6 days, 5 nights (includes time to set up a car shuttle)
*clicking the map of the hike will take you to my Garmin Page where you can find an interactive map. Garmin users can also download the course to their GPS devices.
You'll want to get an "Overnight, Exiting Whitney Permit." Permits can be booked up to 6 months in advance on, http://www.recreation.gov
They book fast so log in at 7 am, right when they go on sale for your best chance. Even doing that, it still took me longer than a week to secure three spots, so be flexible with your dates.
Car Shuttle Details
You'll first want to leave a car in the Trailhead Parking Lot at Whitney Portal. Then drive North to the town of Independence and follow the signs towards Onion Valley. I chose to camp at Onion Valley in the campground and then leave from there in the morning. In the morning, you'll want to move your car to the trailhead parking lot.
For camping reservations at Onion Valley, click here
Depending on where you are coming from your day one is most likely going to be setting up your car shuttle from Whitney Portal to Onion Valley. Since I live in the Sacramento area, my group spent our first day setting up car shuttles and staying overnight at Onion Valley Campground (see below for pic of the campsite). If you are flying into the area, it’s probably faster to fly into Reno or Southern California and drive from there.
Onion Valley Campground is a primitive campground that can't accommodate larger RV's. For more information check out the facility details on the Recreation.gov website when making reservations.
Once at Onion Valley Campground, if time permits I recommend getting acclimated by taking a short day hike along one of the many trails that begin from here. You'll be taking the Kearsarge Pass trail when you set off in the morning, so if you want to see something else, I recommend taking one of the other trails. The area is full of waterfalls, creeks, and streams so you should be able to find a nice warm up hike pretty easily.
We brought hot dogs and beer and after our hike had a nice campground style dinner and beer while we packed our bags and got ready for tomorrow morning's early departure.
I'd recommend getting an early start on day two because the last stretches of the trail before Kearsarge Pass are exposed and can get hot in the midday sun. We chose to leave and be on the trail by sunrise which made for a beautiful hike watching the sunrise over the Owens Valley (see above).
The Kearsarge Pass Trail is a relatively easy pass as far as Eastern Sierra passes go. You'll find that you'll climb, then reach a bench, before climbing again and this repeats a few times on the way up. The trail is also very well graded making it much better than one, long steep climb.
On the way up you'll pass a few lakes, cascades, and waterfalls and have some great views of University Peak (see below). If you didn't want to camp at Onion Valley the night before, another option would be hiking to Gilbert Lake (pictured below) or one of the other lakes on the way up. The last lake before the pass is Big Pothole Lake (below right), this is probably the only lake on the way up that doesn't have good spots for camping nearby.
After hiking approximately 4.7 miles, you'll reach Kearsarge Pass. It's from this vantage point that you'll realize it was well worth the hike just for the view (see below left). From the pass, all the grandeur of King's Canyon and Sequoia National Park lay before you. You can see the Kearsarge Pinnacles with the Kearsarge Lakes resting below them. You can see Bullfrog Lake and Mt. Brewer and the rest of the Great Western Divide. Make sure to stop and take in the views for a few minutes before beginning your descent down towards the Kearsarge Lakes.
When descending from Kearsarge Pass, you'll encounter an option to take a high trail towards Charlotte Lake and Glen Pass or keep heading down and then take a lower trail that will take you to the shores of Bullfrog Lake (below right). Take the lower trail and in approximately 2.4 miles you'll reach a junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT). Take the JMT south as you begin descending to Vidette Meadow and Bubbs Creek.
It's approximately a one-mile descent from the junction with the JMT to Vidette Meadow. As you begin the descent to Vidette Meadow, you'll have a great view (below left) of the Bubbs Creek Drainage, Center Peak, The East Vidette, and the route up the canyon towards Forester Pass. Take a good look because you'll be spending the better part of the next 24 hours in this canyon as you ascend towards Forester Pass on day three.
