Mt Whitney North Fork trail

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California hikes | Pictures of the hikes
There are two hiking trails for Mt Whitney: the regular one and the North Fork trail.

North Fork trail

Warning: This trail requires hiking, climbing and orientation skills that not many people have. The average Mt Whitney hiker tends to be inexperienced and may be risking her/his life hiking this route.
This is an alternative, and a much harder way, to hike Mt Whitney than the regular well-maintained trail. It starts at the same place, the Whitney Portal. Unlike the regular Mt Whitney trail, the day hike on the mountaineering (North Fork) route did not require a permit until 2006 but as of 2008 the Inyo National Concentration Camp is now requiring permits for this one too. (The bureaucracy is making these hikes less and less appealing. When confronted with the amount and sheer dementia of the "red tape", one almost misses shopping malls and city traffic).

This "North Fork" trail is far more strenuous than the regular trail, although quite shorter. It requires some class-3 rock climbing.

The real trailhead of the mountainering route is not marked. The beginning of the trail seems to be well-maintained, but there is no way of finding out where it is unless someone tells you. Most people start from the main Whitney trailhead (marked by a structure eeriely reminiscent of Disneyland), and then (about 20 minutes into the hike) turn right just before the second creek crossing (the Lone Pine creek, not the Carillon creek), where a tiny sign announces the "North Fork". Nothing tells you that the North Fork route starts from the upper parking lot of Whitney Portal, behind a huge boulder. That's where the trailhead has always been. From the store walk towards the end of the paved road. Just where it starts bending to complete a loop, there are two "No Parking" signs. The second one is by a huge boulder. You should be able to spot the trail easily even in the dark. Hike up this series of steep switchbacks and you will hit the main Whitney trail about 20 meters down from the John Muir Wilderness sign. Walk down a further 20 meters and, after crossing the Lone Pine creek, turn left where the "North Fork" sign is. If it sounds too complicated, just take the regular Whitney trail from the regular Disneyland-style trailhead and make sure you don't reach the John Muir Wilderness sign (if so, retrace your steps past the creek crossing).
Once on the North Fork trail, a sign warns you that you are trying something really dangerous (alas, the original was very funny but it was replaced in 2006 by a more obnoxious sign). This trail gets very steep right away. At several points you may have to use your hands.
The trail crosses the creek twice. The first time it crosses right to left. If you find yourself scrambling against the wall on your right, you simply missed the trail. Retrace your steps, look for a way to walk down to the creek and you should find the crossing. After this crossing, the trail goes up steeply and there are a few big chockstones, but the route is generally recognizable. Just remember that, once on the left side of the creek, the route goes up for a while and still heads upstream, not downstream. There is a point where many hikers get confused and go left (downstream) instead of right (upstream). After the confusing point, the trail (now much higher than the creek) turns right and moves back towards the creek. The trail goes downhill to the creek where you cross a triple waterfall (depending on the season, it could be two easy ones or three with one impassable one). Once on the right/northern side again, coast the wall upstream for about 30 meters. The trail ends abruptly against a narrow pile of rocks and vegetation. (This is obsolete as of 2006 because the trail has been greatly improved. At this point there used to be two choices, but now the rangers seem to have decided to remove the safe one and only leave the deadly one. The safe route was to climb the pile of rocks and continue upstream crisscrossing the creek several times. This trail is no longer maintained and last time i hiked it (september 2005) the vegetation was overgrown. It takes a bit of intuition to figure out when to cross to the other side. At some point you cross one last time to the northern side and you connect to a sandy trail. This trail eventually leads you to the real trail (the rangers now put signs "Restoration" to discourage this route). Face the pile of rocks in front of you and haul yourself up the rocks. Once you are up, turn 180 degrees, walk downstream for 10 meters until you find a lonely pine tree that will help you climb up to the next level. This is by far the scariest part of the hike because you are on the edge of the (very deep) canyon. Look for the cairns that mark how to avoid the edge of the canyon. Following the cairns, you will be going up from layer to layer of rock (frequently using your hands) until you regain the trail, which now proceeds steadily upstream.

Step 1: climb the rocks

Step 2: the tree

Step 3: walk along the edge

Step 4: up

Summarizing: the route over the ledges (note the two hikers)

Note of 2018: it appears that a new demented route was opened after this famous section. At the top of it, there are now cairns that send you dangerously close to the edge of the ledges. The old route was sending hikers straight against the wall, a much safer option.

The route follows the creek upstream. You are walking on the "Ebersbacher Ledges". This takes you to the Lower Boy Scout lake, which you have to cross (turn left at the sign "No wood fires", if it still exists). The trail takes you to the other side (south side) of the lake and continues about 500 meters to a hill littered with talus rocks. You are likely to lose the trail because it hits the rocks. There are markers, but hard to find in the dark. You can simply make your own trail through the talus boulders, or look for the "use" trail that resumes after about 100 meters. This trail stays close to the vegetation to your right. If you can't find it, most likely you went too high (if you had gone too low, you would be bushwhacking). You may lose it again a little further up, but, again, look for it near the water. There is also a giant pyramidal rock that is a good reference point: the trail runs right below it.

