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Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney

Independence, California



47.35 miles

Elevation Gain

11745 ft

Route Type



Added by Jeff Driscoll

Experience the majesty of the High Sierras and summit the highest peak in the lower 48 states on this once in a lifetime backpacking trip.

Trip Guide

***Please note, all images after the first one are arranged in chronological order of the trip so you can easily follow along

Day 1

Depending on where you are coming from your day one is most likely going to be setting up your car shuttle from Whitney Portal to Onion Valley.  Our first day setting up car shuttles and staying overnight at Onion Valley Campground.  If you are flying into the area, it’s probably faster to fly into Reno or Southern California and drive from there. 

For more information check out the facility details on the Recreation.gov website when making reservations. 

Day 2

I'd recommend getting an early start on day two because the last stretches of the trail before Kearsarge Pass are exposed and can get hot in the midday sun.  We chose to leave and be on the trail by sunrise which made for a beautiful hike watching the sunrise over the Owens Valley.

The Kearsarge Pass Trail is a relatively easy pass as far as Eastern Sierra passes go.  You'll find that you'll climb, then reach a bench, before climbing again and this repeats a few times on the way up.  The trail is also very well graded making it much better than one, long steep climb. 

On the way up you'll pass a few lakes, cascades, and waterfalls and have some great views of University Peak.  If you didn't want to camp at Onion Valley the night before, another option would be hiking to Gilbert Lake or one of the other lakes on the way up.  The last lake before the pass is Big Pothole Lake, this is probably the only lake on the way up that doesn't have good spots for camping nearby.

After hiking approximately 4.7 miles, you'll reach Kearsarge Pass.  It's from this vantage point that you'll realize it was well worth the hike just for the view.  From the pass, all the grandeur of King's Canyon and Sequoia National Park lay before you.  You can see the Kearsarge Pinnacles with the Kearsarge Lakes resting below them.  You can see Bullfrog Lake, and Mt. Brewer, and the rest of the Great Western Divide.  

When descending from Kearsarge Pass, you'll encounter an option to take a high trail towards Charlotte Lake and Glen Pass or keep heading down and then take a lower trail that will take you to the shores of Bullfrog Lake.  Take the lower trail and in approximately 2.4 miles you'll reach a junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT).  Take the JMT south as you begin descending to Vidette Meadow and Bubbs Creek.

It's approximately a one-mile descent from the junction with the JMT to Vidette Meadow.  As you begin the descent to Vidette Meadow, you'll have a great view of the Bubbs Creek Drainage, Center Peak, The East Vidette, and the route up the canyon towards Forester Pass.

Once you reach the bottom of the descent, it's approximately 7.3 miles to Forester Pass, the highest point on the JMT.  We chose to hike for about a mile or two before pulling over to camp for the night next to Bubb's Creek.

Day 3

Depending on where along Bubbs Creek you choose to camp you could have up to a 7.3-mile hike up the canyon towards Forester Pass.  At 13,180 feet Forester Pass is the highest point on the JMT and will be the highest point you reach until the last day of the trip, and you begin ascending Mt. Whitney.  That's why we chose to hike a few miles up the canyon and make it only 5 miles on day three to reach the pass.  

Please be advised when I say "only 5 miles" it's far from easy.  In fact, this was the hardest day of the trip, even harder than the last day and summiting Whitney.  

Despite the challenge, the ascent up the pass is absolutely gorgeous, and if I could do it again, I would break it up in 2 days and get some time to fish and enjoy this beautiful area.   As you ascend, you will have views of Bubbs Creek, Center Peak, and Junction Peak.  Take your time and enjoy watching them get closer and closer.  

The climb up Forester Pass may feel like forever.  By the time we made it to the lake just below Junction Peak, we were exhausted and looked up to see that Forester Pass was still another 1,000 feet above us.  

By the time you finally reach Forester Pass it feels like you've been hiking all day.  You'll probably be feeling the effects of the altitude as well so you may want to head quickly down the other side of Forester Pass to get to lower elevations.   

From Forester Pass you can look through down onto Diamond Mesa and further down the canyon towards the treeline is Tyndall Creek, your destination for the night.  If you need to get water, the lakes and streams in Diamond Mesa will be a good place to stop.

Diamond Mesa is also where you will get your first glimpse of Mt. Whitney off in the distance.  Just imagine, in three days you'll be standing up there.

From Forester Pass, it's approximately 4.4 miles to Tyndall Creek, your destination for the night.  If that's too far, there are camping options up at higher elevations on Diamond Mesa.  

Overall, day three is one of the hardest days when doing the trip the way we did it.  It makes Day Three the 2nd longest day of the trip when you are still acclimating and have a lot of weight in your pack.  Depending on your conditioning, you may want to make Day Three shorter and just add more distance to Day Five.  

Day 4

From Tyndall Creek, it's only 16 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney, so how you break up the next three days and two nights is up to you.  As I was mentioning earlier, we chose to make for a relaxing fifth day so we could rest up before our summit day.  If you decide to do the same, you'll be hiking 8.4 miles today to Upper Crabtree Meadows and the ranger station there.  

One of the nice benefits of staying at Upper Crabtree Meadows is that they have a backcountry vault toilet you can use.  After a few days of digging holes, this can be a nice luxury.   You'll also have to stop here anyways to pick up your WAG bag which will be needed if you plan on going to the bathroom above treeline.  A WAG bag is a way to use the restroom and pack it out since you can't find many places to dig an appropriate hole above treeline.   Also, this route is so popular (as you will see at Guitar Lake) that without them it would be a disgusting sight above treeline because of all the human waste.

