Hiking Mount Whitney 14,505 ft. for the first time as a beginner backpacker

Two weeks ago [8.25.15] at 9 am, I summited Mt Whitney… and it was amazing!!  How many people can say that?  Well I’ve been told only 30% of hikers who attempt it will succeed in summiting.  I’ve never even thought about doing this until early this year.  I knew someone that went last year, and someone else asked me to go this year… so I thought sure… why not… it’ll be a good short-term goal and quite an accomplishment.  That’s when I got really into hiking and decided to train with the Socal Six Pack of Peaks.  Mount Whitney is one of those big hikes you really want to be prepared for, so if you are like me, you want to read up as much as you can about other hikers’ experience.

It’s true what they say… the Mount Whitney Trail is like a freeway… you can’t get lost. It is definitely the most beautiful hike I’ve been on. All of my training hikes have definitely prepared me well for this; the hike actually seems relatively easy if you don’t take into account lugging around a gigantic, heavy, backpack.  I definitely want to try this as a day hike next year.  This is what nature should look like everywhere… unfortunately, California is too dry to start with and the drought doesn’t help. 🙁

Read on for my lengthy, detailed Mt Whitney hike experience including our timeline & a ton of unfiltered pics… just so you can get a feel for every view I had 😉 

Schedule for One Night Backpacking Whitney Trail:

[Day 1]
9:30 – 11:35 am:  Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake
12:35 – 1:15 pm:  Lone Pine Lake to Outpost Camp
1:15 – 1:40 pm:  Outpost Camp to Mirror Lake
2:00 – 3:55 pm:  Mirror Lake to Trail Camp

[Day 2]
5:00 – 6:40 am:  Trail Camp through 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest / Sequoia boundary
7:00 – 9:15 am:  Trail Crest to Mount Whitney Summit

10:05 – 11:40 am:  Whitney Summit to 99 switchbacks
12:00 – 12:30/1:00 pm:  99 switchbacks to Trail Camp (can’t remember the exact time we got down to camp)
2:25 – 3:55 pm:  Trail Camp to Whitney Zone Border / Lone Pine Lake
3:55 – 5:00 pm:  Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal

Hike Report: Hiking Mount Whitney as a beginner hiker


Woke up at 7 am and started our hike by 9:30 am.  We got a motel in Lone Pine the night before so we were close.  To start with, it’s the middle/ end of August… so it was a seriously hot day.  My backpack weight in at 31 lbs… that’s a bit more than a quarter of my own body weight!

The beginning of the trail was familiar since we were here the day before.  The trail to Lone Pine Lake is 2.5 miles ish I believe.  There were a couple small waterfalls and creeks to pass which made the trail an enjoyable sight.  This part of the trail to Lone Pine Lake seemed endless… I expected it to be shorter.  It’s a steady, slight incline with a good amount of switchbacks after the first mile or so.

I really do struggle with weight so I made frequent breaks.  Luckily, Eric moved at a slower pace with me, but Duy just took off and powered through, stopping every now and then to wait for us.  

We arrived at Lone Pine Lake at 11:35 am, about 2.5 hours after starting.  This was definitely a sight for sore eyes… one of my absolute favorite views from the hike.  I’ve seen so many others post pictures of it so I was really looking forward to it.  Duy and I hiked around the entire lake which took us about 20 mins which was neat; you see the lake from all views as well as the mountain views from the back side of the lake.  I heard the water was very cold but many people dived in from a small rock… Duy included.  I also tried to pass off some of my snacks because I realized that’s where I overpacked… because I was afraid to starve.  I’ve done practice backpacking training hikes before, but this was my first real one, so I probably didn’t know better.  We met a lot of nice hikers and I gave a man some of my snacks, also because he didn’t have any granola bars.  All in all, we were at Lone Pine Lake for about 1 hr.

* note:  Lone Pine Lake is as far as one can hike without a permit.

Back on the trek.  Right after the Lone Pine Lake, we continued on the Mount Whitney trail and entered the Whitney Zone (permit only) right away.  The views changed.  We hiked higher and you’re able to get a good look at Lone Pine Lake and the surrounding mountains, but it’s definitely prettier close-up.  Do not skip the lake if it’s your first time – I promise, the view is worth it.  

Anyways, a few switchbacks later, we took a short decline (and I am telling you this so you remember you have to hike up this on the way back) and we soon entered the meadow area.  This was around 1 pm.  There’s a small creek running to the right side and the water is amazingly crystal clear!  Now, it’s like you’re on a whole different hike.

