After discovering first-hand the stunning scenery that comes with hiking big mountains located in the western part of the United States, I embarked on a six-day journey to summit the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Mount Whitney, at 14,508 feet, is located in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range near Lone Pine, California.
There is a 21-mile round trip day hike option that requires a permit issued via a lottery system, but I chose to hike with pack mule support out of nearby Horseshoe Meadows. Hiking with pack stock requires a wilderness permit that is obtained by the pack operation itself, so I didn’t have to worry about obtaining my own permit.
Hikers are rewarded, no matter how they arrive at Mt. Whitney’s lofty summit, with majestic views of the surrounding peaks and beautiful alpine lakes. Since I wanted to experience a week-long journey, I chose this all-inclusive type of adventure. The specific gear list is at the end of this blog post.
Special thanks go out to Rock Creek Pack Station; they truly were the kindest, most helpful operation all around. The office staff responded quickly to correspondence and answered all of my questions before I embarked on the trail with them. The packers were knowledgeable in animal safety, practiced Leave No Trace principles whenever we were in camp, and the cook even joined me on the trail!
Distance: 58 miles round trip
Duration: 6 days
When: July 18 – 23
Hiking to the summit of Mt. Whitney can also be done in one very long day. Find out how by reading this post.
Day 1: Horseshoe Meadow over Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Spring Lake
4.6 miles, 1,400’ gain, 100’ loss
After an overnight stay at Horseshoe Meadows campground to help with acclimatizing, I began the day at the corrals by the Cottonwood Pack Station. I met the crew and other two hikers who would be on this journey as well. Mandy and Kit, a mother/daughter duo, were just as excited as I was to get going on our journey. They were experienced hikers and lived in California so didn’t have to travel far to get to Lone Pine. The pack station crew provided breakfast and a sack lunch, then weighed all of our gear to make sure we weren’t over the allotted
Mandy, Kit, and myself started hiking toward Chicken Spring Lake while the packer crew loaded the mules. The walk began as a gentle ascent beside the meadow for a mile before entering the open forest to climb steadily to 11,160’ Cottonwood Pass at about mile 3.8. We then turned north onto the Pacific Crest Trail, walking another half mile before we left the trail to follow the creek a short distance up to Chicken Spring Lake.
Day 2: Chicken Spring Lake to Rock Creek
9.8 miles, 650’ gain, 2,350’ loss
Overnight, Mandy began suffering from the effects of altitude sickness. She felt it was serious and likely to only get worse and decided to end her journey. Sadly, Mandy and Kit left the mountain on the morning of day 2 and I was now hiking on my own. Of course, I was never really alone, since I had the packer crew following me up the mountain.
After a hearty breakfast at camp, I returned to the Pacific Crest Trail where the path climbed 300 feet in the first mile. Whew! Then, it followed along the side of the mountain with nice views of Big Whitney Meadow to the left. The trail entered Sequoia National Park at about mile three, dropping steadily through open forest for the rest of the day. I passed the Siberian Pass junction at about mile four and the Upper Rock Creek Trail junction at mile 8.5.
The trail finally crossed Rock Creek which is where the pack mules and packer crew caught up to me that day. That night, camp was alongside a beautiful meadow edged by the creek.
Day 3: Rock Creek to Guitar Lake
9.6 miles, 3,050’ gain, 1,100’ loss
After the departure of Mandy and Kit yesterday, I was on the trail by myself for the entire day. I didn’t see another hiker on the trail from the minute I left camp at Chicken Spring Lake until I arrived at Rock Creek. While this might be enjoyable if I had planned it that way, I was not comfortable hiking alone since I had booked a group trip. I had an honest chat with the cook and packers who were leading this trip and we decided that instead of hiking by myself, Hilary, who was the cook on this adventure, would hike with me for the remaining days. After Hilary finished her morning cooking duties each day, we would head out on the trail together.
Today’s hike started with a steady climb out of the Rock Creek drainage to Guyot Pass with views south of Forgotten Canyon. Dropping down from the pass, the trail traverses the hillside on a sandy trail. Hilary and I encountered twisted foxtail pines that framed the views of Red Spur across the Kern River Canyon.
After a brief climb into the Whitney Creek drainage, the trail dropped about 400 feet to the Whitney junction at about mile 5.8. From there, we turned onto the trail to Whitney, following Whitney Creek and passing the ranger station before joining the John Muir Trail in 1.2 miles. We then turned up canyon toward Mount Whitney, passing out of the trees at Timberline Lake and finally stopping at our camp above Guitar Lake. Hilary, in her blue jeans and big straw hat, caused a few puzzled looks from other hikers today.
Mount Whitney towers 3,000 feet above us to the east. What an amazing sight!
