Horseshoe Meadows to Mt. Whitney
Note: in 2017, we repeated this trip via Cottonwood Pass in only two nights. Reading that trip report is also recommended.
In September 2008, Em and I were sitting at Lodgepole Visitor Center in the Sequoia National Park, looking at brochures about the surroundings. That's where I first saw information about hiking to Mt. Whitney, and it seemed farther away than the moon. The main trail repulsed me right away - we were just getting back into hiking back then, but the thought of that long, steep trail with hundreds and hundreds of people just didn't appeal to us. The other way - approaching it over several days from the backcountry - seemed completely out of reach, both as far as fitness and backcountry knowledge goes. If somebody would have told me that only three years later, we'd be seriously considering organizing a trip and only another year later we'd be actually giving it a shot... but that's how life is.
One thing led to another, and in summer of 2011, after our "Mini Trans-Sierra" trip, be both agreed to at least look into the possibility of trying Whitney next year. After doing some research, the route became clear pretty quickly: Horseshoe Meadows to New Army Pass, down Cold Creek, over Guyot Pass to Crabtree and over and out. This seemed like a route that's not too crowded, there's no actual climbing involved, and though we've never spent more than three nights in the wilderness, we were confident we can handle it.
My favorite of all trip reports I found was this (warning: archived page, very, very ugly design), with lots of great advice and details. I've read many more, but this became the main guide to go by.
Then, in fall 2011, fantastic Adventure 16 (I can't praise them enough) organized a three-part Whitney clinic, where knowledgeable people talked about various aspects of the hike. Em had a bad knee injury just before the first one, and I remember not being in a very optimistic mood when we sat down to listen to Kurt Wedberg talk. However, I also remember that he polled the audience, and everybody but us wanted to go on the main trail. That I took as a good sign. Kurt is a very cool guy, having climbed Everest three times and each of the other Seven Summits at least once. He runs a guide company in Bishop, and he's one of the main go-to guys as far as Whitney is concerned. The other two clinics were held by Ken Murray, another really nice person and a well of information about anything and everything backcountry.
I'll be honest: I did my homework very well, having spent countless hours reading about these trips and researching equipment (though we had most of that). Also, despite the fact that we were not that experienced, most poeple at these seminars were real beginners. So I can't say we picked up a huge amount of new information at these events. However, they were immensely helpful. Hearing something in person, getting confirmation about rumors, and being able to ask questions is unbelievably valuable. A16 still does this every year, and I highly recommend it to anybody who's interested in backcountry hikes (not even necessarily to Mt. Whitney).
Em's knee healed rapidly, we started doing short hikes, and in January 2012, we embarked on a ranger-led series of hikes of the Backbone Trail. After that was over, all summer long we hiked and hiked and hiked. We also tried to spend as much time as possible at altitude - though our options were limited. About three weeks before the trip, we spent a night at Onion Valley, which gave us around 24 hours at almost 10,000'.
When the day came, we felt as ready as anybody. The weather forecast looked very good and a friend was tasked to send us weather updates through the inReach.
Day 0 - L.A. to Whitney Portal and Horseshoe Meadows
We got up early. and after picking up the permit in Lone Pine, first we drove up to Horseshoe Meadows. There were still a few campsites available, so we quickly set up the tent, left whatever gear we could, then drove to Whitney Portal to drop the car. This was one of the biggest unknowns of the whole trip: how the heck are we're going to get from Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows? Well, by hitchhiking, how else? We're Europeans, hitchhiking is in our blood. Well, sort of... The last time I hitchhiked was in 1997, if I'm not mistaken.
After parking our car at Whitney portal (actually, almost 1/4 mile down the road, as there was no room), we checked it again and again to make sure no scented items remain, then put our packs on and slowly started walking down the mountain, trying to stop every car that came from above. The reason we had our packs was to carry water and food in case it took long to get back to Horseshoe. We got extremely lucky, though. In less than 20 minutes a very nice couple from Long Beach picked us up. We asked them to drop us off at the junction of Horseshoe Meadows road, so they can continue on and we can try finding another ride up the mountain, but surprisingly, they said they're in no hurry, and they offered to take us up all the way to Horseshoe. They even stayed for an hour or so at Horseshoe while we were getting our gear organized. Em made some cookies for the road that were not fit for the mountain, and the four of us ate them all.
By the time they left, it was already around 2pm, and there was nothing for us to do other than enjoying the afternoon. We walked down to the big meadow, looked at the marmots, took pictures of the almost-full moon. I even took the fishing pole with me, but ended up not fishing at all.