Once you reach the bottom of the descent, it's approximately 7.3 miles to Forester Pass, the highest point on the JMT. We chose to hike for about a mile or two before pulling over to camp for the night next to Bubb's Creek (see below right)
Depending on where along Bubbs Creek you choose to camp you could have up to a 7.3-mile hike up the canyon towards Forester Pass. At 13,180 feet Forester Pass is the highest point on the JMT and will be the highest point you reach until the last day of the trip, and you begin ascending Mt. Whitney. That's why we chose to hike a few miles up the canyon and make it only 5 miles on day three to reach the pass.
Please be advised when I say "only 5 miles" it's far from easy. In fact, this was the hardest day of the trip, even harder than the last day and summiting Whitney. We became quite accustomed to the phrase "Fear Forester" because it took us the better part of the day just reaching the pass.
Despite the challenge, the ascent up the pass is absolutely gorgeous, and if I could do it again, I would break it up in 2 days and get some time to fish and enjoy this beautiful area. As you ascend, you will have views of Bubbs Creek (below left), Center Peak, and Junction Peak (below right). Take your time and enjoy watching them get closer and closer. Also, make sure to stop and look behind you as you gain elevation and the entire Bubbs Creek Drainage sits below you.
The climb up Forester Pass may feel like forever, especially if you have been staring at Junction Peak the whole way. By the time we made it to the lake just below Junction Peak (below left), we were exhausted and looked up to see that Forester Pass was still another 1,000 feet above us. We were already starving and ready for lunch, so we stopped here to eat lunch and get some fuel for the final push to the summit.
Just after this beautiful alpine lake, you'll reach a gorgeous overlook (below right) where you can see the entire valley you have been hiking in all day and all of the Bubbs Creek Drainage. From this vantage point, you can understand why you feel so tired and aren't even to the pass yet.
By the time you finally reach Forester Pass it feels like you've been hiking all day. You'll probably be feeling the effects of the altitude as well so you may want to head quickly down the other side of Forester Pass to get to lower elevations. However, if you are feeling up to it, make sure to stop and take in the views and pose for a picture on the pass (below).
Forester Pass also has a small chute (see below) that you can look through down onto Diamond Mesa and further down the canyon towards the treeline is Tyndall Creek, your destination for the night. Don't get too discouraged when you see how far away the forest line is knowing that is your camp for the evening. The good news is that it's all downhill from here. If you need to get water, the lakes and streams in Diamond Mesa will be a good place to stop.
Once down on Diamond Mesa take a minute to look back up at Forester Pass (below top left). It's quite impressive to think that they were able to build a trail down that mountain!!! Also from Diamond Mesa is where you will get your first glimpse of Mt. Whitney off in the distance (below top right). Just imagine, in three days you'll be standing up there.
From Forester Pass, it's approximately 4.4 miles to Tyndall Creek, your destination for the night (below bottom left and right). If that's too far, there are camping options up at higher elevations on Diamond Mesa, but we wanted to get further down to make the last few days easier. When we got to camp, we were so exhausted we didn't even want to cook dinner and instead opted to eat some energy bars, drink lots and lots of water, and get to bed early.
Overall, day three is one of the hardest days when doing the trip the way we did it. It makes day three the 2nd longest day of the trip when you are still acclimating and have a lot of weight in your pack. Depending on your conditioning, you may want to make day three shorter and just add more distance to day five. However, we ended up enjoying the easy day five before summiting Mt. Whitney on day six.
From Tyndall Creek, it's only 16 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney, so how you break up the next three days and two nights is up to you. As I was mentioning earlier, we chose to make for a relaxing fifth day so we could rest up before our summit day. If you decide to do the same, you'll be hiking 8.4 miles today to Upper Crabtree Meadows and the ranger station there. If you choose not to camp at Crabtree Meadows, there are lots of other options for Day Four. You could make an early stop on Bighorn Plateau, you could camp at Wallace Creek, or you could go past Crabtree Meadows to Guitar Lake.
