Mount Whitney

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Mount Whitney
Fisherman's Peak, Tumanguya
Mount Whitney 2003-03-25.jpg
East Face close-up seen from the Whitney Portal
Highest point
Elevation 14,505 ft (4,421 m) [1]
Prominence 10,075 ft (3,071 m) [2]
Parent peak Pico de Orizaba [3]
Isolation 1,647 mi (2,651 km) [2]
Coordinates 36°34′43″N118°17′31″W / 36.578580925°N 118.29199495°W / 36.578580925; -118.29199495 Coordinates: 36°34′43″N118°17′31″W / 36.578580925°N 118.29199495°W / 36.578580925; -118.29199495 [1]
Etymology Josiah Whitney
Relief map of California.png
Red triangle with thick white border.svg
Mount Whitney
Location in California, U.S.
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Mount Whitney
Mount Whitney (the United States)
Location Sequoia National Park / Inyo National Forest, California, U.S.
Parent range Sierra Nevada
Topo map USGS Mount Whitney
Age of rock Cretaceous
Mountain type Granite
First ascent August 18, 1873 by Charles Begole, Albert Johnson, and John Lucas [7]
Easiest route Mount Whitney Trail (class 1)

Mount Whitney (Paiute: Too-man-i-goo-yah) is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m). [1] It is in EastCentral California, on the boundary between California's Inyo and Tulare counties, 84.6 miles (136.2 km) [8] west-northwest of North America's lowest point, Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. [9] The mountain's west slope is in Sequoia National Park and the summit is the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail, which runs 211.9 mi (341.0 km) from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. [10] The eastern slopes are in Inyo National Forest in Inyo County.



Sky pilot blooming on ridge just below summit A347, Skypilot near summit of Mount Whitney, California, USA, 2011.JPG
Sky pilot blooming on ridge just below summit

Mount Whitney's summit is on the Sierra Crest and the Great Basin Divide. It lies near many of the Sierra Nevada's highest peaks. [11] The peak rises dramatically above the Owens Valley, sitting 10,778 feet (3,285 m) or just over 2 mi (3.2 km) above the town of Lone Pine 15 mi (24 km) to the east, in the Owens Valley. [11] It rises more gradually on the west side, lying only about 3,000 feet (914 m) above the John Muir Trail at Guitar Lake. [12]

The mountain is partially dome-shaped, with its famously jagged ridges extending to the sides. [13] Mount Whitney is above the tree line and has an alpine climate and ecology. [14] Very few plants grow near the summit: one example is the sky pilot, a cushion plant that grows low to the ground. [15] The only animals are transient, such as the butterfly Parnassius phoebus and the gray-crowned rosy finch. [15]


The mountain is the highest point on the Great Basin Divide. Waterways on the peak's west side flow into Whitney Creek, which flows into the Kern River. The Kern River terminates at Bakersfield in the Tulare Basin, the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley. Today, the water in the Tulare Basin is largely diverted for agriculture. Historically, during very wet years, water overflowed from the Tulare Basin into the San Joaquin River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean.

From the east, water from Mount Whitney flows to Lone Pine Creek, where most of the water is diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct via a sluice. Some water in the creek is allowed to continue on its natural course, joining the Owens River, which terminates at Owens Lake, an endorheic lake of the Great Basin.

Elevation measurements

The estimated elevation of Mount Whitney's summit has changed over the years. The technology of elevation measurement has become more refined and, more importantly, the vertical coordinate system has changed. The peak was commonly said to be at 14,494 ft (4,418 m) and this is the elevation stamped on the USGS brass benchmark disk on the summit. An older plaque on the summit (sheet metal with black lettering on white enamel) reads "elevation 14,496.811 feet", but this was estimated using the older vertical datum (NGVD29) from 1929. Since then the shape of the Earth (the geoid) has been estimated more accurately. Using a new vertical datum established in 1988 (NAVD88) the benchmark is now estimated to be 14,505 ft (4,421 m). [1] [16]