In the evening, while cooking dinner, we realized we forgot an important, but not vital food item: the beef jerky. We agreed, however, that if this is the most serious piece of gear or food we're missing, then we'll be totally fine.
A San Diego couple in their mid-forties was next to us, they told us their final destination is Toulomne Meadows (essentially a modified version of the JMT) taking off in the morning, and hiking all the way to Crabtree in the first day. They said they did distances like this all the time. When three days later we got there and I told Em, see, those guys came this far in one day, she looked at me like I was crazy. Update: We almost did that distance a few years later on the second Whitney trip.
Day 1 - Horseshoe Meadows to Long Lake
According to quite a few trip reports, the best way to get to Long Lake is to take the shortcut. It's supposedly way less crowded and a mile shorter, the only difficulty being a short cross-county section between South Fork Lakes and Long Lake. Huh. No-brainer. That's what we'll do.
The mileage for that way was only around 6-7, so there was no reason to rush. By the time we started on on the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, it was almost 10am. The trail leaves Horseshoe Meadows, dipping briefly into the drainage of Cottonwood Creek South Fork. About a mile from the trailhead, the trail crosses the creek and less than 100 yards from this crossing, there's a faint, almost invisible trail going off to the left. This soon becomes a real trail, following the creek up and up towards South Fork Lakes. We took our time, stopping for a snack at the remnants of an old hunting (or logging) cabin, then continuing in the forest climbing gently over three meadows. This section is quiet and diverse, and very, very scenic.
Just before South Fork Lakes, there's an extremely steep part, but it's really short. It looks much worse than it is. By the time you start to get tired, it's over. When the trail levels out, it's not obvious where you are. There's this big meadow-like plateau with Cirque Peak above it. You should be at lower South Fork Lake, but there's no sign of it. It took us a minute to figure out we have to go left - the lake is right there, but it's so shallow and it doesn't fill out the meadow very much, it can't be seen until you get closer because of all the tall grass growing on the sides.
To get a nice view of the meadows below, it's really worth hiking off the trail to the south crown of the plateau and looking down. You can see Trail Peak and all the rest of the way you came from.
We took a long break at the lake, had lunch, I even took a dip in the cold water. I consulted the map, and I'll admit, I got confused. Blame it on the elevation. I wanted to avoid getting to Cirque Lake and somehow I was sure we have to go towards the far end of South Fork Lake. I was wrong by 90 degrees. We got down to the main trail, even crossed it, and we were at Cottonwood Lake #1 when I realized something is wrong. This never, ever happened to me before. I was embarrassed, but admitted my mistake and we turned around and hiked back to the main trail and up to Long Lake. Em wasn't even angry, she liked the Cottonwood Lakes Basin a lot.
Long Lake is gorgeous. As the name says, it's elongated in shape, and Cirque Peak and New Army Pass loom in the background. It was a bit windy, so we looked around for a while, and then we settled in the main camping area just off the trail. There was a big group of boy scouts right next to us. After exchanging the usual courtesies and trip info, it turned out they are doing the same route as us.
I went fishing, and decided to try the small plastic worms I bought just a few days prior. The results were impressive. The first golden trout was on the hook as soon as it hit the water. We had a very nice dinner of fish, then went to bed early. Some guys in the boy scout group were snoring so loud our tent was shaking, but Em is a great sleeper, and I was too tired to care, too.
Day 2 - Long Lake to Guyot Creek
The boy scouts were long gone, and it was 9am by the time we finally left Long Lake. The climb towards New Army Pass is steep, sure, but the trail is in great condition and the weather was clear, so we took it easy. We passed High Lake, then climbed the switchbacks to the pass.
The pass itself it pretty wide, with no steep drop on the far side, but there are great views all around, way back to the Kern Valley, Mt. Langley, Owens Valley and the high lakes. Mt. Whitney is also visible, but this time, I had no idea. For some reason I totally missed this, and it I only realized years later when we returned to this place. Silly me.
From the pass, we had around 8 more miles to go, but almost all downhill. It's a gentle slope as the trail descends into Cold Creek drainage. After about a mile or two, it crosses the timberline and the vegetation becomes denser by the minute. Around the Soldier Lake junction it's like a jungle.
Heart Lake is a bit like Lower South Fork Lake. When you first get to the meadow, you're wondering where the lake is. Well, it's on the far side and again, very shallow. The meadow, like most others, is very, very pretty. We made good time up to this point, so we took another long lunch break, I hauled water in the bear canister, and Em did some laundry. From there, we descended along Cold Creek, catching up with the PCT and bottoming out at the Cold Creek Ranger station.