One of the nice benefits of staying at Upper Crabtree Meadows is that they have a backcountry vault toilet you can use. After a few days of digging holes, this can be a nice luxury. You'll also have to stop here anyways to pick up your WAG bag which will be needed if you plan on going to the bathroom above treeline. A WAG bag is a way to use the restroom and pack it out since you can't find many places to dig an appropriate hole above treeline. Also, this route is so popular (as you will see at Guitar Lake) that without them it would be a disgusting sight above treeline because of all the human waste.
Leaving Tyndall Creek, you will hike for about 2 miles as you climb from the valley to Bighorn Plateau (see below). Bighorn Plateau (below) is a broad plateau at around 12,000 feet. From here you'll get expansive views of The Kaweah Divide, The Great Western Divide, Mt. Whitney and her surrounding peaks, and back towards where you came and Forester Pass. There is also a small lake where you can camp and get water. Please note, if you choose to camp here, there is little to no shade and you are fully exposed, so plan accordingly. When we were up here, there was a lot of smoke, so I edited my photos a bit differently to account for the lack of clarity.
Once you've spent some time soaking up the grand vistas seen from Bighorn Plateau, you'll continue along the JMT and start heading down to Wallace Creek. From Tyndall Creek, it's approximately 4.2 miles to Wallace Creek. There are some good campsites here along the creek if you choose not to camp at Crabtree Meadows, and you'll find a lot fewer people if that's what you are looking for.
From Wallace Creek, you start climbing again up the other side of the canyon and have about 3.4 miles to go before the next trail junction. This is where the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and the JMT separate. From here you'll follow the JMT to get to Upper Crabtree Meadows. After about one more mile of hiking, you'll reach a trail marker. This is also where you can pick up your WAG bag. There should be a bin right near the trail junction marker. If not, proceed to the ranger station in Upper Crabtree Meadows to get one. If you are continuing to Guitar Lake, make sure to grab one now but if you are camping at Crabtree Meadows you can get one tomorrow morning. From this junction, you'll head downhill and cross Whitney Creek (see below). Across the creek is a large open meadow. There are numerous campsites scattered in the trees surrounding the meadow (see below) and at the far end of the meadow is where you'll find the backcountry toilet.
By doing the trip this way you will be able to enjoy the first relaxing morning of the trip because you'll only have a short hike to Guitar Lake. From Crabtree Meadows its about 3 miles. Take your time and wash up, have an extra cup of coffee, and enjoy having a toilet seat to sit on if you have to use the restroom.
Once you are ready to go, you'll start climbing slowly towards Timberline Lake. Timberline Lake is a beautiful lake nestled right at timberline. However, you can't camp here. All camping around Timberline Lake is banned. When we were here there was a lot of smoke impacting the photos below, but you can see it was still a beautiful area.
From Timberline Lake you have a short hike up to the next shelf that contains Guitar Lake.
Once you reach Guitar Lake, there are numerous campsites on the granite ledges surrounding the lake (see below). I will warn you though, if you camp here don't expect a lot of privacy. By the evening there could be over 100 people camped around the lake, all preparing to summit the next day.
If you are looking for fewer people, consider heading to two small tarns just up the trail from Guitar Lake. These have enough room for a few tents so you may have some neighbors, but nothing like Guitar Lake. Another option for more privacy is to hike cross country to the Hitchcock Lakes. This adds some distance but would be worth it and is probably what I'll do next time.
Despite all the people, Guitar Lake is still a magnificent high alpine lake. If you look hard enough, you will find trash and signs of human abuse but on the surface, the lake is absolutely stunning because of the views. From the eastern shore, the lake has an infinity pool type look with the Kaweah Divide rising in the distance. This makes for a breathtaking sunset (see below). Just remember how many people are camped here and please clean up after yourself and use your WAG bag. Most importantly, pack it out!!! If you turn over a few rocks, you'll find that some jerks decided just to stash their WAG bag under a rock. It's a shame how people can ruin such a beautiful place.