Outpost Camp [10000 ft] was the next point of interest on the trail.  Just before reaching it (I think it’s only 1.5 miles ish from the Lone Pine), you will see a tall waterfall to the left and there are rocks one must use to cross the creek before arriving at the dry and ugly Outpost Camp. We arrived here at 1:15 pm.  There is nothing to see here but the distant waterfall.  You also walk on rocks to cross another very small creek when you turn the corner to leave camp.

The next part of the hike is to Mirror Lake.  This wasn’t much farther, maybe a mile at most.  The trail ascends more and we were walking on bouldered/ stone trails along the meadow).  You will cross another small creek and hear a bigger creek (which you do not cross) about 10-15 mins after leaving outpost camp.  Soon after the small creek, we decided to take a break.  Little did we know, Mirror Lake was literally a few feet away to the right side of the trail in the woods.  There is a sign hidden in the woods on a tree; obviously we couldn’t read it from afar though.  We arrived here at 1:40 pm, relaxed and ate.  There’s so many itty bitty little fishes in the lake!  It wasn’t as pretty as the other one, but the water was clear along the edge so it was cool to look at.

We left at 2 pm and the next destination was our camp site – Trail Camp [12000 ft] to be exact.  The stone-surface trail here inclined steeper than the last part, but about 25-30 mins in, the trail really picks up and you will find yourself climbing slightly steeper up rocks.  There are lots of water sources from here until camp, but around 2:40 pm, we got our first views of the bigger creek and meadow that runs parallel to the trail.  This will be your side view until you get close to camp.  You will ascend a lot and there will be lots of switchbacks with little shade.  It was the part of the hike that I felt most strenuous and didn’t know how long it would take me to make it.  I felt like I took so many small breaks and had to push my body forward.  I knew I was close in terms of miles but it just seemed so far… so close but so far. Needless to say, the struggle was real.  -_-

It was around 3 pm and so many hikers were coming off the mountain (I’m assuming they summited in the morning). By 3:20, we finally caught up to Duy and a break.  The last 40 minutes, starting from the water meadow source, felt more like 2 hours!  The view looking back towards the trail was breathtaking… but the view looking forward was dreadful.  More rocks, more inclines, no camp in site.  Whomp whomp.  I remember it was also windy because my hat blew off my head!  Luckily, it got caught between rocks and didn’t fly off the mountain I just worked so hard to climb up.

After a short break, we continued and arrived at Consultation Lake at 3:40 pm.  We didn’t bother to stay and just kept moving because we were so close to camp, my feet were starting to ache, and I just wanted to get settled in already.  It’s been a loooooooong day.  By 3:55 pm, we made it to Trail Camp!  6.5 hours later from the start… we finally made it!  Excluding the hour we spent at Lone Pine Lake, and probably another hour in total of breaks, I’d estimate the hike from Whitney Portal to Trail Camp to be 4.5 hours of one foot in front of the other, and 6.5 miles.

trail camp whitney at sunset

There’s a smaller (but still big) lake here everyone filtered water at, including us.  Marmots were all around us… what they tell you about them is true.  These sneaky little guys (ok, they aren’t little actually, they’re like blown up fat versions of squirrels) will try to steal your food!  One of us always had to stay at our campsite so make sure the marmots didn’t steal anything.  There were two in particular that kept coming back so we had to throw rocks at them… small ones didn’t scare them so we threw slightly biggers ones near them. 🙁  That did the trick… temporarily.  After setting up camp, filtering water, and eating, it was only 6 pm… and we were bored and restless with nothing to do.  You would think we would be exhausted enough to crash by now… but nope.  I got comfy in my warm sleeping bag and went to bed before 8 pm.  The air got really smokey outside because there was a forest fire nearby, but luckily we didn’t smell or inhale it inside our tent.

It was a sleepless night, but Duy got up at 2:50 in the morning… like actually up and out and disturbing the peace inside our tent haha.  Our plan was to wake up and start hiking by 4 am, because I was really paranoid a thunderstorm might hit out of nowhere.  Luckily, it was great weather to summit.  Anyways, I was so tired so I woke up at 4:30 am and we started hiking by 5 am.  One thing I love about being out in the wilderness at night is the stars… the entire sky was filled with twinkling little lights, and brightly lit stars, and it was amazing.  Sight for sore eyes.  Too bad the camera couldn’t capture this beauty.

