Mt. Whitney in California’s southern Sierra is a bucket-list pinnacle for hikers worldwide. However, to get to the top of the 14,000-plus-foot peak about 220 miles north of L.A., you’ll need more than muscle power. Anyone who plans to attempt the summit this summer needs a permit, and there are far more hikers and backpackers than there are available spaces. The good news: The Inyo National Forest holds a lottery every year to award permits so hikers can plan their summit day. It starts Feb. 1. The bad news: You have a one-in-three chance of success.
Between May 1 and Nov. 1, the Mt. Whitney Trail, the most popular route to the top, is limited to 100 day hikers and 60 backpackers on any given day. It’s a quota system used to protect many wilderness areas from overuse.
The hike to the highest point in the 48 contiguous states (20,320-foot Denali in Alaska is highest) begins at the Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet. You’ll find finisher T-shirts saying the peak is anywhere from 14,494 feet to 14,505 feet above sea level, but a decade ago the U.S. Geological Survey settled on 14,500 feet. The best time to go is late July through mid-September, when temperatures are mild and the route is likely to be free of snow.
How popular is this route? In 2019, 16,842 individuals and groups applied for permits. Thirty-four percent were successful. There are other trails to the top that are longer or require climbing skills, but they also require permits. Still confused? Here are tips that can help with your Mt. Whitney permit quest.
- Type of permit: Decide on whether you want a day hiking or overnight permit. The day hiking permit commits you to completing a punishing 22-mile hike with 6,000 feet of gain in 24 hours. If you want more time, consider trying for an overnight permit so you can camp several days along the way.
- Pick your dates: You may call or apply online at Recreation.gov between Feb. 1 and March 15. Results are randomly selected, so it doesn’t matter when you apply. You may request up to 15 trip dates on a single lottery application, which costs $6 (nonrefundable fee), whether or not you get permits. Weekends fill up fast, so you may want to add some midweek dates to your application. For each date you enter, you need to select which type of permit you want (day hiking or overnight). You may apply for groups of up to 15 people on a single application.
- Lottery results: Results will be posted March 24. You may receive an email, or you can log on to your Recreation.gov account to see whether you were successful. If you were lucky enough to get a permit, you must pay $15 per person (nonrefundable) before 9 p.m. PST April 30 or you forfeit the permit. If you didn’t get a permit, check back on the reservation page for unfilled dates that become available April 1 and May 1 (online only, for the latter).
- Pick up your permit: The reservation you receive is not your permit. You have to appear in person with a photo ID at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine, the closest town to the base of Mt. Whitney. It’s located at the intersection of U.S. 395 and California 136. There you’ll receive a permit to affix to your pack, and a poop bag to carry your waste out. (Hikers aren’t allowed to leave solid waste anywhere along the trail.) Also, overnight hikers will need to carry and store food in bear canisters, which may be rented at the visitor center.
- Last chance: You should keep checking in at Recreation.gov over the summer; you may get lucky and find a canceled permit up for grabs.