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The Other Way In

Hike to life-list hot spots without waiting in life-list lines. These under-the-radar trails deliver everything but the crowds.

Mt. Whitney
Inyo National Forest/Kings Canyon National Park, CA

X    Trade route Mt. Whitney Trail
→   Sneak route Cottonwood Lakes Trail
Key stats 36 miles, 8,900 feet elevation gain
Off-radar cred A cross-country route to the standard summit trail

Highpoints are always hiker magnets, and the highest piece of rock in the Lower 48 is no exception. Add Whitney’s proximity to the Los Angeles metro area—plus a summit view taking in miles of Sierra granite—and no wonder demand is staggering for the grueling 22-mile round-trip to the top. The online lottery system for permits on the standard approach, the Mt. Whitney Trail, limits use to 60 overnight campers and 100 dayhikers per day in the summer (this year, the lottery opened February 1 and closed six weeks later). Avoid the crowds and permit hassle with this rugged, cross-country, four-day route, which tours the dramatic granite landscape and alpine lakes of the southern Sierra.

Do it Day one is big, so get an early start at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. First, cruise about a mile to follow pristine Cottonwood Creek, through pines and past the 400-foot-tall cliffs guarding High Lake (mile 6.5). Then head up and over 12,300-foot New Army Pass to dreamy campsites at picture-window-clear Lower Soldier Lake (mile 10.5), unnamed on maps but sitting at the base of The Major General, the southwest-facing granite buttress a mile north of New Army Pass. On day two, allow extra time to navigate cross-country above treeline (you’re off-trail from now until you join the Whitney Trail on summit day). Go 1.5 miles north up the Rock Creek drainage to Sky-Blue Lake. From here, angle to Crabtree Pass, then drop down to campsites at Crabtree Lakes and head to bed early. Get a headlamp start at 3 or 4 a.m. on summit day (depending on your speed). Leave camp with a daypack (layers, food, and jacket) to finish the last 2,500 vertical feet to Whitney’s top, climbing off-trail scree up the drainage south of Discovery Pinnacle (class 2). Then join the Whitney Trail for its final 2.5 miles to stand above the entire Sierra, and command views all the way to the desert floor nearly 11,000 feet below. Return to camp at Crabtree, or if you’ve still got legs, pack and descend to Lower Soldier Lake (with a smaller, solitude-guaranteed campsite on a tiny peninsula). Next day, retrace your path to the trailhead.

Get there From Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Rd. three miles, to Horseshoe Meadow Rd. Turn south and go 20 miles to the trailhead.
Map Buy the BACKPACKER PRO MAP
Permit Required ($15); reserve up to 6 months in advance at recreation.gov. Click on “with Whitney visit” to secure access to the summit. Food storage Bear canisters required.
Contact (760) 873-2400; fs.usda.gov/inyo

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