Mount Whitney Summit View

Don’t day hike the Mount Whitney Trail — Overnight It! (and everything else I learned about the trail.)

Trail Guides

Mount Whitney stands as the tallest peak in the lower 48 which would certainly make it a hot destination if for no other reason than to claim the high point. That the ascent up the standard Mt. Whitney Portal Route (~6,700′ with ups and downs, 21.4 miles round-trip) is non-technical, on a nice summer day at least, adds to the draw. When you throw in the incredible views and a whole lot of bragging rights, it’s really no surprise that hiking Mount Whitney is popular — real popular.

In fact, the trail is so popular that the Forest Service has strict quotas about hiking it in peak season. As 2019, just 60 overnight backpackers are allowed on the main trail, 10 backpackers on the North Fork / Lone Pike Creek Trail, and 100 day hikers. That last group may be the biggest but as the title suggests, not the one I think you should be in — at least for your first trip!

Mount Whitney from the Road
Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierras from the road up

But before I try and talk you from a badass day hike into a big pack backpacker, let’s talk about the mountain and the Mt. Whitney / Portal Trail for a bit.

Warning: Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous even on so called non-technical trails. From rock fall to falling, steep snow slopes, unexpected storms and lightening to heat exhaustion, do not underestimate the Mount Whitney no matter how straight forward it sounds. Know the conditions, bring adequate food, water, layers, and check with the Forest Service before heading out! 

All About Mount Whitney Portal Trail

Usually I write long posts about trails but when it comes to Whitney, there are already plenty of amazing and incredibly detailed guides (see below for lots of good links.) So instead, here’s a bunch of random things I think are worth knowing about the trail and the area:

The happiest sight of the day (when you see it for the second time)

The hardest part of the climb can be getting a permit: Ok, it’s not really the same but it is a logistical challenge. Lots of people want on the trail and few get to go each day. The advance lottery is your best shot for planning but I’ve found the daily lottery works quite well if you’re willing to wing it (especially on a week day and a little later in the season.)

The 99 (97?) switchbacks on Mount Whitney

Without snow it’s a straight forward trail but that doesn’t make it easy: Once the snow melts off, the trek to the summit is basically a long slog (aka an endless walk.) There are no places you have to scramble or climb but there are plenty of spots where you will be right next to a major dropoff. Throw in changing weather, icy trails, limited water up high, altitude and a long, long trail and it may not be technical but that doesn’t make it easy.

Part of the famous 99 (97?) switchbacks

Start at night, end in the afternoon: With over 22 miles, it’s hard to not be in the dark at some point if you’re day hiking Whitney (and not a badass trail runner). Personally, I’d rather head up under the stars, enjoy the cooler temps to ascend in and get to take in the view on the way down. This also helps to avoid afternoon storms and a hot afternoon ascent, so ya.

It’s a long trail for the elevation gain: While something like 6,700′ of climbing, Whitney is nothing to take lightly but that’s nothing super steep when you’re hiking it over 11 miles each way. Actually, the trail gets pretty mellow, especially near the end, and I’d rather trade a few miles for some decent inclines myself.

Looking up towards Trail Crest from below Trail Camp
Looking up towards Trail Crest from below Trail Camp

Expect to be hiking for 12, 14, 18 hours, maybe more: It’s hard to estimate how long you’ll be on the trail since I don’t know you and how fast you move but consider the length you’re hiking, the in-direct nature of the trail, break time, water filtering time, summit time and the clock ticks by quick. 

You can and should camp at the Portal before you hike: If you can snag a space (there are both reserved and walk up campgrounds), staying by the trailhead is a huge plus. A couple days at the 8,300′ camp gives you a chance to acclimate more, chat with hikers coming down, and enjoy a much cooler (literally) spot than down in Lone Pine (though do check town out too.)

There are also plenty of other sweet places to camp at altitude around the eastern sierras so why not make a longer trip out of it and warm up on some other local peaks (or make Whitney your cooldown)?!

The second best part of the trail? Breakfast at the Portal: Aside from the mountain views and all, the portal really is a great place to stop on by. You’ll find a rather well stocked (and really well priced) shop with a mix of souvenirs, camping and hiking needs along with a limited menu cafe. Breakfast is the stuff of lore and for about $10, you’ll get enough food for two, maybe 3. The burgers are solid too of course.

Breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store

Lions and tigers and mostly there are bears: On my last Whitney trip, I was 2 Bear sightings for 2 nights so take it from me, everything goes in the bear box (or the canister if you’re backpacking.) If you’re day hiking, keep your pack close at all times too — even if there are no bears around, there are plenty of other animals to rip it apart in search of food.

Don’t underestimate the altitude: One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is of course altitude. This will very likely dampen your physical ability and acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a very real possibility every hiker should be aware of. Just getting a mild case feels pretty awful so know the symptoms and progression.

Per the experts as NOLS, your best bet is a multi-day ascent and / or time at camp before hiking. Also be sure to eat and drink consistently throughout the hike even if you feel like you don’t want to.

Mount Whitney Summit Sign

Don’t underestimate the trail either, come prepared: Non-technical does not mean Disneyland afterall. Things can go wrong on any trail and at 14,505′, you are a long way from help. Your best bet to stay safe is to be aware of the conditions (they change and change quick), your own abilities, and come well prepared with lots of food, water, layers, and the rest of the essentials. Check with the rangers before you head out, plan for the worst and enjoy the best.

Summit benchmark

Early season is an entirely different game: If you’re going before the snow melts (and that’s far later in the year than you may think), well, things are much, much different. If you’re lucky, microspikes and a trekking pole may suffice but you really want to check on snow / ice conditions. If people are talking ice axe and crampons and you know how to use them, sweet, get those side-steps in! If you don’t know what that means, I strongly suggest a guide or coming back another time. Seriously.

The Smithsonian Institution Shelter aka Mount Whitney Summit Hut

Want more details? Of course you do. Hiking Guy’s guide will walk you through literally every step of the logistics, gear, handling altitude and so will Timberline Trails’. The Forest Service has this handy info guide and checklist. If that’s not enough, I’ve linked to several more great resources down below.

Why you should not day hike the standard portal trail!

Ok, enough of the fun facts, I started this post off with a rather contentious remark and now it’s time for me to explain.

I mean I’m not saying that you can’t day hike it or that you can’t do so safely or anything like that. Instead, I’m assuming you’re here because it’s your first time to Whitney and you want to both top out and see the views and in that case, why not enjoy the ride — or well the walk! So while day hiking comes with all sorts of appealing perks (like a lighter pack), here’s some reasons to consider a longer trip up.

1. It can be a rough day: 22 miles is not the furthest day hike nor is 6,100′ the most climbing but both are serious undertakings and combined with the altitude, this trail really wears on you. Unless you are one of those epic trail runners who can crush it in a half day, spacing things out is nice on the feet — and everything else.

2. There’s less chance to acclimate: Even with a few days at Whitney Portal, there’s still a very real chance of the altitude getting to you which is miserable and can very well send you back down (happened to my friend on our first attempt.) Sleeping at 12,000′ at Trail Camp after a night or two at the Portal however, that’s a sweet way to get yourself in sync.

3. Enjoy the view: Above all else, long, tough day hikes tend to mean little time and less interest in enjoying what’s around you. The Whitney Zone is an incredible place, obviously with a 360-view up top but also great vistas along the trail. Having a few days gives the chance to take it in, stare at the stars miles, even to explore another part of the park beyond just the summit route.

Welcome to Trail Crest! Just 2 miles to go… each way

So I say forget the day hike. It may be harder to get an overnight permit but give it a shot and enjoy a more relaxed trip up the mountain with the time to take it all in. Or hey, forget the standard trail: take a longer approach in on another trail like the Mountaineers Route (if you have the experience for that) or head over to one of the guiding companies (sierra mountain guides, alpine institute, IMG, etc) and let them take you up a winter variation.

Of course, if you want to hit the day hike trail for the challenge or because that’s just what fits in or what you can snag a permit for, I’ve been there too, so enjoy that view!

More resources on Mount Whitney

Hiked it? Share your take!

What do you think? Is day hiking the way to go? Better to trade one long day for the effort of hauling a heavy pack up to have two? Leave a comment with your take.