This blog is published using extensive research along with insight from a trained wilderness first responder, Leave No Trace Trainer & Avalanche 1 Certified Mountain Rescue professional Beth Jeffery. Thank you, Beth, for your expertise.
Is climbing Mount Whitney on your hiking bucket list?
photo credit: Beth Jeffery
As preliminary permits for Mount Whitney start to roll out, now is the perfect time to talk about how to prepare for conquering large peaks.
Get ready to discover:
- What makes Mount Whitney such a popular mountain to climb
- The process of scoring a permit to hike Mount Whitney
- How to plan, prepare and train for Mount Whitney
- When to turn around instead of hiking on
- Mount Whitney safety tips
Keep in mind climbing peaks takes time and determination — not just while you’re on the trail but well before you set out.
In this guide, we put together an in-depth formula for how you can train for a successful summit on Mount Whitney, plus a whole lot more.
First let’s talk about why Mount Whitney is one of the most sought after summits in the country – and the world.
What Makes Mount Whitney So Popular?
If climbing Mount Whitney has been on your hiking bucket list, you’re not alone. People all over the world travel to California to tackle Whitney. Here’s why.
Fast facts about hiking Mount Whitney:
- With an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m), Whitney is the highest mountain in California and the lower 48 states.
- Mount Whitney is the 11th highest mountain in the United States, with all the others in Alaska.
- Mount Whitney is the 81st highest mountain in the world.
- All hikers who want to climb Mount Whitney must obtain a permit before doing so.
In addition to being the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney is one of the key highlights of the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, making this famous peak a milestone for thru-hikers, backpackers and day hikers alike.
If you are planning to summit Mount Whitney as a day hike using the popularly trafficked Mount Whitney Trail, you will need to plan, prepare and train for intense mileage and elevation gain.
The Whitney Trail Elevation & Mileage
- Trailhead elevation: 8,360 feet
- Whitney Trail mileage: 22 miles roundtrip
- Whitney Trail elevation gain: 6,646 feet
With such great heights comes incredible views from the top. You can also expect beautiful alpine lakes, waterfalls and meadows along the way. We highly recommend you stop to enjoy all of it, and don’t forget to rest your hardworking hiking feet!
The Best Time to Climb Mount Whitney
The best time to climb Mt Whitney is in the Summer in the months of July, August or early September when there is the least amount of snow and ice on the trail. This is the time we recommend you attempt your hike which makes the trail popular and busy. In order to prevent trail overuse there is a quota in place between May 1st and November 1st.
Now that you’re more familiar with Mount Whitney, and the best time to hike it, let’s quickly cover how you can secure a permit for this famous trek.
How Do You Get a Permit for Mount Whitney?
If you are seeking a permit for the ever-popular Mt Whitney Trail mentioned above, there is a trail quota and you will want to enter the lottery via recreation.gov.
The quota gives 100 people per entry day for Mt Whitney Zone Day Use permits (valid from midnight to midnight). 60 people per entry day are allowed for Mt Whitney Trail Overnight permits.
Typically, the lottery is open between February and March to get climbing permits for Whitney. See below for important dates to keep on your radar.
Important dates for Mt Whitney permits:
- February & March: the permit lottery is open for applications
- End of March: permit results are published
- End of April: deadline to confirm your Mt Whitney reservation
- Beginning of May: opportunity to secure an unclaimed permit
Keep in mind permits are non-negotiable to hike Mt Whitney and are required year-round.
If you don’t get a permit to hike the Mt Whitney Trail, there’s good news:
You can still get a permit to access Whitney from other trailheads, such as Cottonwood Lakes, Kearsarge Pass, the John Muir Trail and more. Refer to Inyo National Forest and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park websites to see what else is available.
There are also other mountains you can climb near Whitney that do not require permits, for example Mt. Langley, White Mountain Peak or Telescope Peak which can offer alternative views and experiences. So don’t fret if you can’t climb Whitney the first time you apply for permits. One last resort could be to join local online groups and forums and see if anyone has an extra permit that would be willing to offer it to you.
Now that you have a permit to hike Mt Whitney, it’s time to cover how you can plan, prepare and train for a successful summit. Let's start training!
How to Plan, Prepare and Train for Mount Whitney
photo credit: Beth Jeffery
As you now know, summiting Mount Whitney is quite a climb.
