so going during the summer is preferred since you have more sunlight and the weather isn’t so cold. We also had some snow which would have been avoided if we had a permit for the summer.

If you’re doing a two-night trip you can camp at Outpost Camp as well. Outpost Camp is 3.8 miles in from the Whitney Portal. If you need some extra time getting acclimated to the elevation staying at Outpost Camp may be worth the extra night.

Trail Overview

Although the area has plenty of trees the first few miles of the trail are very exposed. It can get rather hot during the day so it’s best to start hiking as early as you can. Those who do the hike in a single day usually start between midnight and 3 am. If you’re doing an overnight trip, starting around 10 am should get the average hiker to Trail Camp before sundown.

After entering the “Whitney Zone” it’s only about another mile until you’re at Outpost Camp. It’s a lot more woodsy and scenic in this area. Soon after you’ll pass Mirror Lake. As you’re climbing on and up you’ll be above Mirror Lake. The view from here is beautiful. Enjoy it because the next two miles to Trail Camp can be gruesome. You’ll be climbing on uneven rocks until you finally hit Trail Camp (where you might be sleeping on some rocks).

Just above Mirror Lake
The views are gorgeous

As you’re leaving Trail Camp you’ll go up the infamous 99 switchbacks. If you’re not a fan of switchbacks these can be tough. After you’ve completed the switchbacks you will have reached Trail Crest. With only three miles to the summit, you’ll be surrounded by amazing views overlooking some lakes. Continue on the narrow trail, watch your footing and keep heading towards the summit. You’ll see the hut in the distance and just outside the hut is the summit register where you can sign your name. The summit registers are maintained by volunteers through the Sierra Club. Archives are kept at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and a collection of registers can also be found at the UCLA Library. Don’t forget to take your summit photo and if you need some shelter for a few minutes go inside the hut.

Trail Camp at sunrise
After the 99 switchbacks, we made it to Trail Crest
The longest 1.9 miles began from here

The summit hut
Mt Whitney Summit Register (photo by Monique Tejada @m00niquee)

Trail Points of Interest

                                              Elevation     Distance
Whitney Portal (Trailhead)  8,360 Ft      0.0 mi
Lone Pine Lake                     9,900 Ft      2.8 mi
Outpost Camp                       10,400 Ft     3.8 mi
Mirror Lake                           10,640 Ft     4.0 mi
Trail Camp                            12,000 Ft      6.0 mi
Trail Crest                             13,700 Ft      8.2 mi
Muir Trail Junction               13,480 Ft     8.7 mi
Mt. Whitney Summit            14,508 Ft     11.0 mi

Water Sources

There are lakes along the Whitney trail where you can get water. You’ll need to filter this water. There are various lakes and streams between Whitney Portal and Outpost Camp. As your passing Outpost Camp, you’ll see Mirror Lake. This is the last lake along the trail before Consultation Lake which is less than a half mile from Trail Camp. The lake at Trail Camp is the last reliable water source, so it’s smart to fill up here before continuing on. And I would recommend topping off on your way back down.

I carried five liters of water when I began my hike and ran out when I reached Trail Camp. I only filtered water at this source before summiting and again after summiting. I when I left Trail Camp and began hiking the 99 switchbacks my hydration bladder tube had froze up. I had to stop and drink straight from the bladder and put the water back into my pack. If you’re going during a cold month it’s recommended you have an insulation sleeve for your tube. My friend had one and her water was fine. Luckily we were able to share water from her hydration bladder so I didn’t have to keep stopping to take mine out.

It was so cold the water outside my water bottle froze

Preparing For Mt. Whitney

Preparing for Mt. Whitney is somewhat like preparing for a marathon. You don’t need to hike similar mountains in order to prepare but you should be gradually challenging yourself more and more.

Find out what you need to work on. For some, the elevation gain is the thing they need to work on. For others, it’s the distance. If you know the switchbacks will be a challenge, work steeper inclines into your hikes and stairs into your workout.

Time is a challenge for me. I can do the distance but I get tired and restless during long hikes. After six hours I just want a nap and I get hungry quickly. Some say I get “hangry.” I know this is true so I prepare by packing foods I like that will keep me happy. I also take energy chews to try to keep my energy up. 

Knowing your body and what challenges you is important. I know my body well and know that I need to get great sleep before doing big hikes like Mt. Whitney. If you can prepare for what’s ahead of you then you’re one step closer to reaching the summit successfully. 

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to health and/or personal fitness. You should always consult with a doctor if you have any concerns about your body and health. Altitude sickness is real and it isn’t fun to deal with. If you’re concerned about the altitude, speak with your physician.

Gear List

Backpacking tent (needed if doing an overnight trip)
Sleeping bag (needed if doing an overnight trip)
Sleeping pad (needed if doing an overnight trip)
Trekking poles
Portable stove/Jet Boil
Propane canister
Lighter/matches
Lightweight cooking pot made for backpacking
Utensil
Water filter
Solar-powered lantern
Headlamp
Water bladder (3-liter bladder is recommended)
Water bottle (you’ll want a water bottle for your cooking water and/or to drop your electrolyte tablets in)
Travel sized toiletries (skip anything you can do without)
Toilet paper
Sunscreen
Lip balm
Small first aid kit
Moleskin to prevent blisters
Hand warmers and/or feet warmers (good for cold morning and cold nights)
Day pack
Extra large ZipLock bags (you need to carry-out your trash so bring at least 1)
WAG bag (for human waste. You will be given one bag when you pick up your permit)
Bear canister (can be rented where you pick up your permit)
GPS/Beacon to track location in case of an emergency

Clothing:
Hat/cap for sun protection
Sunglasses
Beanie (for higher elevation and to wear at night/morning)
Neck gaiter
Dryfit top (brings layers as it gets colder in higher elevation)
Hiking pants/athletic pants
Dryfit base layer
Dryfit undergarments
Fleece jacket
Down jacket
Hiking boots
Wool socks
Fleece gloves (for higher elevation and to wear at night/morning)
Waterproof insulated gloves (recommended for colder months)

Note: Avoid cotton clothing as cotton traps moisture. Being damp and cold isn’t a good combination.

Food:
Oatmeal
MREs (Meal, ready to eat): popular brands such as Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry are available at your local outdoor equipment store and online
Bar: Clif, Larabar and Kind bars are my favorites
Trail Mix
Dried fruit

Our water was icing up

Helpful Links

Whitney Weather
Whitney Live Webcam
Whitney Guide
Rules and regulations for Mt. Whitney

Celebrating a successful summit

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Check out my video from my Mt. Whitney overnight backpacking experience!