Leaving Tyndall Creek, you will hike for about 2 miles as you climb from the valley to Bighorn Plateau.  Bighorn Plateau is a broad plateau at around 12,000 feet.  From here you'll get expansive views of The Kaweah Divide, The Great Western Divide, Mt. Whitney and her surrounding peaks, and back towards where you came and Forester Pass.  There is also a small lake where you can camp and get water.   When we were up here, there was a lot of smoke, so I edited my photos a bit differently to account for the lack of clarity. 

Once you've spent some time soaking up the grand vistas seen from Bighorn Plateau, you'll continue along the JMT and start heading down to Wallace Creek.  From Tyndall Creek, it's approximately 4.2 miles to Wallace Creek.

From Wallace Creek, you start climbing again up the other side of the canyon and have about 3.4 miles to go before the next trail junction.  This is where the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and the JMT separate.  From here you'll follow the JMT to get to Upper Crabtree Meadows.  After about one more mile of hiking, you'll reach a trail marker.  This is also where you can pick up your WAG bag.  There should be a bin right near the trail junction marker.  If not, proceed to the ranger station in Upper Crabtree Meadows to get one.  If you are continuing to Guitar Lake, make sure to grab one now but if you are camping at Crabtree Meadows you can get one tomorrow morning.  From this junction, you'll head downhill and cross Whitney Creek.  Across the creek is a large open meadow.  There are numerous campsites scattered in the trees surrounding the meadow and at the far end of the meadow is where you'll find the backcountry toilet.

Day 5

By doing the trip this way you will be able to enjoy the first relaxing morning of the trip because you'll only have a short hike to Guitar Lake.  From Crabtree Meadows its about 3 miles.   

Once you are ready to go, you'll start climbing slowly towards Timberline Lake.  Timberline Lake is a beautiful lake nestled right at timberline.  However, you can't camp here.  All camping around Timberline Lake is banned.   When we were here there was a lot of smoke impacting the photos above, but you can see it was still a beautiful area.  From Timberline Lake you have a short hike up to the next shelf that contains Guitar Lake.

Once you reach Guitar Lake, there are numerous campsites on the granite ledges surrounding the lake.  I will warn you though, if you camp here don't expect a lot of privacy.  By the evening there could be over 100 people camped around the lake, all preparing to summit the next day.   

If you are looking for fewer people, consider heading to two small tarns just up the trail from Guitar Lake.  These have enough room for a few tents so you may have some neighbors, but nothing like Guitar Lake.  Another option for more privacy is to hike cross country to the Hitchcock Lakes.  This adds some distance but would be worth it and is probably what I'll do next time.  

Despite all the people,  Guitar Lake is still a magnificent high alpine lake.  If you look hard enough, you will find trash and signs of human abuse but on the surface, the lake is absolutely stunning because of the views.  Just remember how many people are camped here and please clean up after yourself and use your WAG bag.  Most importantly, pack it out!!!  

Also remember this lake is fully exposed so finding a spot next to a large boulder for some shade can be helpful.      

Day 6

Wakey, wakey, it's summit day!  Today is the culmination of the entire journey so if you didn't sleep well due to the excitement, it's understandable.  I got up around 4 am and was packed and ready to set off after eating breakfast around 4:40.  I definitely recommend getting an early start and make sure to dress in layers and keep your headlamp out.  Be prepared, today is going to be the longest day of the hike in terms of mileage, close to 15 miles.  However, I don't think it's as hard of a day as the day going over Forester Pass because you have less weight in your pack and are much more acclimated.  

From Guitar Lake, it's about 3 miles to the Trail Crest which is where you can drop your pack for the final stretch to the summit.  I heard rumors of some very pesky marmots that can chew through your pack for food when it's left at the Trail Crest, so I chose to take my bear can out of my pack and setting it outside the pack before leaving it here.  

From the Trail Crest it's a two-mile hike to the summit of Mt. Whitney.  You'll be spending most of this time ascending the last 1,000 feet before you reach the highest point in the lower 48 states.  Keep following the ridgeline until you reach the beginning of the broad summit of Mt. Whitney.

Once you reach the broad summit of Mt. Whitney, the views to your west and across the heart of the Sierra Nevada come into full view.  From here you can see your entire journey since crossing Forester Pass, you can see Kern Canyon which looks like a massive cut out of the mountain landscape, and you can see the Kaweah Divide to the west.

Continue up the mellow graded summit until you reach the summit marker and the Whitney Hut.  Note, the Whitney Hut is not a safe place to hide in the event of a thunderstorm.  The tin roof will attract lightning, so if lightning looks like it's on the horizon, you'll want to get down quickly.

Take some time enjoying the summit and the feeling of being on top of the world. It's likely to be windy and cold at this elevation so hopefully you wore layers.  If you walk all the way to the eastern most point of the summit, you can see the road leading up to the Whitney Portal and the remaining portion of the hike, along with the Owens Valley.  Also, make sure to sign the summit registry located outside the Whitney Hut.

Once you are done with the summit, head back the way you came until you get to the Trail Crest.  From here head up and over the crest to the beginning of the 99 switchbacks.  It's going to be a long, 6,000-foot descent for the next 8.5 miles to your car that's waiting at the Whitney Portal.  

Permit Info

You'll want to get an "Overnight, Exiting Whitney Permit." Permits can be booked up to 6 months in advance on, http://www.recreation.gov

They book fast so log in at 7 am, right when they go on sale for your best chance. Even doing that, it still took me longer than a week to secure three spots, so be flexible with your dates.

Car Shuttle Details

You'll first want to leave a car in the Trailhead Parking Lot at Whitney Portal. Then drive North to the town of Independence and follow the signs towards Onion Valley. I chose to camp at Onion Valley in the campground and then leave from there in the morning. In the morning, you'll want to move your car to the trailhead parking lot.

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