Schematic of Sierra Nevada fault block Sierra nevada schematic.svg
Schematic of Sierra Nevada fault block

Whitney's eastern slope is far steeper than its western slope because the Sierra Nevada is the result of a fault block that is analogous to a cellar door: the door is hinged on the west and is slowly rising on the east. [17]

The rise is caused by a fault system that runs along the Sierra's eastern base, below Mount Whitney. Thus, the granite that forms Whitney is the same as that which forms the Alabama Hills, thousands of feet lower down. [15] The raising of Whitney (and the downdrop of the Owens Valley) is due to the same geological forces that cause the Basin and Range Province: the crust of much of the intermontane west is slowly being stretched. [18]

The granite that forms Mount Whitney is part of the Sierra Nevada Batholith. [19] In Cretaceous time, masses of molten rock that originated from subduction rose underneath what is now Whitney and solidified underground to form large expanses of granite. [19] In the last 2 to 10 million years, the Sierra was pushed up, enabling glacial and river erosion to strip the upper layers of rock to reveal the resistant granite that makes up Mount Whitney today. [20]


Mount Whitney has an alpine tundra climate (ET) under the Köppen climate classification. Summer temperatures are highly variable, ranging from below freezing (32 °F (0 °C)) to highs near 80 °F (27 °C) during extreme heat waves in the Owens Valley.

Based on the range from the highest average high of 25.7 °F (−3.5 °C) to the lowest average low of 4.2 °F (−15.4 °C) for winter temperatures in the table (December to March), every 1 inch (25 mm) of liquid precipitation equates to approximately 15–40 inches (380–1,020 mm) of snow, with lower temperatures producing the greater snow depths. [21]

There is no weather station at the summit, but this climate table contains interpolated data for an area below the summit.

Climate data for Latitude: 36.5786, Longitude: -118.2920, Elevation: 13,346 ft (4,068 m) — 30-year normals, 1981-2010
Average high °F (°C)23.9
Daily mean °F (°C)15.0
Average low °F (°C)6.1
Average precipitation inches (mm)7.75
Source: PRISM Climate Group [22]

Exploration history

Mount Whitney as seen from Mount Langley Mount Whitney from south.jpg
Mount Whitney as seen from Mount Langley

In July 1864, the members of the California Geological Survey named the peak after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of California and benefactor of the survey. [7] During the same expedition, geologist Clarence King attempted to climb Whitney from its west side, but stopped just short. In 1871, King returned to climb what he believed to be Whitney, but having taken a different approach, he actually summited nearby Mount Langley. Upon learning of his mistake in 1873, King finally completed his own first ascent of Whitney, but did so a month too late to be first. [23] On August 18, 1873, Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas, all of nearby Lone Pine, had become the first to reach the contiguous United States' highest summit. As they climbed the mountain during a fishing trip to nearby Kern Canyon, they called the mountain Fisherman's Peak. [7]

In 1881, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory founder Samuel Pierpont Langley remained on the summit for some time, making daily observations of the solar heat. [24] Accompanying Langley in 1881 was another party consisting of Judge William B. Wallace of Visalia, W. A. Wright and Reverend Frederick Wales. [25] In his memoirs, [26] Wallace wrote, "The Pi Ute [Paiute] Indians called Mt. Whitney Too-man-i-goo-yah, which means 'the very old man.' They believe that the Great Spirit who presides over the destiny of their people once had his home in that mountain." The spelling Too-man-i-goo-yah is a transliteration from the indigenous Paiute Mono language. Other variations are Too-man-go-yah [27] and Tumanguya. [28]

The Smithsonian Institution Shelter on Whitney's summit Smithsonian Hut Whitney.jpg
The Smithsonian Institution Shelter on Whitney's summit

In 1891, the United States Geological Survey's Board on Geographic Names decided to recognize the name Mount Whitney. Despite losing out on their preferred name, Lone Pine residents financed the first trail to the summit, engineered by Gustave Marsh, and completed on July 22, 1904. Four days later, the new trail enabled the first recorded death on Whitney. Having hiked the trail, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries employee Byrd Surby was struck and killed by lightning while eating lunch on the summit. In response, Marsh began work on the stone hut that became the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, completing it in 1909. [29]

A movement began after World War II to rename the mountain for Winston Churchill, [30] but the name Mount Whitney has persisted.

