What you can do and what you should do are often two different things. You can march straight to the summit of 14,497-foot Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48, and be back in Lone Pine for happy hour. But what you should do is savor your time in the backpacker's utopia known as the Whitney Zone and extend your climb to three or four days. You'll camp in cathedral-grand cirques, kick back by diamond-clear streams, listen to whistling marmots, and ogle the rosy granite spires of the Sierra Crest, a ridge perched two miles above the Owens Valley.
Whitney's premier climbs both start at Whitney Portal (8,365 feet), a trailhead 13 miles west of Lone Pine. The Mount Whitney Trail, 21.4 miles round-trip, is easy and popular–and totally worth it. Go in April for guaranteed solitude and no permit hassles (bring an ice axe and crampons and know how to use them). But for a spicier ascent, try the 12.4-mile Mountaineer's Route. You'll see far fewer people but need to be comfortable on steeper terrain. Hike .8 mile before veering right off the main trail to cross Lone Pine Creek and begin a cross-country romp connecting Lower Boyscout, Upper Boyscout, and Iceberg Lakes, navigating a series of class 2 ledges along the way. Camp at sheltered Upper Boyscout (2.8 miles in) if weather is dicey, or push to Iceberg, a secluded tarn at the base of Whitney's east face. From Iceberg, it's a class 3 stair-stepper up an obvious couloir, often snow-filled until July, to a ridge. Hang a left to round the corner and attain the summit. John Muir climbed this route more than 130 years ago, but he hiked from Lone Pine. Now there's someone who knew to take the scenic route.
Pair a USGS Mount Whitney quad ($7, store.usgs.gov) with Mount Whitney, by Paul Richins, Jr. ($17, The Mountaineers).
Self-register from December to April. From May to November, quotas apply. Enter the Mt. Whitney Trail lottery before February 15. Doing the Mountaineer's Route? Forty percent of permits are reserved for walk-ins. (760-873-2400, fs.fed.us/r5/inyo)
Bag Peaks, Help Kids
In 2009, BACKPACKER will sponsor multiple climbs of Mt. Whitney and 16 other peaks to benefit Big City Mountaineers, a wilderness mentoring program for urban teens. The deal: You pledge to raise $2,900 or more for BCM, and you'll get a guided climb and a pile of new gear. summitforsomeone.org