As summer's warm temperatures approach, hiking in California's higher altitude areas will become more and more of a destination. Besides Half Dome, one the most popular mountain hikes is Mount Whitney. At over 14,000 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the continental United States.
Permits from the Forest Service are required throughout the year to access the Mount Whitney Zone, the surrounding John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness to the north, but starting Sunday they will be a bit harder to obtain.
May 1st marks "quota season," when officials cap the amount of overnight backpackers and day hikers allowed into the areas*. Quotas are partially to stop overcrowding on the 22-mile round trip hike from Whitney Portal to the summit, but they are mostly in place to protect the fragile high alpine environment from impacts of humans (snow lessens the impact of hikers between November and the end of April, when there are no quotas, but only experienced hikers tend to take the journey at that time of the year).
Permits for overnight trips have been spoken for already as the Forest Service holds a lottery each winter. Over 4,000 people got lucky this year, but another 3,000 did not. That said there are plenty of last minute cancellations, which let rangers release reservations at 11 a.m. each day (for trip starting that day) at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine.
Day hikers also go through a lottery process, filling up spots July through September when the ice and snow has mostly melted away, but spots are still available in other months. Again, there are last-minute cancellations, which are released at 2 p.m. the day before a permit's availability.
All this can be a bit confusing, but a hike up Mount Whitney is not something you wake up and just decide to do. As Casey Schreiner at Modern Hiker advises, you really need to plan ahead. The Inyo National Forest's Recreation Passes and Permits webpage has all the information you need. Once there, the most useful links are:
- How to Obtain a Wilderness Permit for Inyo National Forest (.pdf)
- The calendar of dates available for day use and overnight permits available due to cancellations made in advance (the links change with each update so check the Recreation Passes and Permits webpage sidebar)
*Hoover and Golden Trout wilderness areas also require permits, but there are no quotas.