As we expected, the trail camp at the crossing was very crowded. It's an extremely nice place, but there were all the boy scouts plus quite a few other people. There wasn't even a debate, we agreed in a second that we'll continue on, just like several trip reports suggested. The climb out of the valley is pretty steep, but short.
After about half a mile it levels out, and soon, we were at Guyot Creek. Camping is on the north side of the creek, a bit off the trail, in the middle of the woods. It's a very tranquil place with the water running by. No other people were there. Of course, we were pretty tired, and it was getting late, meaning there was no much to do but eat dinner and spend a nice and quiet night in the forest.
Day 3 - Guyot Creek to Crabtree Meadows
This was to be an easy day, with a late start (we can never, ever get going quickly). The boy scouts camped down at Cold Creek went by us as we were wrapping up breakfast. We were warned that there's no water between here and Crabtree, but the distance is only five miles. Of course, we made sure we had enough water and some to spare.
First we had to climb Guyot Pass, which is a very low pass on a small hump. There's some uphill hiking, sure, but it's almost not a real pass. The trail then drops to Guyot Flats, this huge, barren expanse that used to be a meadow in wetter times, at least according to an older gentlemen we met there. He told us about a trip 20-some years ago, and according to him, this was a wet place, lush with vegetation. Even now, the view is amazing, like a high desert with the Great Western Divide in the background.
Not much past this point, we caught up with the boy scouts, overtook them briefly, but then we all had lunch together on top of the hill above the Flats, chatting about trail adventures.
As we crossed the hump, we got our first glimpse of Crabtree Meadows, and way back in the distance, but not so far away anymore, our goal: Mt. Whitney. Right then, we met a guy coming up, totally out of breath. After catching some of that breath, we told us he's been up Whitney, and now he's going back the way we came. "This will be the hardest thing you've ever done in your whole life, but you'll love it" - he told us. I thought, well, I hope the "hardest" part won't be true, but hey, he's been there, and we haven't.
Shortly, we descended into Crabtree Meadows, and I was ecstatic. That's my definition of Shangri-La. Atlantis. El Dorado. You name it. A high meadow with a wide, slow creek running through it - there are few things nicer that that.
Right on the trail, where the PCT branches off, there's a small camp with a bear box. Of course it was occupied, but our plan was to go further up anyway. The ranger station is another mile (maybe less) up the trail, with plenty of camping nearby. There were other people, but not too many, and we set up camp about 100 yards from the main trail in the forest. The ranger station is another 1-200 yards off the main trail on a spur. We could see the building among the trees in the distance.
After pitching the tent, Em was dealing with the gear while I walked to the creek to pump some water. On the way there, I noticed on elderly gentleman walking towards the ranger station, and a minute later, I saw him talking to the ranger, who had his two-way radio in hand. I didn't think much of it. As I'm sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek, pumping away, all of a sudden the ranger comes up to me and tells me I have to get out of there, because a helicopter is coming soon. It will be landing right next to the creek, and he doesn't want me getting hurt by debris that could be kicked up. I asked him what's wrong and he said there's a boy scout who got pulmonary edema and has to be taken off the mountain. I cut my pumping short, went back to the tent, and sure enough, the chopper was there very soon. Less than 15 minutes went by between the time the scout leader asking for help and the helicopter arriving. Very, very reassuring thing to witness. The boy was fine, by the way, he was in no immediate danger. They powered down the bird and evaluated him for almost half an hour before taking off.
It was still only around 3pm, so we gathered a few things and headed back to "proper" Crabtree Meadow for some fishing. I always wanted to fish in a meadow like this, and this was my first opportunity. We hiked into the middle of it, settled down, and I caught dinner. Deer were grazing a few hundred feet away, not giving a damn about us.
There were some clouds, and the forecast called for 20% chance of thunderstorms this day and the next few, but we didn't get any rain and the wind stayed pretty calm, too. The evening was nice and clear and we even walked around by moonlight a bit. I hoped it will be like this the next day, too, as from Guitar Lake, we planned on getting up at night and start hiking to the summit by moonlight.
Day 4 - Crabtree Meadows to tarn above Guitar Lake
This was to be an even easier day than the one before. We took our time getting ready and left around 10:30am. Slowly, we made our way up the trail, arriving at Timberline Lake an hour later and stopping for a snack. No wonder camping is prohibited here, it's so gorgeous and so much better than Guitar Lake, we'd destroy the surroundings in no time. The lake is appropriately named, as not much above it, the true alpine country starts.
