Lone Pine Lake via Mount Whitney Trail
Whitney Portal Recreation Area, California
The 5.6 mile roundtrip hike to Lone Pine Lake, set in the spectacular towering peaks of the Whitney Portal Recreation Area, is not only an incredible day hike but also an opportunity to trek along a portion of the famous Mount Whitney Trail. Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States—rising to 14,497 feet—it beckons to thousands of hikers who yearn to stand on the summit. In turn, the popularity of the hike has made the Whitney Portal trailhead one of the busiest and most regulated in the Eastern Sierra—a quota system is used to secure permits for those who wish to reach the summit, and they must be secured well in advance. The good news is that any day hiker can trek as far as Lone Pine Lake without a permit, offering even the novice hiker a taste of Mount Whitney’s allure—day hikers going farther than Lone Pine Lake must secure a day use permit, and backpackers require a wilderness permit. The trailhead, perched at 8,350 feet, leaves the Whitney Portal parking lot and immediately begins switchbacking its way towards Lone Pine Lake—if you are not acclimatized to the altitude, you will be questioning your fitness level at this point. Once you escape tree cover, the views of Mount Whitney and the Owens Valley will surely add to your breathlessness—no jumble of granite is more inspiring than Mount Whitney and its ensemble of supporting peaks. Climbing ever upward, you cross two streams—first Carillon Creek, then the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek—at the second stream, rock hop your way into the John Muir Wilderness. Mount Whitney is now hidden from view, but the sheer canyon walls ahead and the desert landscape of the Alabama Hills below are enough to satisfy even the most jaded hiker. As we continued climbing the switchbacks, we stirred a bunch of grouse from the underbrush and watched as they cut through the thin air in search of a more secluded area—welcoming the chance to stop and view the birds, we caught our breath for a minute and then tackled the climb in earnest. The trail, which climbs 1,000 feet over this 1.5-mile section, eventually crosses Lone Pine Creek via a series of well-placed logs—a good test of your agility. Do your best to maneuver the logs with as much grace as possible, and then continue climbing through the forest to the Lone Pine Lake trail junction—now just a few steps away. At the junction, turn left and head downhill towards the lake—a high altitude body of water that sits on a shelf above Whitney Portal. Its waters, mirror-like in appearance, stretch out to the horizon like a natural infinity pool—reflecting the surrounding evergreens, massive boulders, and towering cliffs with perfect symmetry. It’s all down hill from here, the lake is at an elevation of 10,050 feet, so take your time and enjoy the scenery—take a stroll around the lake, sit for a picnic, or simply revel in the landscape.