Everything and Anything You Need to Know for a Two-Day Mt. Whitney Hike
Updated: Jul 7
You’ve got the permit, now what? What will the trail look like? Where should you camp? How long will each section take? How do you know where to find water on the trail? Where’s the best place to rent a bear canister? What acclimatization hikes are near Lone Pine? Where are the best places to eat in Lone Pine? These questions and more are answered in this post!
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Training, Packing, and Food
I have written separate articles for Training for Mt. Whitney in Chicago, What to Pack for a Mt. Whitney Hike, and Food Strategy for a Mt. Whitney Hike. Check out the links for each article for more details on each topic.
There are a few things that you will need to take care of the day before your hike:
1. Call to Check-in and Print your Permits
Call the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office at 760-873-2483 to check in. Once you are checked in the office emails you the permits that you need to print and carry with you on the hike. I have read reviews of hikers who were stopped to show their permit so be sure to bring it.
2. Rent a Bear Canister
Although bears usually don’t live or hang out in the high-altitude areas of the Whitney trail, you are required to bring a bear canister with you on the hike. The canisters are also useful for keeping marmots out of your food at the camp and work well as a camp stool.
Hikers don’t need to keep all of their food in the canister during the day. All food needs to go in the canister overnight and during the summit hike. Keep this in mind when deciding what size canister to rent. Your day one lunch and dinner don’t need to fit into it. For two people doing a two-day hike, we were fine with the smallest canister available.
The Whitney Portal rents canisters, as does Elevation Sierra Essentials in Lone Pine. Most REIs in California also rent them. We rented from Elevation in Lone Pine and it was $13 for two days. They also offer a late-night or early-morning drop-off option if the store hours don’t work with your schedule.
3. Buy any Last Minute Groceries or Gear
I recommend buying most of your snacks, food, and gear before arriving in Lone Pine. There is one small market in Lone Pine (Lone Pine Market) that is an option for buying any fresh food that you plan to take (apples, oranges, carrots) but don’t count on them stocking your favorite candy or snack. It is a small store with limited a selection.
Elevation in Lone Pine is a convenient stop for any last-minute gear hikers need, blister treatment, camping meals, energy bars, gels, and even sleeping bags and tents. It’s a small store, so their selection is limited, but they do carry most of the gear you need.
Set aside plenty of time to pack your bag the day or night before. My friend and I laid out all of our gear and food to take photos of it. Laying it all out also helps to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything. We also brought a small luggage scale so that we could weigh our bags and make adjustments if needed. See my Packing for Mt. Whitney article for more strategies and tips!
5. Download an Offline Map of the Trail
The Whitney trail is well maintained and clearly visible in most parts (in July with no snow). It was still useful to have an offline map for a few spots where we were unsure what was trail and what wasn’t. It is also a smart emergency backup item to have in case something does go wrong.
6. Practice Setting up Your Tent and Opening the Bear Canister
If you are using a new tent or a rental, practice setting it up. When setting up our tent at Trail Camp after hiking, we were tired, and dealing with altitude sickness and high winds. Knowing how to set up our tent ahead of time helped. We also struggled with opening the bear canister initially, so make sure you have the hang of that too!
7. Spend Time at Altitude for Acclimatization
It is recommended that you spend time at an altitude above 10,000 feet at least the day before the hike. This helps your body become accustomed to the higher altitude that you will experience on the hike and can help prevent altitude sickness. Some hikers choose to spend multiple days at high altitude, and others camp at altitude two nights before the hike and then sleep in Lone Pine the night before the hike. (Lone Pine is the closest town to the Whitney trailhead.) Depending on where you are coming from, you could also spend time in the Mammoth Lake area of California which is at high elevation as well.
The day before our Whitney hike we hiked at elevation in the Cottonwood Lakes area, to spend time moving at a higher altitude. I’ve outlined the best options near Lone Pine for camping or hiking at high altitudes. I knew that I never slept as well when camping, so we decided to prioritize a good night’s sleep and stayed at a hotel in Lone Pine the night before our hike.
High-Altitude Camping Options Near Lone Pine:
Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Walk-In Campgrounds, 10,000 feet- 13 campgrounds that are first come, first serve.
Cottonwood Pass Trailhead Campsite,11,200 feet- 18 campgrounds that are first come first serve.
