Tell-all from Mt. Whitney: the chic and the topless

 A man and woman, in traditional Vietnamese dress, hold a sign on Mt. Whitney.
Don Nguyen and Tu Van, styling on Mt. Whitney.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

By Mary Forgione

As I stepped onto the summit of Mt. Whitney last Saturday, I regretted not bringing a ball gown. I felt so unfashionable. Don Nguyen and Tu Van glittered atop the 14,505-foot peak as they posed for photos in flowing tunics, leaving me feeling frumpy in my baggy hiking pants. “This is our traditional Vietnamese dress,” Van explained. The two hikers from Huntington Beach asked me to snap photos of them with their phone. They happily held up a summit sign on the highest point in the contiguous U.S. while wearing the outfits they had carried in their backpacks.

Tents at a campground, with mountains in the background.
Outpost Camp, an overnight campground at 10,400 feet.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Others were celebrating in their own way. A man and woman wearing matching kilts removed their tops for their summit photo; friends who’d spent nine days exploring Whitney’s high country were ecstatic that their lungs had gotten them to the top (they’d had COVID-19 and thought they might have to cancel the hike); and a few guys were yakking on their cellphones. By 11:30 a.m., 110 people had made it to the top, signed their names, hometowns and one-line reactions on large numbered sheets inside a metal summit register.

A rocky, mountainous Trail Camp.
Trail Camp at 12,000 feet.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Me? I was fulfilling photo requests before I could take in the views, which had suddenly disappeared. Smoke from the Dixie fire, the second-largest in California history, shrouded the Owens Valley. The spectacular vistas of the Sierra were vanishing before my eyes in a murky, gray haze.

The main trail to the summit becomes narrow and rocky as you near the summit.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Still, I was among the lucky ones. The main Mt. Whitney Trail, east of Lone Pine, Calif., climbs a punishing 11 miles one way with 6,200 feet of gain. It varies from rocky terrain to boulder hopping to steep drop-offs, with water crossings and log bridges added for good measure. In the annual Mt. Whitney lottery during the quota season (May 1 to Nov. 1), just 60 overnight permits and 100 day-use permits are issued each day.

A man signs the summit register at Mt. Whitney.
Peter Genovese from Winnetka was one of the 110 hikers who signed the summit register on Saturday morning. More hikers arrived in the afternoon.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

In 2021, of the 25,005 people who applied, 11% received overnight permits (I was one) and 17% received day-use permits, which means you must complete 22 miles in 24 hours (I’ve done that too, in previous years). Seventy-two percent of those who applied were turned down.

Some rules accompany that overnight permit. You must carry an approved bear canister to store your food (mine weighed 8 pounds with four days of meals) and a poop bag (I brought two). Yep, you are required to pack out your poop and dispose of it in hazardous waste bins when you return. Then, of course, you must bring your tent, clothes, sleeping bag and other vital gear up the mountain (my pack weighed 33 pounds, with water) and have the strength to make it to the top (not everyone does). All this to stand on California’s roof of the world and take in the spectacular views — or not.

4 things to do this week

Composite image of satellites, planes and comets in transit across the night sky.
(Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

1. Here are the 10 best SoCal places to watch the Perseids. The Perseids are at peak right now, meaning your chances are good of seeing meteors streak across the night sky. The key to success: Grab a spot far from city lights between midnight and dawn Friday for peak viewing. Our picks of places to go include the dark-sky city of Ojai (83 miles from L.A.), Chula Vista Campground on Mt. Pinos in Los Padres National Forest (90 miles from L.A.) and Castro Crest in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (35 miles from L.A.). Check out the full list of best places to stargaze in Southern California. (Ordinarily, we would send you to the deserts around L.A., but temperatures are unbearable in August.) When watching, be patient. “Give yourself at least an hour of observing time, because the meteors in meteor showers come in spurts and are interspersed with lulls,” according to EarthSky. Check out more Perseid-watching tips here

A variety of takeout meals.
(Los Angeles Times )

