What To Know Before Embarking On The Trending Mount Whitney Hike

If you are someone who loves hiking, then you probably spend a decent amount of time researching treks as you search for trails that offer the prettiest vistas and highest summits. For hikers based in the United States, that research typically leads to one place: Mount Whitney. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, the peak of Mount Whitney stands at a whopping 14,494 feet above sea level, making it the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S. The journey to summit Mount Whitney is a challenging high-altitude trek that involves an elevation gain of 6,000 feet and is usually done over a period of 12 to 16 hours — the perfect challenge for thrill-seeking adventurers. 

If you've already done some research on Mount Whitney, then you probably already know that this hike can be done as a day trip or split up over two days. The one-day option requires less gear but also comes with a higher risk of developing altitude sickness. The two-day option requires more gear — like cooking supplies, food, and bear canisters – but offers more time to acclimatize. However, no matter how you decide to hike Mount Whitney, what many people don't know is that the first step is to get a permit.

Permits required to hike Mount Whitney

A hiking permit is a document that states you are allowed to hike a specific trail on a specific day. These permits help limit the number of people on a trail and protect hikers and the environment from the dangers of overcrowding.

For Mount Whitney, it is important to apply for the permit for the correct trail because there are multiple different paths up the mountain; only one is suitable for hiking and not mountaineering. This trail starts at the Whitney Portal which is located in Inyo National Forest. If you plan to hike Whitney in one day, then you will need to apply for the day-use permit. If you want to do the trek in two days, you will need to apply for the overnight permit instead. Both of these permits can be found at recreation.gov under Inyo National Forest wilderness permits. If you plan to spend the night on Whitney, some of the popular campgrounds also require prior reservations.

If you want to spend more than two nights on the trail, then there are also some great multi-day backpacking trips that will give you access to Mount Whitney. The High Sierra Trail is a six-day trek that often ends with summiting Whitney and another option is the famous John Muir Trail. These trails require their own special permits.

How to get a permit to hike Mount Whitney

The day-use and overnight Mount Whitney permits work on a lottery system which typically opens on February 1st and closes on March 1st each year for hiking slots in the May to October hiking season. Getting a permit for Mount Whitney has a lot to do with luck and you may have to try multiple times as only around 29% of people who apply are successful, per San Diego Magazine. In general, the day-use permits are typically easier to get than the overnight permits.

When you apply for the permit lottery, you can choose up to 10 different potential dates that work for you and your hiking group. Most hikers go for slots in July, August, and September as these months offer the best weather. Some or all of the Mount Whitney trail is typically covered in snow in May and October, so it is best to avoid those dates unless you have experience with ice hiking and are willing to use crampons and ice axes.

If you are lucky enough to get a permit, you need to claim it and pay for it by April 21. On April 22 of each year, all unclaimed permits are made available for purchase. So, if you weren't lucky enough to get a permit in the lottery, it's worth checking the website again on April 22 at 7 a.m. to see if any slots have reopened.