Another 45 minutes later we were walking by Guitar Lake (again, appropriately named, it really looks like a guitar from above). Camping there wasn't even an option. It looked like a crowded village, with more and more people arriving. I read that above the lake there are some tarns, and it's very much worth going up there, as there will be way less people, and you have a head start when going up the mountain at dawn.
About a quarter mile past Guitar Lake, we met a guy coming down from Trail Crest and asked him whether there's any more water past our location. He was kind of rude, and said there's a small "puddle" a bit higher up, with almost no water, and with his hands he indicated the size of kiddie-pool. Somehow I had a hunch not to listen to him. From what I read, heard, and saw on the satellite maps, what he said simply didn't sound true, and even if yes, going back to Guitar Lake would be no disaster.
I'm sure the guy was imagining things because of the elevation, as not much farther, there was a very nice tarn, the size of at least two Olympic-sized swimming pools. After a bit of looking around, I found a completely level piece of rock on a ledge, overlooking Guitar Lake. Perfect, perfect place. Em and I keep mentioning this as one of the best spots we ever camped at.
The weather was getting worse by the minute. I had serious doubts about whether we'll be able to climb the mountain. Big clouds were gathering and the wind was getting stronger and stronger. A bit later, we could see from our vantage point that Crabtree Meadows is evidently under a brief but heavy downpour.
As campsite was on bare rock, it took a few hundred pounds of stones, but we managed to secure the tent very well. If you don't know how to do this, I very strongly suggest you learn it, it's a skill that can save you from huge trouble. It certainly saved us. Around 2pm, it got very cloudy and windy, by 3pm, it got even cloudier, and the wind became stormy. It heaved the tent this way and that way, but everything held. There's was no rain save for a few drops, but we retreated into the tent to get away from the wind and even took a short nap.
The storm lasted about an hour, then the wind stopped and the clouds broke up somewhat. We went exploring, going a bit higher towards Hitchcock Lakes. Only a short walk from our campsite, we found another cute little tarn, almost perfectly circular, around 30 yards in diameter. It was a warm afternoon, despite the elevation and the recent storm, and I took a nice, but short swim in the water. I'm not one of those guys who can handle ice-cold water very well, but it was incredibly refreshing.
Looking down at Guitar Lake from our campsite, we could see that the village swelled and swelled and there were at least two dozen tents now. We were sooo happy not to be down there. Then, an almost incredible sight: a boat! Somebody was rowing on Guitar Lake! Seriously. We couldn't see for sure from that distance, but it looked like a small inflatable kayak. Well, if lugging that weight up there is your thing, I'm sure it must have been fun.
The sunset was a gorgeous display of colors with calm winds and almost no clouds. However, around that time, the trouble started again. Huge thunderheads appeared, seemingly from all directions, and by 8:30pm, another windstorm was in full swing, even worse than the one in the afternoon. It looked pretty bad. At this time, I was almost sure there's no way we can leave for the summit at dawn.
Also, I realized my Led Lenser headlamp died. The cable coming out of the battery box broke right at the junction. There was no real way to fix this without destroying the lamp completely. I wasn't too concerned, though. We had a small hand-held light with us, and after taking off the strap of the headlamp, I rigged the hand-held light to the strap with a small cable tie. It needed some adjusting, but in the end, it was relatively comfortable against my temple. I was pretty confident that even if we are sticking to the original plan, and start hiking up in the dark, it won't be a big issue.
The weather looked worse, though. Huge clouds raced back and forth in the strong wind. Curiously, not one drop of rain fell where we were. The tent held very well, but we couldn't sleep for a while in all that wind and thunder. Then, before 10pm, we both fell asleep, wind or no wind. I even dreamed something about the trail.
Day 5 - Tarn above Guitar Lake to summit of Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Lake
All of a sudden, I awoke to deafening silence. Nothing. Maybe it's just a lull. I sat still for a while, listening for thunder or wind. Still nothing. I poked my head out of the tent, and a huge smile came to my face. Bright moonlight, stars, no clouds whatsoever, and no wind. Em and I looked at each other: "You want to go for it?" "Sure!" This was not much past midnight. We set the clock to 3am, and when we got up, it was still the same. A few high clouds came in, but nothing serious. It was perfect.
We had a quick "breakfast", drank some coffee (even me, who almost never drinks coffee nowadays) and slowly started walking up the trail. The village below us was wide awake, too, with several headlamps already on their way. The moonlight was so bright, we ended up hiking without the lights. There was simply no need for them. It was magical. Perfect weather, moonlight, high country. The switchbacks are looooong and arduous, but not very steep. We could really feel the altitude, though, so we took it very easy.