Whitney Portal Campground, 8,000 feet- reservations are allowed. The advantage of camping here is being right at the start of the trail for the next morning.
Horseshoe Meadow Campgrounds, 10,000 feet- 10 campsites, first come first serve. They are intended to be equestrian campsites.
Hiking at High Altitude Near Lone Pine
Our strategy was to do an easier, relatively flat hike so that we weren’t sore or tired for our Whitney hike the next day. Below are options for easier hikes:
Cottonwood Lakes/Horseshoe Meadow Area
This forest area is only 45 minutes from Lone Pine. It is a stunning, somewhat scary, mountainside drive that leads you to these trailheads. There is a parking area with bathrooms near the trailheads.
Trail Pass to Trail Peak via Pacific Crest Trail- This is an 8.9 mile out and back trail with 1,900 feet in elevation gain. We went out about three miles and then turned around shortly after the meadow for a six-mile hike total. We largely stayed on the flat portion of the trail so there weren’t any major views, but the trail itself is interesting with colorful bristlecone pine trees and a picturesque meadow. The trail starts at an elevation of 11,000 feet and is not crowded.
2. Cottonwood Lakes Trail- The full trail is 16.1 miles, starting at 10,000 feet with 2,673 feet in elevation gain. The first 2.5 miles are relatively flat, so it’s easy to go out and back hiking about five miles without wearing yourself out.
Bristlecone Pine Forest
Note that Bristlecone Pine Forest is slightly further from Lone Pine—it’s an hour and twenty minutes away.
Methuselah Trail- This trail is a four mile loop, starting at 10,000 feet with an elevation gain of 761 feet.
If you want to do a tougher climb with more views for your acclimatization hike below are a few options near Lone Pine that I came across in my research as well:
Mt. Gould- 9 mile trail with 3,772 in elevation gain. The trail requires scrambling to reach the peak. The trailhead is 45 minutes from Lone Pine.
Kearsarge Pass to Kearsarge Lakes- 12 mile trail with 3,471 in elevation gain. The trailhead is 45 minutes from Lone Pine.
The Hike Day One
Whitney Portal to Trail Camp
Our strategy for day one was to get a good night's sleep and then start the hike early enough to not feel rushed and beat a few hours of heat. It is a 20 minute drive from Lone Pine to the Whitney Portal parking area and trailhead. They sell breakfast food at the portal, and also have a spot to weigh your bag and take a picture. We found parking, took pre-hike photos and then started our hike around 6:30 am. The bathrooms near the parking lot are also your last opportunity to use a real bathroom!
The trailhead is at 8,361 feet, and the first two miles of the hike are the easiest, which is ideal for warming up your legs. It’s a smooth trail, and there are valley views early on that only improve with every bit you climb. This portion of the trail is mostly shaded, and it is well maintained and easy to follow.
While you are still below the tree line you’ll see carved rectangles on trees that indicate you are on the trail as well.
I kept a small printed sheet of paper with references to mile markers, and water access points on the trail. It was handy to quickly reference mile markers and mentally break the trail into small sections. I’ve broken the hike into sections based on the mile markers below.
My print out also helped us strategize our water stops. I started with 3 liters, and my friend started with 2.5 liters. There are multiple streams to refill your water, even in the first couple of miles. So there is the option to lighten your initial water load to a liter or so and then refill frequently. We thought it was more efficient to not stop for water or deal with filtering it for most of day one. It was worth the weight to start with full bladders.
Lone Pine Lake- 2.5 miles, 9,960 feet
The first large point of interest on the trail is Lone Pine Lake. It took us about two hours to hike there. The lake is slightly off of the main trail. I recommend grabbing a snack and your water to bring down to the lake and leaving your larger pack by the main trail. The lake is a perfect spot for a snack break and its clear reflecting waters make it worth the walk to see. The lake water is an option for drinking water but for even fresher water go to the stream by the log that feeds into the lake. (Moving water is usually safer than still water!). After Lone Pine Lake the trail has 30 switchbacks with lots of steps. You’ll pass a sign for entering the Whitney Zone, which means you have made it to the point where only hikers with the coveted Whitney permit can go!