Climbing routes


Long-exposure photograph of hikers ascending before sunrise Whitney trail at night.jpg
Long-exposure photograph of hikers ascending before sunrise

The most popular route to the summit is by way of the Mount Whitney Trail, which starts at Whitney Portal, at an elevation of 8,360 ft (2,548 m), 13 mi (21 km) west of the town of Lone Pine. The hike is about 22 mi (35 km) round trip with an elevation gain of over 6,100 ft (1,859 m). Permits are required year-round, and to prevent overuse the Forest Service issues a limited number of permits between May 1 and November 1. [31] It holds an annual lottery for hiking and backpacking permits on the trail. Applications are accepted from February 1 through March 15. Any permits left over after the lottery is completed typically go on sale April 1. Most hikers plan to stay one or two nights camping along the route. [32] Those in good physical condition sometimes attempt to reach the summit and return to Whitney Portal in one day. A one-day hike requires a day-use permit that prohibits the use of overnight camping gear (sleeping bag and tent). Day hikers often leave Whitney Portal before sunrise and hike from 12 to 18 hours. [33]

Longer approaches to Whitney arrive at its west side, connecting to the Mount Whitney Trail near the summit by way of the John Muir Trail.


Aerial view of Mount Whitney and the steep eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, from the north Mt. Whitney and south-eastern Sierra Nevada aerial.jpg
Aerial view of Mount Whitney and the steep eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, from the north

The Mountaineer's Route, a gully on the north side of the east face first climbed by John Muir, is considered a scramble, class 3 (PD+). [34] The fastest recorded time up this route to the summit and back to the portal is 3 hours 10 minutes, by Jason Lakey of Bishop. [35]

Technical climbs

The steep eastern side of the mountain offers a variety of climbing challenges. The East Face route, first climbed in 1931, is one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America routes, and involves technical free climbing (class 5.7) but is mostly class 4. Other routes range up to grade 5.10d. [34]

South of the main summit is a series of minor summits that are completely inconspicuous from the west but appear as a series of "needles" from the east. The routes on these include some of the finest big-wall climbing in the high Sierra. Two of the needles were named after participants in an 1880 scientific expedition to the mountain: Keeler Needle for James Keeler and Day Needle for William Cathcart Day. The latter has been renamed Crooks Peak after Hulda Crooks, who hiked up Mount Whitney every year until well into her nineties.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sierra Nevada Mountain range in the Western United States

The Sierra Nevada is a mountain range in the Western United States, between the Central Valley of California and the Great Basin. The vast majority of the range lies in the state of California, although the Carson Range spur lies primarily in Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is part of the American Cordillera, an almost continuous chain of mountain ranges that forms the western "backbone" of the Americas.

Inyo County, California County in California, United States

Inyo County is a county in the eastern central part of the U.S. state of California, located between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the state of Nevada. In the 2010 census, the population was 18,546. The county seat is Independence. Inyo County is on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and southeast of Yosemite National Park in Central California. It contains the Owens River Valley; it is flanked to the west by the Sierra Nevada and to the east by the White Mountains and the Inyo Mountains. With an area of 10,192 square miles (26,397 km2), Inyo County is the second-largest county by area in California, after San Bernardino County. Almost one-half of that area is within Death Valley National Park. However, with a population density of 1.8 people per square mile, it also has the second-lowest population density in California, after Alpine County.

John Muir Trail Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. From the northern terminus at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and the southern terminus located on the summit of Mount Whitney, the trail's length is 213.7 miles (343.9 km), with a total elevation gain of approximately 47,000 feet (14,000 m). For almost all of its length, the trail is in the High Sierra backcountry and wilderness areas. For about 160 miles (260 km), the trail follows the same footpath as the longer Pacific Crest Trail. It is named after John Muir, a naturalist.

