Mount Whitney via Cottonwood (Pack Supported)

We have revamped our traditional Whitney via Cottonwood trip, adding a day, more features and making the program more educational to give you a greater appreciation of the Sierra Nevada and the world in which we live. We have a long on the trip a naturalist who will explain the landscape and natural history of the country we travel through and make this not just a trip to the high point of the lower forty-eight states.

At 14,495 feet, Mount Whitney is the high point of the lower forty-eight states and the goal of many. If you didn’t get your permit application for the main trail in by February, or don’t want to attempt a more technical ascent up the Mountaineers Route, this on-trail option may be for you.

The route from Cottonwood crosses over the Sierra Crest at Cottonwood Pass, eventually drops west to the Kern River and then loops east to Guitar Lake below the western slopes of the peak. From here we climb to Trail Crest where we meet those coming up from the Whitney Portal.

We like this route for a number of reasons:

  • It is beautiful with high alpine lakes and expansive views
  • There are far fewer people than on the regular Whitney Trail where there can be hundreds of people.
  • Rather than a rush to the summit this route offers a fine hike in its own right and the summit as a bonus. We have adapted our trip now to include an educational component that gives you a greater understanding of the beauty and natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada. Our knowledgable and skilled guides will discuss a wide range of topics from geology and glacial landforms to the history of the first ascentionists of the peaks.
  • To make it a truly relaxing trip we use the services of Cottonwood Pack Station to carry equipment while we hike with a day pack. This also enables us to take along a few extra luxuries for a complete vacation. Our itinerary allows for acclimatization time and makes the last day as short as we can. Yes, this does take longer and cost more – but it makes the trip a  lot easier and with a far greater chance of getting to the top we think it is worth it.

Yes, it does take a little longer to climb this way, but then we believe that it is the journey that is important rather than the goal and this offers a very fine journey indeed.

Special Notes

For maps look at the Mt. Whitney, Mt. Langley and Cirque Peak 7.5 minute maps.

We spend our first night at the campground at the end of the road. This gives you time to adjust to the 10,000 foot elevation.  We estimate that 80% of our unsuccessful attempts fail due to problems with altitude, (and the balance due to weather) and spending a night here before the start of the hiking dramatically improves your chances of attaining the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Bears are a problem at the Cottonwood Trailhead. Do not leave food, scented items (deodorant, soap etc.) in your vehicle. There is limited food locker storage so do not bring extra items with you to the trailhead. Clean up all trash prior to your trip. Failure to take precautions can cause the vehicle to be ripped apart by a bear and the added insult of a fine from the Forest Service. If possible, please car pool up to the trailhead, leaving unnecessary vehicles at the Forest Service Offices in Lone Pine.


We have GPSed as accurately as we can the route so you know what you are getting into.

Day Out Destination Mileage Elevation Gain Hiking Time
Day 2 Chicken Springs Lake 5.3 miles 1405 3 hours 35 minutes
Day 3 Rock Creek Crossing 10.5 miles 620 6 hours 43 minutes
Day 4 Guitar Lake 10.3 miles 2985 7 hours 10 minutes
Day 5 Mount Whitney then back to Crabtree Meadows 14.4 miles 3405 12 hours 5 minutes
Day 6 Rock Creek Lake 11.3 miles 2020 7 hours 10 minutes
Day 7 back to pack station 11.4 miles 1435 7 hours

Getting to the top of Whitney: 32.2 miles

Total 63.2 miles Total Elevation Gain 11,870

The Trip

We have changed our original itinerary some to give more acclimatization time. Yes, this does take longer and cost more – but it makes the trip a lot easier and with a far great chance of getting to the top. Isn’t that worth it?

Day 1

We meet for a trip orientation at 5.00 p.m. at the Cottonwood Campground, set up tents and have dinner before settling in for the night.

Day 2

We get our equipment sorted and to the packers before hiking from the Cottonwood Pack station up and over Cottonwood Pass and descend a little over about a half mile to Chicken Springs Lake, our first night’s camp. This day is about 4 miles long with about 1300 feet of elevation gain and makes for a great break-in day further improving your acclimatization to the elevation.

Day 3

We leave camp and then make a long contour entering Sequoia Kings National Park, and continuing to the headwaters of Rock Creek. This is about a 9 mile day.

Day 4

We drop down Rock Creek before climbing up onto the wide open spaces of Guyot Flat. Staying above treeline we climb and contour around into Crabtree Meadows. We now turn towards Mt. Whitney and climbing steadily we get to camp at Guitar Lake (11,460’). This is a 9-10 mile trip. The pack stock leave us here and return back to Crabtree Meadows to overnight the mules and wait for us to climb.

Day 5

We are not too far from the summit but we allow all day for the ascent to the summit and the return to a lower camp. There are numerous switchbacks up to Trailcrest (13,550’) where we meet others coming up from the other side. The summit seems within grasp but the thin air limits our ability to move speedily, though with slow but steadily progress before long we will be on top and enjoying the highest point outside of Alaska. After summit photos and relaxing on top we retrace our steps back. While we are climbing the packers come up and collect our camp and move it down to Crabtree Meadow. Doing it this way sets the stage for an easier last day back to the cars.

Day 6

The packstock return and pick up our gear and we retrace our steps back to Rock Creek Crossing and then head to camp at Rock Creek Lake via a different route.

Day 7

Back to the road head. This is a long day so be prepared for an early start and a late afternoon return to the roadhead.

Program Prerequisites:

Prior backpacking experience helpful, but not necessary. The days are long with up to 14 miles a day. Good physical condition is required and while you are not carrying a big pack do not underestimate the length of the days.

Program Inclusions:

Price includes guiding, packstock support, permits, tents, kitchen gear, breakfasts, lunches and dinners (you bring hot/cold drinks and snack items). Scheduled dates include USFS trail fees. Private programs do not.

Private programs can be undertaken with either pack support of self contained. Local accommodation is not included.

Please Read before you go

We feel the following information is essential... (links open as PDF in new window)

  1. Itinerary/Equipment List
  2. SMC Cancellation Policy
  3. Suggestions on preparation - get the most out of your trip!
  4. Tips on physical training for your trip
  5. LNT - Let's work together to protect our precious mountain environment.

PDF Maps:

Rental Equipment:

Need to rent equipment for your trip? We can help.