Outpost Camp and Outpost Waterfall- 3.8 miles, 10,365 feet
The trail hits a meadow that leads to Outpost Camp and the Outpost Waterfall. There is a stream here for water as well. Overnight hikers have the option to camp here. For a 2-day hike itinerary, camping at Outpost makes a significantly longer day two. Our day two was 12.5 hours long and if we had stayed at Outpost it would’ve been roughly four hours longer. Hikers choose this campsite because it is well protected and has plenty of shade, unlike the Trail Camp higher up. We chose to camp at Trail Camp to be closer to the summit on day two, which is the more popular choice.
Mirror Lake- 4.3 miles, 10,640 feet
The next mile marker is Mirror Lake. Our hike from the portal to Mirror Lake was three hours long, and from Lone Pine Lake to Mirror Lake was a two hour hike. The trail from Outpost Camp to Mirror Lake has a steep, 26% grade incline—so Mirror Lake is a popular stop for a lunch break and a leg rest! The lake is an option for refilling water but there’s also a flowing outlet coming off the lake that’s an even safer water option.
After Mirror Lake the trail breaks above the treeline, so there is minimal shade the rest of the way. The path also becomes rockier at this point. Mirror Lake to Trailside Camp was the only portion of the hike where we needed to refer to our downloaded AllTrails map to be sure we were still on the trail. Assuming you are hiking in the summer, if you go off trail in one of the rocky sections, it’s unlikely you will ever be completely lost. There is usually a carved stair or clear path up ahead that’s visible. Going off route can add steps or put you on a more difficult route as you work your way back to the trail. It was handy to have the downloaded map to avoid the extra exertion!
Trailside Meadows-5.3 miles, 11,359 feet
The last marker before Trail Camp is Trailside Meadows. This meadow was my favorite spot on day one. In July it was full of purple wildflowers all along the stream. If you need water earlier, the stream running down from the meadow starts around the 4.8 mile mark. My friend had finished all of her 2.5 liters at this point and I was close to finishing mine so we refilled our water at this stream. I know many hikers make it all the way to Trail Camp on 2.5 or 3 liters. We likely drank more than the average hiker because we were making a concerted effort to drink lots of water to prevent altitude sickness. We constantly reminded each other to drink water. If you are prone to altitude sickness, you may also want to take a break and eat here. As you climb higher you may lose your appetite.
Trail Camp is another mile beyond Trailside Meadow. On the way up to camp you are rewarded with views of Consultation Lake on your left. (FYI- Hiking off trail down to Consultation Lake to see it up close, refill water or to camp there adds another mile round trip). From Mirror Lake to Trail Camp was 2 hours and 15 minutes of hiking. It took us seven hours to hike from Whitney Portal to Trail Camp, including longer breaks at Lone Pine Lake and Mirror Lake.
Overnight: Trail Camp (6.3 miles, 12,039 feet)
This campsite is where most 2-day (or even 3-day) hikers set up camp. The camp is completely exposed and rocky. There are no assigned campgrounds, hikers are allowed to set up camp anywhere in the area (except when you hit the sign that says no camping beyond this point). Since we started early on day one, we were able to pick an ideal camping spot before other campers arrived.
The ideal Trail Camp campsite location includes:
A spot away from the main trail, which is used to go both up to the summit and down to Trailside Meadow. On the trail there is foot traffic and people are talking until after sunset and before dawn the next morning. Being further away from the main trail and hikers also made it easier to find privacy for bathroom breaks (which will be frequent if you are trying to drink lots of water or are taking Diamox). Remember that it is illegal to go to the bathroom near a water source.
An area with softer, sand-like ground, rather than directly on a hard rock. This makes your sleeping spot more comfortable!
A location that has rocks around it to block the wind as much as possible. Even in the summer months when lows are in the 40s, it can feel really cold at night from the high winds. The wind also makes for noisy sleeping. So the more your tent is blocked from the wind, the better!
For water at Trail Camp, there is a pond right by camp, but I recommend walking upstream from the pond towards the mountains to the stream that is moving and flowing into the pond.
When you arrive at camp, find a spot for your tent; set up your tent, sleeping mat and bag; pack your smaller daypack with what you want to bring on the hike to the summit; and store all food items in the bear canister. There is a large marmot population around Trail Camp that loves to hunt for food in any unattended tents and backpacks. When you are away from your tent and pack, keep them open so that marmots can explore. If they are zipped closed, marmots may try to chew through the tent or pack to look for food.