Also remember this lake is fully exposed so finding a spot next to a large boulder for some shade can be helpful. I'd also recommend an early bedtime. Some hikers start setting off as early as midnight to catch the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Whitney and even if you don't leave that early, I'd recommend leaving no later than 4:30 am if you want to get the bulk of the climb over before the sun is on you.
Wakey, wakey, it's summit day! Today is the culmination of the entire journey so if you didn't sleep well due to the excitement, it's understandable. I got up around 4 am and was packed and ready to set off after eating breakfast around 4:40. Make sure to dress in layers and keep your headlamp out since it will be necessary for the first hour or so of the hike. Temperatures also can vary depending on the wind direction, the sun, etc., so wearing layers will be necessary both for the ascent and also to enjoy the summit. Be prepared, today is going to be the longest day of the hike in terms of mileage, close to 15 miles. However, I don't think it's as hard of a day as the day going over Forester Pass because you have less weight in your pack and are much more acclimated.
From Guitar Lake, it's about 3 miles to the Trail Crest which is where you can drop your pack for the final stretch to the summit. I heard rumors of some very pesky marmots that can chew through your pack for food when it's left at the Trail Crest, so I chose to take my bear can out of my pack before leaving it here. While hiking up the ridge towards Trail Crest make sure to stop and admire the sunrise. From this vantage point, you'll be able to watch the sun slowly light up the Sierra Nevadas and work its way down to the valley. It was really one of the most magical sunrises I have ever seen (images below).
From the Trail Crest it's a two-mile hike to the summit of Mt. Whitney. You'll be spending most of this time ascending the last 1,000 feet before you reach the highest point in the lower 48 states. I chose to take this part slow because there are a few sections where you don't want to fall, and the impact from the elevation can make some people light-headed increasing the chances of losing your balance. It's also a beautiful ridgeline that will pass Mt. Muir, the Whitney Windows (see below), and also provides a great view down to Guitar Lake and your camp last night. From this vantage point, you can really tell why they call it Guitar Lake (below).
Keep following the ridgeline until you reach the beginning of the broad summit of Mt. Whitney.
Once you reach the broad summit of Mt. Whitney, the views to your west and across the heart of the Sierra Nevada come into full view (above). From here you can see your entire journey since crossing Forester Pass, you can see Kern Canyon which looks like a massive cut out of the mountain landscape, and you can see the Kaweah Divide to the west.
Continue up the mellow graded summit until you reach the summit marker (below) and the Whitney Hut (below). Note, the Whitney Hut is not a safe place to hide in the event of a thunderstorm. The tin roof will attract lightning, so if lightning looks like it's on the horizon, you'll want to get down quickly.
Take some time enjoying the summit and the feeling of being on top of the world (see below). It's likely to be windy and cold at this elevation so hopefully you wore layers. If you walk all the way to the eastern most point of the summit, you can see the road leading up to the Whitney Portal and the remaining portion of the hike, along with the Owens Valley. Also, make sure to sign the summit registry located outside the Whitney Hut.
Once you are done with the summit, head back the way you came until you get to the Trail Crest. From here head up and over the crest to the beginning of the 99 switchbacks. I didn't count if there were actually 99 but it sure felt like it. It's going to be a long, 6,000-foot descent for the next 8.5 miles to your car that's waiting at the Whitney Portal. By the time you are done with Day Six, you will have hiked close to 15 miles, so if you don't want to do this much mileage in a day, you could stop at one of the two trail camps on the Whitney Portal Trail. Just make sure you have an extra WAG bag because they are required on this side of the mountain too.
I hope you enjoy the trip and if you have any questions, please let me know.
Jeff Driscollon July 1, 2017
@Chelsea Ruth Barnes, thanks for sharing! I hope you guys enjoy the trip. I may be going back this summer as well but coming in from the south. I've got a lot more hikes to add from the High Sierras and throughout California so I hope you keep checking back for other ideas.
Chelsea Ruth Barneson July 1, 2017
We plan to do this trip in a few weeks - thanks so much for the information! It's been very helpful for our planning.