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Mount Whitney: Highest Mountain in California

Fast Facts About Mount Whitney


Mount Whitney: Highest Mountain in California

Mount Whitney, in California's Sierra Nevada Range, is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

Photograph © Getty Images
Mount Whitney: Highest Mountain in California

Mount Whitney, highest peak in California, is a rocky majestic peak.

Photograph courtesy David McNew/Getty Images
Mount Whitney: Highest Mountain in California

Susan Paul descends the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney, California.

Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

Elevation: 14,505 feet (4,421 meters)
Prominence: 10,071 feet (3,070 meters)
Location: Sierra Nevada, California.
Coordinates: 36°34′42.89″ N 118°17′31.18″ W
First Ascent: First ascent by Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Luca on August 18, 1873.

Fast Facts:

  • Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States or the lower 48 states. The only American mountains higher than Whitney are in Alaska, which has seven higher peaks including Denali. Mount Whitney is the second highest ultra-prominent peak in the lower 48 U.S. states with 10,071 feet of prominence and the 81st most prominent peak in the world.
  • Mount Whitney ironically lies only 76 miles from Badwater, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level in Death Valley National Park.
  • Mount Whitney has a huge vertical rise, towering 10,778 feet (3,285 meters) above the town of Lone Pine in the Owens Valley to the east.
  • Mount Whitney is on the Sierra Crest, a long row of high peaks in the north-south trending Sierra Nevada mountain range. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada are a fault block range with its steep fault scarp on the east and a long gradual incline on the west.
  • The exact elevation of Mount Whitney has risen over the years as technology has improved. A brass USGS benchmark on the summit lists the elevation as 14,494 feet (4,418 meters), while a National Park Service summit plaque gives it as 14,494.811 feet. Today Whitney’s elevation is considered to be 14,505 feet (4,421 meters) by the National Geodetic Survey. Stay tuned, it might still be growing!
  • Mount Whitney’s east side is in Inyo National Forest, while its west side lies in Sequoia National Park. It is also in John Muir Wilderness Area and Sequoia National Park Wilderness area, making it subject to wilderness regulations.
  • The California Geological Survey named the peak for Josiah Whitney, California’s State Geologist and survey chief, in July, 1864. A glacier on Mount Shasta was also named for him.
  • On the geological expedition that named the mountain in 1864, geologist and climber Clarence King attempted its first ascent but failed. In 1871 King returned to climb Mount Whitney but mistakenly climbed Mount Langley instead, which was six miles away. He returned in 1873 to rectify his error and climbed his nemesis, unfortunately three other parties had already climbed Whitney, including the first ascent a scant month previously. Clarence King later wrote about the peak: “For years our chief, Professor Whitney has made brave campaigns into the unknown realm of Nature. Against low prejudice & dull indifference he has led the survey of California onward to success. There stand for him two monuments, one a great report made by his own hand; another the loftiest peak in the Union, begun for him in the planet’s youth & sculptured of enduring granite by the slow hand of Time.”
  • Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Luca, fishermen from Lone Pine, made the first known ascent of Mount Whitney on August 18, 1873. They renamed it Fisherman’s Peak. The United States Geological Survey, however, decided in 1891 that the peak would remain as Mount Whitney. After World War II a movement tried to rename it for Winston Churchill but failed.
  • After Whitney’s first ascent, the September 20, 1873 issue of the Inyo Independent newspaper wrote: “Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas & Al Johnson took a trip to the summit of the highest mountain in the range, & christened it ‘Fisherman’s Peak.’ Ain’t it as romantic as ‘Whitney?’ The fishermen who found it looked mighty romantic on their return to Soda Springs. Wonder who that old earthquake sharp thinks is running this country, anyhow?”
  • Mount Whitney is the most climbed high peak in the Sierra Nevada and one of the most climbed mountains in the United States, although no exact statistics are available.
  • The 10.7-mile Mount Whitney Trail, 22 miles round-trip, is the most popular route to the summit. It gains 6,100 feet (1,900 meters) from the trailhead at Whitney Portal 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine.
  • Permits from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service are required year-round to climb the mountain to save it from being loved to death by the tramping impact of hundreds of hikers a day. Permits are scarce because more people want to climb Whitney than what is considered the daily carrying capacity of the trail. Permits are allocated in summer by lottery. Peak climbing season is July and August.
  • While the Whitney trail is the “cattle route” to the summit, some climbers opt for more adventure. One of the best and most popular climbs is The Mountaineeer’s Route (Class 3 scramble), first climbed by none other than the great naturalist and climber John Muir in 1873. Muir, like Clarence King, mistakenly climbed Mount Langley first and then, after realizing his error, moved his camp south to the mountain base. A couple days later, Muir “set out afoot for the summit by direct course up the east side.” At eight o’clock on the morning of October 21, he stood alone atop the summit. Muir later wrote of his route, “Well-seasoned limbs will enjoy the climb of 9,000 feet required for this direct route, but soft, succulent people should go the mule way." There is still a lot of truth in that statement.

For more information:
Mt. Whitney Ranger District, Inyo National Forest
640 S. Main Street, P,O. Box 8
Lone Pine, CA 93545
(760) 876-6200

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