My friend was able to take a nap at Trail Camp, but if you are prone to altitude sickness, avoid laying down or staying seated when you arrive at camp. Stay up and move around, even if that means short walks or pacing around the camp. I was feeling altitude sickness when we arrived, but drank lots of water with electrolytes, and stayed moving (walking around and photographing marmots!) until dinner time. That combination helped me feel much better by the time we went to bed.
After dinner we refilled our water one more time. We wanted to have a full 3 liters for the hike up to the summit and back down to camp in the morning. When we hiked in early July there was a stream of water flowing down over several of the switchbacks on the way to the summit. This water is only there for a short time of year, so check recent reviews on AllTrails or Reddit to see if the water is running in the days leading up to your hike. Usually the last water source on the trail is at Trail Camp.
We went to bed right around sunset time. The sun sets behind the mountains relatively early, so there is no true sunset to watch. The sky opposite Mt. Whitney showed pale colors after the sun went down though.
The Hike Day Two
Trail Camp to Summit, Summit back down to Whitney Portal
I recommend starting the hike one hour prior to sunrise. In early July that meant waking up at 4am and starting the hike at 4:30am. Approximately 45 minutes before sunrise there was enough daylight to see without a headlamp. We only needed ours for the first 15-20 minutes of the hike. Don’t forget to leave your tent and larger backpack open and unzipped so that marmots can explore rather than chew through your gear.
The first part of the hike from Trail Camp heading up is 99 switchbacks. It sounds scary but I thought the switchbacks had relatively gradual inclines and weren’t that bad. There is one small 50-foot section on the switchbacks that has cables to prevent hikers from falling off of the steep rock. The cables are primarily intended for when the trail is snow covered— It did not feel too dangerous in the summer.
Having the sunrise show during the switchbacks made them fly by. I was constantly distracted by the clear, brilliant colors of the horizon over Consultation Lake and the mountains as the sun made its way up. I honestly barely even remember the switchbacks on the way up. The sunrise was so mesmerizing. They say sunrise is beautiful from Trail Camp as well, and viewing the sunrise at summit is popular too. Our start time was the perfect mix of a decent night’s sleep, breathtaking sunrise views, and avoiding the heat as much as possible.
Trail Crest- 8.5 miles, 13,777 feet
After the switchbacks you hit Trail Crest. It is the point where the other side of the mountain range and Sequoia National Park come into view. I read one post that mentioned it was their favorite viewpoint of the whole hike. There are views of Hitchcock Lake and Hitchcock Mountain. If you arrive right after sunrise it is not the best time for photography at Trail Crest. The lakes on both sides are covered in shadows. Stop for a snack and water break but plan to leave time for photos on your way back down from the summit.
John Muir Trail Junction- 9 miles, 13,480 feet
From Trail Crest the hike becomes more rocky, windy and exposed. Even in July I wore my puffer coat for most of this portion. The trail goes downhill for .5 miles until it hits the John Muir Trail Junction. From this junction onward, the trail to the summit was much more crowded. During our hike on day one and on the switchbacks we only came across a few other hikers. After the John Muir intersection there were always hikers around us. You’ll likely notice large backpacks set near the trail here by hikers on the longer John Muir Trail . They only bring water or a daypack to the summit and back.
The trail then continues on the backside of the mountain in a rocky,exposed section referred to as the Needles.
After the Needles, you come to the Windows section which passes a few openings on the right with views down the other side of the mountain. There are also views of Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lake in Sequoia National Park on the left.
The final push to the summit comes after the Windows section, and this is where I noticed the altitude the most. I knew I was sensitive to altitude from prior hikes and trips so I had taken Diamox for the trip. (I highly recommend it if you are sensitive to altitude.) It had largely helped with my symptoms for most of the hike until the last mile or so. I was pleasantly surprised that the hike is not that steep in this portion. Eventually the Whitney Hut comes into view up ahead and you’re almost there! There’s one final short push to the summit.
