Mt Whitney

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Day hiking permits for Mt Whitney

(Note: the rules change every year, so don't trust anything on this page).

Hiking anything in the Mt Whitney region (even remote mountains like Mt Morgenson and Mt Tunnabora that hardly ever get a visitor) (so much so that even the rangers don't know them) has become a bureaucratic nightmare.

Hiking Mt Whitney and its neighboring mountains is not easy. It is not the mountain, it's the bureaucracy that makes it so difficult. You do need a permit to hike up Whitney and any nearby mountain in the summer. If you don't have a permit, rangers will cite you and turn you back. The regulations are so complicated that rangers themselves disagree on their interpretations.

The "Whitney zone" (the zone that requires a permit even for day hikes) keeps being expanded year after year, with ever more erratic rules and regulations and ever more rangers added to their staff in order to enforce them. I can see the day when the "Whitney Zone" will extend over the entire wilderness and the Inyo National Forest will simply declare independence.

There are now rangers checking permits also on the North Fork/ Mountaneering route. They have vastly improved that route, but the catch is that now everybody walks the same way up the "mountaineering" route and it's therefore easier for rangers to check everyone's permit.

Please boycott any initiative to increase the funding for the Inyo national forest. The more money they get, the more restrictions they will apply and enforce.
(Note: what follows is about hiking to the top of Mt Whitney up and down in one day from Whitney Portal).

To hike the regular Mt Whitney trail in one day requires a day-hike permit. This is not only a very unfair practice, which rewards people who've got nothing to do over people who have a job and can't plan ahead, but over the last few years they have also made it as difficult as possible for us to get one. The permit system is matched only by horror tales of the old Soviet Union.

That said, permits for summer day hikes can in theory be obtained from Inyo National Forest (1-760-873-2408). Lone Pine ranger station 760 876-6200. They also have a reservation number: 760 873-2483, but only in the afternoon. Permits cost money (rangers will tell you that the permits are free and you pay for the reservation, but the reservation is mandatory...)

These permits become available sometime at the beginning of the year (usually february) and are first assigned via a lottery (no, this is not a joke). As of 2019, this is the only way to get a permit. (Before 2019, it was possibly to ask for a permit at the Lone Pine visitor center and, if any were available, you would get them, but in 2019 the website changed the rules to "No Walk up permits will be issued for Mt Whitney Day Use and Mt Whitney Trail Overnight. These two permits are by reservation only.")

To prove that there is no limit to human stupidity, the winners of the lottery don't get a permit: they only get a letter that they are entitled to a permit (a permit-permitting letter, if you wish). To get the actual permit, one must show up in person the day before the hike at the ranger station in Lone Pine. If you applied to hike on a saturday, you have to take a day off and drive all the way to Lone Pine on the day before, and make sure to arrive before closing time. You can request that the rangers leave your permit in a "night box" located at the visitor center, but permits have been "stolen" or have been missing. So make sure to call them and get your actual permit number (not just the reservation number that is printed on the letter): this way if they forget to put your permit in the "night box" or if someone else takes yours, you can still produce the permit number. (It is very easy to steal permits from this night box: as long as you obtained one legal permit, you will be given the password to open the night box, and then you can take all the permits that you like).

To maximize chances of obtaining a permit for the desired day, it has become commonplace to ask two or three friends to apply for the same day that you want. In theory permits are non-transferrable, but you are not required to carry a photo id on the trail (yet!), so rangers have no way to check if you are really the person who bought that permit.

Old hikers beware! In the past (before 2001), you would not be checked for permits if you started hiking very early in the morning and returned late afternoon: this is no longer true. The rangers have enough of our tax money to actually ambush hikers on the Whitney trail all day and night long. On one summer day i met three rangers checking permits, and it wasn't even a weekend.

This is a typical form of bureaucracy that feeds itself: both the fees and the fines are needed in order to be able to pay for the rangers who enforce the rules.