So this was my first time hiking in pitch black, needing the headlamps.  As we started towards the infamous 99 switchbacks, I saw some brighter lights in the sky which I then realized were actually other hikers’ headlamps.  We were able to see all the lights at different levels from the ground to the top of the mountains… and moving.  You could really see just how high you would be going and although it was intimidating, that was neat.  I needed to fixate my mind on something other than wondering are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet… so I counted the switchbacks.  No, it’s not as miserable as everyone thinks… until you get to switchback #89 & 97 — those two were endless.  Many of the switchbacks were short, but there were the few long trails.  I only counted 97 switchbacks, but there were some that kind of curved but didn’t actually make the u-turn of a switchback so I didn’t count those.  At 5:20 am… day breaks — I finally saw some light in the morning sky.  By 6 am, the sun rose and I no longer needed my headlamp.  At 6:40 am, we finally reached the end of the switchbacks and arrived at Trail Crest which is also the border of Sequoia National Park.

After a 20-30 mins break, we continued on.  At 7 in the morning, Trail Crest is all shaded and the winds felt strong (I think it was 5mph); even though I was covered from head to toe… I was freezing still.  My body warmed up from the hike, but I couldn’t feel my fingers, despite buying new gloves right before my trip.  My fingers were so cold that it started to feel warm & tingly… like a burning sensation.  Anyways, once we started on Trail Crest, the winds were blocked by the pinnacles.  You descend a few feet at first until you arrive at the 1.9 mile Mt Whitney sign, conveniently next to the “EXTREME DANGER FROM LIGHTNING” sign.  We started here at 7:30 am and this part felt endless.  It was really rocky and we had to climb up and down a lot.  I used my hiking poles from the 99 switchbacks through trail crest and to the top.  I knew I would ascend a at a high elevation in a short distance this morning so I relied on my sticks to keep me grounded.  Luckily, my fear of heights did not get the best of me… on the way up at least.  The views were amazing, especially once you get to the “windows” between the pinnacles, you get the front view towards Trail Camp direction.  I didn’t think too much about the heights here because my only concern was making it to summit.  The trails do get a little harder to see after the pinnacles when you just reach the open rock area, but it was still easy to find.  Just remember you will be climbing up rocks.

At 9:05 am, we got the first views of the top — the infamous hut you aren’t supposed to hide inside.  10 mins later at 9:15 am on Tuesday August 25 2015, we summited Mount Whitney!!!  It really is amazing to be that high… knowing nobody else will ever be taller on land in the contiguous USA… knowing that you’re on top of the world! Haha jk, only on top of the U.S. 🙂 I don’t think the pictures will do it justice, but take a look.  I have some video footage too from the overall hike which I’ll figure out how to edit/ upload later.

We didn’t stay up there too long and headed down at 10:05 am.  Arrived back at the Sequoia National Park border by 11:40 am, started down the infamous 99 switchbacks at 11:55 am, and off by 12:30-1pm (can’t remember).  We rested at camp for awhile, packed up, and started our final descent at 2:25 pm.  We started off together but all moved at our own pace and I arrived off the mountain, back at Whitney Portal, at 5 pm. Going down, the weather got chillier and it started to sprinkle; I even put on my rain gear because the sprinkling got heavier and I was afraid it would start to pour while I am on the go.  Better safe than sorry, right?  Well, I also had to unlayer it all because it got too hot and the rain was not coming.  When I got the the log-bridge right after entering back into Lone Pine, I saw a 4-legged creature.  I was completely alone at this time.  I wondered (or hoped) if it was dog… so I called out… but no response.  I think I stood there for a good 5-10 mins wondering if I should brave it and move forward, or wait for Eric to catch up.  I braved it with my little knife in my hand, and for the rest of the trek down.  It was a dear… first dear I’ve ever seen in real like up-close and personal.  It was huge!  It was taller than I am… & I’m 5’5″!!  Anyways, that was my only wild animal encounter aside from the marmots.

It’s a first experience I never want to forget so excuse the lengthy entry 🙂

Mt Whitney Overnight Camping Gear List:

Recap of my first Eastern Sierra trip: Mt Whitney & Alabama Hills

13 thoughts on “Hiking Mount Whitney 14,505 ft. for the first time as a beginner backpacker”

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  2. This is awesome! I always want to do Mt. Whitney but sometimes I’m a little bit afraid of doing it myself. I’m getting back to training for Whitney, hopefully can do it this year. Just a small question, did you have to reserve the permit before or did you get to the Visitor Center early to pick up those walk-in permits? Thanks!

    1. Thank you! You do need to reserve a permit and it’s a lotto system that’s coming up around Feb/Mar. If you have any questions about the Whitney hike, let me know! The first time is definitely nerve-wrecking, but my second time felt much more like a piece of cake. 😉

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