The Whitney Hut was built in 1909 to house scientists that studied high altitude and observed Mars. In front of the Hut there is a hiker register to sign and a hand-carved wooden sign that hikers can hold for photos. There is cell service at the summit—the only spot on the whole trail that has it—so many hikers call friends and family to let them know they made it.
I recommend walking around the whole summit area to take it all in. The views are unique in every direction. It took us about 4 hours to hike from Trail Camp to the summit with many small breaks along the way.
After about an hour at the summit we started our descent. Be sure to stop at the Windows and at Trail Crest on the way back to camp. The shadows will likely be gone and the lakes will be bright turquoise, green and blue—perfect for photo ops
Coming down the switchbacks it was fun to have the views of the green lake at Trail Camp and the view of Consultation Lake in full daylight as well. During most of the push to the summit I didn’t want hiking poles—I had only a small, lightweight daypack and used my hands in a few of the rockier sections. Coming down the switchbacks, I realized that hiking poles would have been useful to save my knees! The hike from the summit down to Trail Camp took us three hours.
Once back at Trail Camp, we took a lunch break, broke down our tent and loaded our larger packs. To make our packs lighter on the way down, we carried slightly less than two liters of water each and never needed to fill up more. It helped make our packs lighter— 1 liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds! There are multiple water stops along the way to the Portal if you need to fill up again. Going downhill from Trail Camp to the Portal felt like the longest portion of the hike, and took another 3.5 hours. Our total Day 2 was 12.5 hours long. The early start to the day allowed us to be back in Lone Pine with time to shower, unpack, stretch, return our bear canister, and eat before sleeping.
It was all 100% worth it! The scenery and views exceeded my expectations and we made new friends along the way. I workout regularly, but live in the Midwest, so challenging hiking isn’t part of my daily/weekly/monthly life. I typically only hike when I travel, but added weekly hill or stair training with a weighted pack to prepare for this trip. Overall the hike was easier than anticipated. The trail was less steep than many other trails I have hiked, and the ledges and drop offs weren’t as scary as other hikes as well. Having never used a weighted overnight pack before, I was glad I trained with the pack to become accustomed to it. Packing ultralight helped too. The hike is doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness who can tolerate the altitude. If you are nervous about making it in two days, you can ask to have a second night added to your permit for no charge. An extra night provides the flexibility to stay another night at Trail Camp or Outpost Camp on the way down. Plan well, pack light, and take your time with the hiking so that you enjoy it!
Where to Eat in Lone Pine
This small restaurant serves Acai bowls, juices, avocado toast, breakfast bagels, coffee and smoothies. I am a tough critic of acai bowls and theirs was great—it had a smooth consistency and was flavorful! The avocado toast with an egg on it was great too. My only complaint was that it was a little small.
Tacos Los Hermanos Food Truck
The tacos at this food truck were our favorite dinner in Lone Pine. We liked the fish tacos the best, but the pork and chicken were good as well. I recommend ordering tacos with the green avocado salsa on top!
Lone Star Bistro
The bistro is a coffee shop, sandwich shop and store. They have a wide selection of coffees, smoothies, deli sandwiches and breakfast sandwiches too. My friend and I both ordered the Lone Pine Charmer Sandwich with their homemade pesto sauce and liked it enough we considered going back to order it for a second meal.
Mt. Whitney Restaurant
This is a popular spot for a post-hike burger. They claim to have the best burgers in town. (I think only a couple restaurants in town serve burgers :-)). Coming from Chicago, the burger I had wasn’t in my top 10, but if you are craving a big burger and fries it’s the place to go. They also serve ostrich, bison, venison, ostrich or elk if you want to try something new!
Where to Stay in Lone Pine
If you aren’t camping there are a couple popular spots to stay before or after your Whitney hike.
I had read that this was the highest quality hotel in the area, and I agree based on the options I saw in town. It is located slightly beyond the main strip of main street, so it’s a 15 minute walk to most of the restaurants and shops mentioned in this article. The hotel has a pool, parking, free breakfast (including an early morning grab and go breakfast for hikers), mini fridges in the room, and free ice machines. We appreciated the ice machines for icing our feet post hike! The AC worked well even on the 110F+ degree days we were in Lone Pine.
If you are looking for more budget-friendly accommodations, the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel is a popular less-expensive choice for hikers.
Trip Dates: July 2021
Article Updated: July 2021
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