Day 4: Guitar Lake to Mount Whitney and Crabtree Meadow
12.6 miles, 3,300′ gain, 4,350′ loss
Mount Whitney provides several hours of shade after sunrise which makes the long climb to the top in the treeless landscape less daunting. Hilary and I left camp at about 4:00 a.m. to take advantage of darkness and shade as much as possible. The trail started off to the southeast for about a mile before climbing the steep wall via long switchbacks. We could gauge our progress up the mountain by looking at Hitchcock Lakes to Mount Hitchcock, as Trail Junction, at 13,484 feet, is only 300 feet above Mount Hitchcock.
Hilary and I turned left at the Trail Crest junction and followed the fairly narrow trail cut into the rock on the west side of the pinnacles. There are several “windows” providing stunning views to the east. After another 1.9 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain, we finally reached the top.
Wow! The views are absolutely stunning. Hilary and I both signed the register and enjoyed some time eating snacks and resting at the summit.
We spent about an hour at the summit before leaving the crowd of about thirty other hikers at the top where we retraced our steps past Guitar Lake and continued on to Crabtree Meadow. We left the John Muir Trail and followed the trail to Crabtree Meadow.
Day 5: Crabtree Meadow to Upper Rock Creek
10.4 miles, 1,850′ gain, 1,900′ loss
After an exhausted sleep, Hilary and I followed the trail down to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail then began the climb up to Guyot Flat and the pass. The path dropped steadily from the pass to the Rock Creek crossing, mile 6.4, and then climbed 400 feet in 1.3 miles to the Rock Creek Trail junction. We follow the creek up through forest and past meadows to Rock Creek Lake and Stringer Meadow.
Day 6: Upper Rock Creek over Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow
11.0 miles, 1,550′ gain, 2,000′ loss
I was super sad to realize when I woke up this morning that this wonderful journey was almost at an end. Hilary and I set off once again and followed the trail up to the Soldier Lake junction, turned right and followed the path past the junction of New Army Pass to the Pacific Crest Trail. We headed left at the junction toward Cottonwood Pass to roller coast through open forest past Chicken Spring Lake to the pass. We left the Pacific Crest Trail toward Horseshoe Meadow, dropping 1,400 feet in 3.8 miles to arrive back at the pack station. After five days on the trail under my belt, this was a very tough day of hiking eleven miles to finish out this journey.
Gear List for Pack Mule Supported Hikes
Disclaimer: Thank you for supporting this site by using these links to Amazon. I’ll make a small commission on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything, even if you buy something different.
Dunnage limit is 30 lbs. per person (this includes sleeping bags, fishing equipment, liquor, etc.) You may bring your own tent up to 10 pounds that is in addition
Bring belongings in stout canvas or nylon duffels; side zipper recommended, ideal size approximately 14″ x 32″. It is a good idea to use a large plastic bag INSIDE of the duffle to protect contents from external moisture.
- Footwear: Medium-weight pair of hiking boots. I wore Oboz.
- Camp Shoes. A lightweight pair of athletic styles shoes or trail runners to wear in camp.
- Day pack. I used Osprey Mira. Large enough to take water, extra clothing, rainwear, camera, etc. during the day.
- Sleeping Bag. Most summer trips are warm and a bag rated to about 25°F will be plenty warm enough. Good quality down bags are preferred. I used a down quilt from Enlightened Equipment.
- Sleeping pad. Therma-a-Rest Neoair XLite.
- Coffee mug. (plastic for camp)
- 2 pair synthetic liner socks.
- 2 pair heavier synthetic or wool blend socks.
- Long underwear top. Capilene, some other synthetic or the new pure Merino wool types.
- Long underwear bottom. Capilene, or other mid weight bottom.
- Warm pants. Leggings or Expedition Weight Capilene.
- Warm shirt. Patagonia R1 weight works well.
- Rain Jacket and Pants. A lightweight set is sufficient and heavy bulky clothing is unnecessary. Jacket must have a hood. Do not skimp on your rain gear. Nylon ponchos are not acceptable.
- Shorts for on the trail
- Tee shirt for on the trail
- Lightweight gloves.
- Warm hat. Synthetic or wool.
- Sun glasses.
- Water Bottles. Two quart (1 liter) wide mouth bottles and/or a hydration system holding up to 50oz. (2 liters).
- Personal toiletries
- Ear plugs are great to have in a noisy tent.
- Personal Medical Kit. The guide will carry a large kit so yours will predominately consist of foot repair items, mild pain killer such as Advil and bandaids.
- Sunscreen and lip screen. SPF 30+. A 1oz. bottle will be enough.
- Bug repellent.
- Camera. A spare battery and card are good backups. I used a Canon Powershot.
- Trekking poles. I used Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock.
- Plastic trash bag. Handy for keeping gear in outside the tent should it rain.
- Optional reading material, etc.
For another look at backpacking gear, try this article specifically for the beginning backpacker!
If you liked this article please share it and don’t forget to sign up for blog updates: Click Here!