If you’re hiking the Mt Whitney Trail, you’re starting out at an elevation of 8,630 feet. By the time you reach the summit, you’ll have gained 6,200 feet of elevation. If hiking it all in one day, the roundtrip trek is 22 miles.
So, what can you do to prepare your body and mind for such a strenuous hike?
Below you will find tips, tools and resources to train for Mount Whitney, curated by the team at 52 Hike Challenge in collaboration with Beth Jeffery, trained wilderness first responder who has successfully summited Mount Whitney 11 times (and counting).
Keep reading to find out:
- What elements to prepare for while hiking Mount Whitney
- Training practices to get ready for the intensity of Whitney
- How long to train for Whitney
- How to train in the gym
Before you begin training for Mount Whitney, be aware that you will not only need to be physically fit for an intense climb, but you also need to plan and train for all the elements you may encounter throughout your hike.
Because Mount Whitney is a 14er in the Sierra Nevada range, it’s a good idea to be trained for snow travel. In addition to proper gear such as crampons, an ice ax and more, we recommend taking a mountaineering course through your local REI or another established school.
On top of snow travel training, any mountain of Whitney’s magnitude requires you to know your tolerance for high altitude. Everyone reacts differently, and knowing your limits will be important to your safety while on the mountain.
Luckily, there are ways you can train for both of the elements above, and we’re going to cover that right now.
The Best Way to Train for Mount Whitney
The absolute best and most practical way to train for Mount Whitney is by hiking similar peaks in the area. If you have access to mountains, this will give you the most realistic idea of what to expect while summiting Whitney.
Instead of speculating on what might work, we talked to Beth Jeffery who has successfully summited Mount Whitney 11 times.
Beth recommends you train by hiking the SoCal Six Pack of Peaks. This California-based hiking challenge encourages you to summit six different peaks that will prepare you for Whitney. For training purposes, we recommend starting with the most accessible and building to the most vigorous.
The original Six Pack of Peaks are:
- Mount Wilson (5,713’)
- Cucamonga Peak (8,859’)
- Mount Baldy (10,064’)
- San Bernardino Peak (10,649’)
- Mount San Jacinto (10,834’)
- San Gorgonio (11,503’)
Using this peak progression, you will be able to increase your altitude and elevation gain gradually. These peaks will also give you insight into your tolerance for altitude.
Since most of these mountains mimic the terrain you’ll find on Mount Whitney, you’ll be able to learn valuable skills in high elevation hiking, rock scrambling, snow travel and more.
According to Beth, San Gorgonio is most similar to Whitney in terms of miles, elevation gain and altitude.
Keep in mind you don’t need to hike these peaks in a week. In fact, we wouldn’t recommend it. Here’s how long we suggest you train for Mount Whitney.
How long should you train for Mount Whitney?
Keep in mind your mountain training is much like training for a marathon: it takes time and perseverance.
With that said, Beth recommends you train for a minimum of 12 weeks.
During this time, you should take at least one long hike per week (increase mileage by 10% each week) with shorter hikes sprinkled throughout. You’ll also want to increase pack weight as you go, if you plan to backpack Whitney.
This will give you time to acclimate to being on your feet for many hours throughout the day. After all, a 22-mile Mount Whitney day hike can take up to 19 hours.
Start with the mileage and elevation that is accessible for you and begin to build it over time.
By the end of your training, you should feel comfortable hiking all day long under windy, rainy and high altitude conditions.
But what if you don’t live close to the Six Pack of Peaks or any mountains at all?
If You Don’t Live Near Mountains, But You Still Want to Climb Whitney…
Is climbing Mount Whitney your ultimate outdoors goal, but you live in a place where you can’t train on similar peaks?
It’s still possible! You’ll just have to get creative.
You can train for elevation by using a stair stepper or walking the treadmill on an incline. Even better than that, try to find outdoor stairs so you can get used to climbing outdoors.
We recommend exercising four times per week at a minimum of 45 minutes per session. Plan to increase your intensity over time, and be sure to focus on cardiovascular exercise.
Once you arrive in California, it’s best to give yourself extra time to take a few day hikes on other peaks so you have an idea of what you’re getting into with Mount Whitney.
No matter how you choose to train for Mount Whitney, please remember the mountain will always be there, and the summit isn’t worth your life.