John Muir Wilderness Protected area in the Sierra Nevada of California, US

The John Muir Wilderness is a wilderness area that extends along the crest of the Sierra Nevada of California for 90 miles (140 km), in the Inyo and Sierra National Forests. Established in 1964 by the Wilderness Act and named for naturalist John Muir, it contains 581,000 acres (2,350 km2). The wilderness lies along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra from near Mammoth Lakes and Devils Postpile National Monument in the north, to Cottonwood Pass near Mount Whitney in the south. The wilderness area also spans the Sierra crest north of Kings Canyon National Park, and extends on the west side of the park down to the Monarch Wilderness.

Mount Tom (California)

Mount Tom is a large and prominent peak near the city of Bishop in Inyo County of eastern California. It is in the Sierra Nevada and east of the Sierra Crest. The mountain is also in the John Muir Wilderness.

Inyo National Forest

Inyo National Forest is a United States National Forest covering parts of the eastern Sierra Nevada of California and the White Mountains of California and Nevada. The forest hosts several superlatives, including Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States; Boundary Peak, highest point in Nevada; and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest that protects the oldest trees in the world. The forest, encompassing much of Owens Valley, was established by Theodore Roosevelt as a way of sectioning off land to accommodate the Los Angeles Aqueduct project in 1907, making the Inyo National Forest one of the least wooded forests in the United States' system.

Mount Muir

Mount Muir is a peak in the Sierra Nevada of California, 0.95 miles (1.5 km) south of Mount Whitney. This 14,018-foot (4,273 m) peak is named in honor of Scottish-born John Muir, a famous geologist, conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. The southernmost section of the John Muir Trail contours along the west side of Mount Muir near its summit and ends on the summit of Mount Whitney.

Telescope Peak Mountain in California, United States

Telescope Peak is the highest point within Death Valley National Park, in the U.S. state of California. It is also the highest point of the Panamint Range, and lies in Inyo County. From atop this desert mountain one can see for over one hundred miles in many directions, including west to Mount Whitney, and east to Charleston Peak. The mountain was named for the great distance visible from the summit.

Mount Williamson

Mount Williamson, at 14,379 feet (4,383 m), is the second highest mountain in both the Sierra Nevada range and the state of California. It is the sixth highest peak in the contiguous United States.

High Sierra Trail Long-distance hiking trail in the United States

The High Sierra Trail (HST) is a hiking trail in Sequoia National Park, California. The trail crosses the Sierra Nevada from west to east. According to the Yosemite Decimal System, the HST is a Class 1/Class 2 trail, which means simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands for balance.

Mount Langley Mountain in California, United States

Mount Langley is a mountain located on the crest of the Sierra Nevada, on the boundary between Inyo and Tulare counties in eastern California, in the United States. To the east is the Owens Valley, and to the west is the Kern River Valley. It is the ninth-highest peak in the state and the seventh-highest in the Sierra. Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, lies 4.8 miles (7.7 km) to the northwest. Mount Langley also has the distinction of being the southernmost fourteener in the United States.

Mount Russell (California)

Mount Russell is a peak in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the U.S. state of California, about 0.8 miles (1.3 km) north of Mount Whitney. It rises to an elevation of 14,094 feet (4,296 m) and is the seventh-highest peak in the state.

Mount Whitney Trail Hiking trail to the summit of Mount Whitney in California, United States

The Mount Whitney Trail is a trail that climbs Mount Whitney. It starts at Whitney Portal, 13 miles (21 km) west of the town of Lone Pine, California. The hike is about 22 mi (35 km) round trip, with an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet (1,860 m). It is an extremely popular trail, and its access is restricted by quotas from May to October.

Mount Mallory

Mount Mallory is a mountain located in the Sierra Nevada of California. The boundary between Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park runs across the summit. The peak was named in memory of George H. Leigh Mallory, of the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, who was lost on Mount Everest, June, 1924. Norman Clyde advanced Mallory's and Andrew Irvine's names following their loss after attaining the highest altitude reached by a mountain climber.