Slowly, dawn came, and sunrise found us below the junction of Trail Crest. It was cold, but not terribly so, and in a way it was even a good thing to be on the other side of the mountain, shielded from the sunlight. At the junction, there were at least 30 packs already there, but still some space left. We found a good spot, and to make sure, covered the packs with the ponchos. Water, snacks, etc. went into the small daypacks and off we were for the summit.
The stretch of 1.9 miles from the junction to the top is a destination in itself, with those famous "windows" looking down east and the fantastic views of Hitchcock, Guitar, and all the other lakes and the interior of the Sierra Range the other other way.
It was around 8:45 when we got to the summit. I almost couldn't believe it. With all our injuries we had in the last years and all the things we had going against us, we made it, and were having a blast. Other than being out of breath a bit, neither of us had any aches or pains.
Sign the register, sit around, enjoy the view, take pictures, take some more pictures, have a snack, maybe a few more pictures... The weather held very nicely, with no sign of trouble, and we ended up spending almost 90 minutes up top. I even looked for all the different markers I could find and took pictures of them. I got six in total, but I'm sure there are more.
Obviously, the way down was much easier, but me idiot, I took a wrong step near the summit and my left ankle started to hurt. Not very badly, just enough to slow me down a bit. We picked up our packs at the junction, climbed the quarter mile uphill to Trail Crest, then descended the 99 switchbacks. If you're not too exhausted to enjoy it, this is a very cool place with great views. From here, you're almost back in civilization, especially as far as the number of people is concerned.
Trail Camp was of course another crowded village and the sun was beating down hard. We stopped for a snack somewhat below the camp, in the shade of a rock, then continued on, down, down, down. This is where we both realized we wore out the carbide tips on our hiking poles. They didn't catch the rock very well anymore, so we'll have to change them. The poles were 2+ years old, with quite a few hundred miles in each of them, so it was no big surprise.
I know, most people who are not at the end of their strength head on out from here. We decided not to do that. One last night on the mountain seemed like a great thing to do, to process the experience, to reflect a bit. Rushing down to Whitney Portal and driving home seemed very unappealing.
Each campsite along the trail is always crowded, however, and the trip reports warn you that you'll listen to hikers all night long as most dayhiking people from Portal start just past midnight. The only escape from this is at Lone Pine Lake. Located on a very picturesque ledge just above the Portal, it's off the trail by enough to get away from it all. The only mistake I made was the distance. Somehow I remembered it wrong, I thought Lone Pine Lake is further from the Portal, so we don't have to hike that much. We took a break at Mirror Lake, but not a very long one and we ate only a snack, not real lunch. Big mistake. Being up since 3am and after all that hiking, we were hungry and exhausted when we got to Lone Pine Lake around 4pm, at least 2 miles further down than I anticipated. Em was a bit grumpy, and so was I, but we both were in high spirits again after some food. We only had one other couple as neighbors, relatively far away, and we spent a very nice afternoon lingering around, taking a dip in the lake, and finishing the few sips of Tokaji wine we had with us.
Day 6 - Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal and back to L.A.
Again, there was no reason to hurry. With a sense of accomplishment, we gathered our belongings and hiked down to the Portal. By 10am, we were in civilization again. At the trailhead, there's a scale and we weighed our packs. The two together were 53 pounds. This includes both bear canisters, leftover food for at least two days - maybe more -, trash, wag bag, a big 3-pound DSLR camera and almost three liters of water (don't ask me why we pumped so much water in the morning for a 2.5 mile hike).
We ate a hamburger at the Portal Store - along with a huge salad, as we were starved for fresh stuff, then walked back to the car - found it undisturbed - and before we knew it, we were back in L.A.
What the guy said at Crabtree about this being the hardest thing we've ever done - it did not turn out to be true for us, by far. Em and I both agree the hardest thing we've each ever done was when we both quit smoking cold turkey in 2005 after smoking for almost 10 years (and none of us has lit up since).
This was our first long (long for us) backpacking trip, and sure, we could have done it quicker, but there was no point. I heard of people trail running this route in less than a day, and that must be an amazing thing if that's your hike. All my respect. We did it at our own pace, enjoying every step, spending time to take in the surroundings and get to know the "neighborhood". Heart Lake and Crabtree are two places that will always be favorites of mine. Getting to the summit was a huge thrill, but even if we would have had to abandon the summit attempt, the actual journey would have compensated us for the disappointment.
Everything Whitney: http://whitneyportalstore.com/
Permit page and official info: [LINK]https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233260