We want your Mount Whitney experience to be something you’ll never forget and won’t regret. Read on to find out when it’s a good idea to turn around instead of hiking on.
Mount Whitney Safety Tips & When to Turn Around Instead of Seeking the Summit
At 52 Hike Challenge, safety is and will always be our top priority. We want you to accomplish your hiking goals in a safe, manageable way. Sometimes that means your goal has to wait for another day.
Find out when (and why) you should turn around instead of summiting Mount Whitney.
5 Reasons to Cut Your Hike Short
- You or your hiking partner gets injured. Any type of injury that is limiting your ability to hike on should be a tell tale sign to turn around. The same goes for if someone in your group gets injured. Recreate responsibly by turning around with them to make sure they get off the trail safely.
- You or your hiking partner is showing signs of illness. On tall peaks like Mount Whitney, altitude sickness is a very real risk and can lead to more severe conditions like HAPE and HACE. Know the early signs such as loss of appetite and mild headache. If you’re backpacking and your symptoms worsen within 24-48 hours, evacuate.
- A storm is brewing. Mountains create their own weather, and Mount Whitney often has storms whether it’s in the form of snow, sleet, rain or lightning. Always check the weather before you set out and keep an eye on the clouds. Make it a goal to summit before noon since afternoon storms are typical.
- You’re not prepared or trained for snow travel. The Mount Whitney Trailhead could be green and perfect, but as you ascend the mountain, you may encounter unexpected snow. To avoid this, you can refer to snow reports before you go. If snow travel is in the forecast, don’t hike on unless you have proper gear and mountaineering training.
- You run out of water. For any hike, you should always carry the 10 Essentials, and Mount Whitney is definitely no exception. Water is essential. Without it, you put yourself at risk of dehydration, which is a common reason for Search and Rescue missions.
Now that you know when to turn around, let’s cover some quick tips to keep you safe on Mt Whitney.
Mount Whitney Safety Tips
- Don’t go alone. Having a hiking partner is basically a built-in accountability buddy. Together, you can do routine wellness checks, and you will have someone to help you in the event of an emergency.
- Eat and drink even if you’re not hungry or thirsty. During your Mount Whitney hike, you will be putting your body through a lot. Make sure to hydrate often, replenish with electrolytes if you need to, and eat snacks high in protein, calories and fat.
- Take breaks. Give your feet a break every 3-6 miles and take time to refuel. Don’t forget to look at all the beauty around you. You’re in Mount Whitney wilderness! Enjoy it.
- Bring proper gear. In addition to the 10 Essentials, pack for the elements such as snow, wind and rain. Some additional items include a helmet, crampons and ice ax. Pack insulated layers like a rain jacket, fleece and down jacket. Be prepared for freezing temperatures by carrying gloves and a beanie. We recommend you also carry microspikes at all times, even in the Summer as a precaution because you may still encounter ice on the switchbacks.
- Be weather aware. Refer to NOAA.gov and mountain-forecast.com before you go, and even more importantly, watch the clouds. In the event of unexpected inclement weather, make sure you’re under tree line and away from ridges, meadows and trees.
- Be a friend to fellow hikers. If you see someone who seems to be struggling more than usual, take time to ask if they’re doing okay. Look out for each other on the trail.
- Don’t get summit fever. Be smart. If you feel sick, unwell or are injured, turn around. The mountain will be waiting for you when you’re ready.
Additional Resources for Mount Whitney Hikers
Find real-time trail conditions on Mount Whitney and California Peaks Facebook groups
Check the weather on NOAA.gov and mountain-forecast.com
Apply for permits on recreation.gov. You can learn more about the process here fs.usda.gov/inyo and nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm
Call the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office at 760-873-2483 for questions about your permit
Get detailed Mount Whitney Trail information at AllTrails.com, Facebook groups and forums
See Doug at the Whitney Portal Store for the most delicious post-hike burger or pre-hike pancakes
Start Training for the Summit
photo credit: Beth Jeffery
Looking for a way to stay committed and build up to your big hiking goals?
Sign up for the 52 Hike Challenge, which will motivate you to get outside regularly and help you start building endurance and mind-body strength. You can join any time! We also think you’d like the Highlander Adventure happening September through October 2022 and Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge happening annually in May and June as add-on training opportunities.
Did you get a permit to hike Mount Whitney this year? What else do you want to know about this bucket list hike? Let us know in the comments!