I gave up trying to keep this page updated: the rangers keep changing their websites, phone numbers, etc. Every year there is something different. They have a well-staffed bureaucracy to do so, i don't. They win. Please boycott any initiative to increase funds for the Inyo National Forest: those funds are used to hire more bureaucrats to add more "red tape". Write to your Congress representative and senator and ask to cut funds to the Inyo National Forest.
Please write to
Inyo National Forest
351 Pacu Lane
Suite 200
Bishop, CA 93514

to complain about this stupid system and demand the deportation to North Korea of the human (?) being who came up with this system.

My rant

The official excuse for the permit system is the need to protect the "delicate ecosystem" of Mt Whitney. Anybody who has been on that mountain knows that this is plain crap: Mt Whitney is one big rock. There is no vegetation on that mountain. I could name thousands of places on the Sierra Nevada and even near major cities that constitute a much more delicate ecosystem.

Ironically, the part of the trail that can be hiked without a permit is precisely the part that goes through a forest and where wildlife can indeed be seen. I am not sure what "delicate ecosystem" gets hurt on Mt Russell, a mountain that normally would get one or two visitors a day and is now considered part of the "Whitney Zone" (and therefore gets an average of zero visitors). If the goal was to close Mt Russell to the general public, it succeeded. Ditto for the Russell-Carillon pass: if you want to transit through it, you need a Whitney permit. That's a remote pass that probably no more than 100 people a year would use (incidentally, it is just a big pile of sand and loose rocks).

Of course, Mt Whitney gets more visitors than other 4,000-meter mountain. It is, after all, the only major mountain with a trail all the way to the top. However, the permit system has simply increased its popularity and there are now many more people who desire hiking it (most of them totally unprepared). So the permit system has encouraged people to hike Whitney instead of discouraging them.

At the same time that the permit system was introduced in order to protect the "delicate ecosystem" of Mt Whitney, the mountaineering route (once a legendary route that very few people had actually attempted) was improved and keeps being improved. This is indeed a side of Whitney that is biologically rich (both wildlife and vegetation). Nonetheless, year after year the rangers have worked on creating a "use-trail" that now extends all the way to the final chute. That has indeed hurt a "delicate ecosystem". In fact, the rangers have probably sped up by a few centuries the process of creating a use-trail to the summit.

Summarizing, i doubt that these hiking permits are meant to limit damage to a delicate ecological environment. Furthermore, the quota system is simply sending a lot more hikers to other routes, some of which are more delicate ecosystem. To me these hiking permits are just bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake.

If we truly want to protect the wilderness, i can easily name the real enemies, having walked all over those mountains for almost 30 years. First and foremost, plastic. The plastic bottle that you carry is lethal. If you drop it (and sooner or later you will), it will stay there forever. I routinely collect one or two plastic items from trails. Every year we add a few thousand plastic items to the wilderness. If the bureaucracy wants to protect the environment, i would start by banning plastic beyond the parking lot (or at least setting a limit to how much plastic one can carry): no plastic bottles, no sunscreen and insect repellent in plastic containers, no food sold or wrapped in plastic, etc. (Incidentally this is easy to do - my friends know that i never carried plastic bottles and the only plastic in my backpack is pretty much the emergency poncho). Next would be (ouch) all electronics. First of all, the most unnatural thing in the wilderness is to be on a smartphone talking to your granma in Wyoming (especially if you have to shout "can you hear me?" every minute). Secondly, that's another thing that people drop more often than you'd imagine: cell phones, cameras, GPSs. Each of those items contains harmful chemicals that will leak into the soil. I could go on. If we really want to protect the wilderness, i would not stop animals from using it (and "animals" includes humans) but i would make sure they don't carry any potentially harmful substance with them: plastic, electronics, guns, aerosol sprays, soap, etc. Can you believe that it is illegal to hike the Mt Whitney trail without a permit (to protect a fragile ecosystem) but perfectly legal to use insect repellent?