Mount McAdie

Mount McAdie is a summit on the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and is located 2.1 miles (3.4 km) south of Mount Whitney. It has three summits, with the north peak being the highest. The summit ridge marks the boundary between Sequoia National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. It is also on the boundary between Inyo and Tulare counties. Lone Pine, 12.4 miles (20.0 km) to the northeast, is in the Owens Valley on U.S. 395.

Mount Corcoran

Mount Corcoran is a 13,714-foot-elevation (4,180 meter) mountain summit located on the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is situated on the common border of Tulare County with Inyo County, as well as the shared boundary of Sequoia National Park and John Muir Wilderness. It is 12 miles (19 km) west-southwest of the community of Lone Pine, 3.6 miles (5.8 km) southeast of Mount Whitney, 1.2 mile (1.9 km) northwest of Mount Langley, and 0.23 mile (0.37 km) immediately south of Mount Le Conte, the nearest higher neighbor. Topographic relief is significant as it rises approximately 1,800 feet (550 meters) above Iridescent Lake in one-half mile.

Thor Peak (California)

Thor Peak is a 12,306-foot-elevation (3,751 meter) mountain summit located east of the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Inyo County, California. It is situated in the John Muir Wilderness on land managed by Inyo National Forest. It is 12.5 miles (20.1 km) west of the community of Lone Pine, and 1.5 mile east of Mount Whitney. Topographic relief is significant as it rises 3,937 feet (1,200 meters) above Whitney Portal in 1.5 mile. Hikers on the Mount Whitney Trail pass below the impressive south face of the peak.

Cirque Peak (California) Mountain summit in California

Cirque Peak is a 12,900-foot-elevation (3,932 meter) mountain summit located on the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is situated on the common border of Tulare County with Inyo County, as well as the shared boundary of Golden Trout Wilderness and John Muir Wilderness, on land managed by Inyo National Forest. It is 14 miles (23 km) southwest of the community of Lone Pine, 7.7 miles (12.3 km) south-southeast of Mount Whitney, and 3.2 miles (5.2 km) south of Mount Langley, the nearest higher neighbor. Cirque Peak is the highest point of the Golden Trout Wilderness, and ranks as the 175th highest peak in California. Topographic relief is significant as it rises 1,800 feet (550 meters) above Cirque Lake in approximately one mile. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses the southwest slope of this mountain, providing an approach option. The mountain was apparently named in 1890 by Joseph Nisbet LeConte and companions who noted the remarkable cirque on the north aspect.

Mount Carillon

Mount Carillon is a 13,553-foot-elevation (4,131 meter) mountain summit located on the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is situated on the common border of Tulare County with Inyo County, as well as the shared boundary of Sequoia National Park and John Muir Wilderness. It is set above the south shore of Tulainyo Lake, 12.5 miles (20.1 km) west of the community of Lone Pine, 1.25 mile (2.0 km) northeast of Mount Whitney, and 0.7 mile (1.1 km) east-northeast of Mount Russell, the nearest higher neighbor. Topographic relief is significant as it rises approximately 5,180 feet (1,580 meters) above Whitney Portal in approximately two miles. Carillon has subpeaks, unofficially called "The Cleaver", 0.4 mile to the northeast, and "Impala", on the southeast ridge.

Tunnabora Peak

Tunnabora Peak is a 13,563-foot-elevation (4,134 meter) mountain summit located on the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is situated on the common border of Tulare County with Inyo County, as well as the shared boundary of Sequoia National Park and John Muir Wilderness. It is set above the north shore of Tulainyo Lake, 13 miles (21 km) west of the community of Lone Pine, 1.86 mile (3.0 km) north-northeast of Mount Whitney, and 0.9 mile (1.46 km) north-northwest of Mount Carillon. Tunnabora ranks as the 51st-highest peak in California. Topographic relief is significant as it rises approximately 5,200 feet (1,585 meters) above Whitney Portal in approximately three miles.


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Further reading