2. Go on a picnic. We pair takeout meals with 18 parks in L.A. File this under: how to have a no-sweat, we-did-all-the-work-for-you picnic. L.A. Times staffers in the Saturday section scoured the city to find the best places for an outdoor meal. Then, Times Food section writers took that list and hunted down the best spots for takeout near each destination. “Then, we hit the road, spread out our picnic blankets and did some serious eating, from chorizo in San Pedro to fried chicken in La Cañada Flintridge. Now it’s your turn.” Try our picks — and let us know what we missed! Email you favorite places/food stops to

travel graphic logo illustration
(Jen Leo)

3. Listen to a ‘This Week in Travel’ podcast about outdoor places worth visiting. I recently chatted with Jen Leo and Gary Arndt on “This Week in Travel” about standout outdoor destinations during these pandemic-tainted times. One of Gary’s faves: the little-known Castle Mountains National Monument in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada line. “It’s clearly the most obscure National Park Service site in Southern California, because it’s really hard to get to,” Gary said. No visitor center, no facilities, just dirt roads into the site from the Nevada side. Sounds off-the-radar perfect. Save this quiet place for a fall/winter desert trip when temperatures are cooler. Listen to our conversation here. Closer to home, here are our picks for the 50 best hikes in L.A.

Two llamas at their Big Bear Lake sanctuary.
Penny, left, and Willow, at their Big Bear Lake sanctuary.
(John Seffker)

4. Take a selfie with a llama at Big Bear Lake. Penny and Willow might steal your heart. The llamas live at Big Bear Village Cabins and receive visitors between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Anyone can drop by the office, grab treats for the llamas and snap a photo. The rescue animals now have their own barn and sanctuary at 908 Pine Knot Ave., Big Bear Lake. More info here.

The must-read

Sheep graze near a massive wind turbine.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

You can’t take a road trip in California without passing massive cleaner energy-producing wind turbines that dot the landscape from the desert to the hills. I never wondered what happens when the blades aren’t spinning, but Times photographer Brian Van Der Brug did.


“There were hundreds of wind turbines spinning in the delta breeze, except for one: Tower D18. I was in the rolling Montezuma Hills northeast of the Bay Area to document the repair of a giant fiberglass blade attached to an idled turbine high atop a steel tower,” he writes in this story. The photos are remarkable: turbines spinning under a blood moon eclipse, a technician who looks the size of a fly as he climbs a 148-foot fiberglass blade. Check out Brian’s behind-the-scenes story of how he photographed this high-wire act.

Wild things

A woman looks at a dead gray whale that washed ashore.
A dead gray whale that washed ashore.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Every year, Pacific gray whales embark on one of the longest migration routes for any mammal. The Baja-to-Alaska route in winter and spring follows the California coast. Now, the whales may be in trouble. Since 2018, dead whales have washed up in a lagoon in Baja, Mexico, where whales nurse their young. This Times story says: “Gray whales are known for being hardy and resilient — ‘the jeeps of the ocean,’ as retired U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Wayne Perryman calls them — but something has gone badly wrong. Scientists are now scrambling to figure out what is killing these 40-foot-long marine mammals. The ‘what’ is anything but obvious.” Read the full story here.

Speak up

Illustration of people and animals using parks in different ways.
(Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation)

L.A. County is in the midst of a “needs assessment” on the parks and recreational facilities it operates. That means you can weigh in on the need for regional facilities, including beaches and lakes, trails and open spaces, and the need for parks in rural communities in the Antelope Valley, the Santa Clarita Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains. Right now, the county is asking Angelenos to take a survey about how they use parks. Want to to find out more? Attend one of 11 online public workshops between Aug. 17 and Sept. 6; each one addresses a different region. Nothing can be more important than identifying needed new green spaces in the 4,700-square-mile county. Take a survey and find out more about the workshops here.


Michael Benjamin, in "Your friend who hikes."
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

Hikers, prepare to die laughing. Comedian Michael Benjamin created a TikTok video called “Your friend who hikes” in which he plays the roles of the hiker and the unsuspecting invited friend. My favorite prepper line: “Do you have any freeze-dried or astronaut food?” Ask yourself: Which hiker are you? (I’m the guy in the glasses.)

Whew, here’s a blast of cold air: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in Mammoth Lakes has announced plans to kick off ski season Nov. 13.

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Click to view the web version of this newsletter and share it with others, and sign up to have it sent weekly to your inbox. I’m Mary Forgione, and I write The Wild. I’ve been exploring trails and open spaces in Southern California for four decades.

Mary Forgione