If you follow the trail and the cairns, things get easy: the trail takes you through some vegetation and over a couple of steep granite slabs and then to the northern (right) side of the creek. This is where the routes for Mt Russell and Mt Whitney diverge. The sandy wall to your right is the gateway to Russell. Following the cairns you will cross the creek one last time to the left and start climbing steep switchbacks. This happens just before the Upper Boyscout Lake, that in fact you can't see until you are higher. If you reach the Upper Boy Scout lake, you lost the trail: retrace your steps a bit to find the use-trail.
At the top of this series of switchbacks, turn right and you enter a canyon. (Note: on the way down the most common mistake after the canyon is to wait too long before turning left/downhill, in which case you end up at another lake from where it is not trivial at all how to descend). Walk up the canyon for about an hour. This is a very dry canyon in the summer (no vegetation and sandy bottom). Stay rather on the right (higher ground) than in the center (bottom of the canyon). There is a little crater in the middle of the canyon (a dry lake). If you stay to the right, you will not have to climb down and then up again. There have appeared at least two very visible use-trails. If you find either trail, it will take you straight to the base of Whitney's eastern face.
There is a waterfall coming down from Iceberg lake that provides the only water in the canyon.
You do see the ugly face of Whitney right in front of you all the time, so you can't make mistakes. All use-trails eventually turn right and start climbing towards Iceberg Lake (3870m). This is a short climb. Before reaching the lake you can see the eastern chute (to the right of Whitney's face) in all its terrifying glory.
If you have not lost the trail, it seems to end abruptly against the rocky wall, but it actually points to the best way to proceed: start climbing up and you will find vestiges of a use trail. This is basically a short cut to enter the very steep chute to the right of Whitney's face and avoid as much of the scree as possible.

Basically, stay to the left and you'll be on rockier terrain. This is not intuitive and most hikers end up scrambling up the scree of the chute. If you are on scree, you missed the use trail. If you end up in the slippery center of the chute, climb up to your left until you hit solid rock and you should be able to tell that this is a much better way to proceed up the chute. If coming down, stay on the right handside against the wall of Whitney, and avoid the impulse to aim straight for Iceberg Lake which would be the wrong way.

This chute does not look so long, and it is not: but it easily takes one-two hours at that altitude.
Eventually, the chute flattens out next to a big boulder on your right, which acts as a sort of gate to the final chimneys. From this vintage point there are great views of Mt Russell, of the Arctic lakes, etc. Some people think this is a better view than the view at the top.

From the "gate" walk down the other side for about 10 meters and on your left you should now see the final chute/chimney: you can't miss it, it's 10-20 meter wide.

Now you have two choices. The easier (when there is no ice) is the "traverse": ignore the left chimney and keep walking in the north direction coasting the mountain (a use trail is usually visible after the snow has melted), and then, whenever you feel like, turn left and climb the "back" of the mountain. The second chimney is probably even worse than the first one, but the third one is relatively easy and next there is a gentle slope that connects with the regular trail (quite a sight when you get there and meet the river of touristy hikers coming up from the regular trail).

The more difficult but faster option is the legendary first chimney.

That chimney is almost vertical. If you look up, it feels like there is an impassable wall at the end.

There is usually snow and ice in this chimney even in summer, so the trick is to make your way around the ice as you climb up. By far the most difficult step is the first one. Most people use two smaller rocks as steps and markers of the best way to start. Personally, i prefer to stay on the right ridge of this chimney. The climbing is never more than class-3, i am often able to stand up and simply zigzag, and the handhold is always firm when i need my hands. Any other direction inside the chimney implies some serious climbing at the very top.

After this last scramble, you emerge on the summit plateau, not even 100 meters from the summit house.

If you get to the top from the regular trail and want to descend on the mountaineering trail, walk down about 100 meters along the eastern edge and look for a few cairns that mark the beginning of the chute. From the top this looks like a vertical descent: face the rock to the left (not the chimney), find good hold for your hands and find the best support for your feet. It takes a while to convince yourself that it is indeed possible to go down the first 3-4 meters. It is a lot easier to find steps and handholds when ascending than when descending. Thus descending may actually take you longer than ascending.
My 2007 times for this day hike:
  • JUnction between the regular trail and the North Fork trail: 20'
  • First creek crossing: 32'
  • Triple waterfall crossing: 44'
  • Ledges: 1 hour
  • Crossing to the other side of Lower Boy Scout Lake (3,120m): 1h 40'
  • Upper Boy Scout Lake (3,450m): 2h 15'
  • Canyon lake/crater (usually dry): 3h
  • Iceberg Lake (3,850m): 3h45'
  • Beginning of chute and first view of Iceberg Lake: 4h
  • Top of chute: 5h 45'
  • Top of summit chute: 6h 20'
  • Summit: 6h 27'

Going down can take as little as 4 hours, depending on how much you want to strain your knees on such a steep descent.

North variant

There is a longer way to get to the top without climbing the dreadful chute. When at Iceberg Lake, look for a notch on the northwest that allows one to climb into the valley between Whitney and Russell (thus called Whitney-Russell Pass). If you find the right notch, the route is easy class-2 to the lakes on the north side of Whitney. There is a class-3 route to the top of Whitney that basically goes diagonally from left to right up the north face. An even easier way is to continue in the "valley" to Arctic Lake and Guitar Lake until you hit the John Muir Trail. This trail ascends Whitney, eventually joining the regular Whitney trail.

Lots of pictures here


Pictures of this hike
Lone Pine trails
Mt Whitney weather

For the record...

Check how Whitney compares with other mountains

Clickable map

The regular trail is the one that goes through Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake.

The mountaineering (North Fork) trail is the one that ends at Iceberg Lake (then you have to scramble up the gulley).