I have official notification that we have a permit for the July dates for our Mount Whitney excursion!
Trail Profile Table: Cottonwood Pass Trail
This popular trail is perhaps the easiest of the routes not originating at Whitney Portal. This trailhead (along with the New Army Pass trailhead) starts at nearly 10,000 feet, the highest starting point of any of the trips in this guidebook, with an elevation gain of only 7341 feet over about 30 miles of trail. The route begins by ascending Cottonwood Pass (a gradual climb of about 1260 feet), where it picks up the Pacific Crest Trail traversing the southwest slopes of Cirque Peak. From the Sierra Nevada Crest, the Pacific Crest Trail descends 1500 feet to Rock Creek before starting a climb of 1360 feet to Guyot Pass. From the pass the trail advances past Crabtree Meadow and the Crabtree Patrol Cabin, where it joins the John Muir Trail on its way to the summit of Whitney.
This trail is a good choice for an early season ascent. Because of its southerly route and sun-drenched terrain, it is the earliest of the trails in this guidebook to open in the spring. It is essentially free of snow by mid-June, so it is a good trail to take before the wilderness permit quotas become effective each summer (starting the last Friday by June). Refer to Chapter 4 for a complete discussion of wilderness permit requirements.
The route is splendid in the early hiking season of June and July as it passes through magnificent stands of ancient foxtail pine, vibrant meadows, and the wonderful alpine environment of the high Sierra. Deer and colorful wildflowers are plentiful along Rock Creek and in Crabtree Meadow. The dozens of luxuriant meadows are teeming with lush new growth, flowers, and wildlife, including an occasional bear.
There are twelve walk-in campground sites, toilets, and piped water near the trailhead.
From the signal light in Lone Pine on US 395, drive 3.5 miles west on the Whitney Portal Road. Turn south onto Horseshoe Meadow Road and continue 20.5 miles to Horseshoe Meadow and the Cottonwood Pass trailhead (not to be confused with the Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass trailhead). The paved road is usually open from May to late October.
Mile 0 to 3.5 (Horseshoe Meadow to Cottonwood Pass) For the first two miles the Cottonwood Pass Trail skirts Horseshoe Meadow, gaining only 200 feet in the process. At the upper end of the meadow, the trail begins its upward climb to Cottonwood Pass, gaining about 1000 feet in less than 2 miles. The trail passes through some beautiful high Sierra Nevada meadow terrain with widely spaced lodgepole, limber, and foxtail pine.
Mile 3.5 to 8.1 (Cottonwood Pass to Siberian Pass Trail) At the four-way trail junction just beyond Cottonwood Pass, turn right onto the Pacific Crest Trail toward Rock Creek. Follow the Pacific Crest Trail in a west-northwest direction as it gently traverses the southwest slopes of Cirque Peak into Sequoia National Park and onto the Siberian Pass Trail. Chicken Spring Lake and its outlet creek are soon passed. There are numerous excellent places to camp near the lake. After you cross the outlet creek, there is a short climb of about 300 feet. The Pacific Crest Trail is nearly flat over this segment, with several ups and downs along the way. Although the trail is about 100 feet lower at the junction with the Siberian Pass Trail, there is a gain of about 500 feet over this trail segment.
Mile 8.1 to 14.0 (Siberian Pass Trail to Lower Rock Creek Crossing) At the Siberian Pass Trail junction, stay on the Pacific Crest Trail by angling left toward Lower Rock Creek Crossing. The first 2 miles of this trail segment are nearly flat, with a few ups and downs. Over the last couple of miles the trail drops about 1000 feet to Rock Creek. As one drops into Rock Creek there are excellent views of Mount Langley, Joe Devel, Mount Pickering, Mount Chamberlin, Mount Mallory, and Mount LeConte to the north. At the trail junction near Rock Creek, turn left and hike along the creek, passing the ranger station on the way to Lower Rock Creek Crossing. There is a bear-proof wilderness food storage box on the south side of the creek crossing about 5 feet southwest of the trail.
Alternatively, instead of turning left toward Lower Rock Creek Crossing at the Siberian Pass Trail junction, you can leave the Pacific Crest Trail by turning right toward Rock Creek Trail and Lower Soldier Lake. This option is slightly longer but affords a worthwhile side trip to beautiful Lower Soldier Lake and passes through numerous lush alpine meadows along Rock Creek. Deer are often seen browsing in these meadows. This is also the trail segment that connects the Cottonwood Pass Trail with the New Army Pass Route.
Mile 14.0 to 16.8 (Lower Rock Creek Crossing to Guyot Pass) Cross Rock Creek on a log and begin the ascent to Guyot Pass, a climb of 1360 feet over about 2.8 miles. The hike out of the Rock Creek canyon is steep for the first 600 feet. After this initial climb, the rate of ascent slackens. Near the 10,400-foot level, the trail crosses Guyot Creek. Many excellent campsites are nearby among the widely spaced foxtail pine. At Guyot Pass, one can climb the ridge, over easy terrain, to the summit of Mount Guyot with its 360-degree views of the Sierra Nevada and Mount Whitney.
Mile 16.8 to 20.4 (Guyot Pass to Lower Crabtree Meadow) From the Guyot Pass, the Pacific Crest Trail skirts Guyot Flat and gradually descends to Lower Crabtree Meadow. Mount Whitney comes briefly into view for the first time about 0.5 mile before you cross Whitney Creek at Lower Crabtree Meadow. At Lower Crabtree Meadow there is a bear-proof food storage box located about 75 yards south of the Whitney Creek crossing on the west side of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Mile 20.4 to 24.2 (Lower Crabtree Meadow to Guitar Lake) At the trail junction in Lower Crabtree Meadow, take the right fork leading to the Crabtree Patrol Cabin and Guitar Lake. From Lower Crabtree Meadow to the Crabtree Patrol Cabin it is about 1.3 miles with a slight climb of about 400 feet. A bear-proof food storage box has been placed southeast of the creek about 0.1 mile from the Crabtree Patrol Cabin near the creek crossing.
Before reaching the Crabtree Patrol Cabin, turn left and cross the creek. Join the John Muir Trail by turning right toward Timberline Lake and Guitar Lake. From this trail junction it is about 1 mile to Timberline Lake. The area around Timberline Lake is closed to camping. From the lake, the John Muir Trail climbs about 500 feet to Guitar Lake. Consider camping near Guitar lake or continue about 0.3 mile and camp near a tarn at 11,600 feet. There are also numerous campsites a little higher at the 11,900-foot level near a series of small tarns linked by a small stream flowing toward Hitchcock Lakes.
Mile 24.2 to 27.7 (Guitar Lake to Mount Whitney Trail) From Guitar Lake, the John Muir Trail climbs steadily for 3.5 miles and nearly 2000 feet up the steep west slopes of Whitney. A series of switchbacks seems endless but finally ends at the junction with the Mount Whitney Trail. The views of Hitchcock Lakes, Guitar Lake, and the mountain panorama steadily improve as you gain elevation. The trail itself is impressive as it climbs through the talus, large rock faces, and imposing granite towers. This segment of trail and the ninety-seven switchbacks below Trail Crest on the east side (Mount Whitney Trail, Route 6) are engineering marvels and tributes to the workers who built them. At the John Muir-Mount Whitney Trail junction there are several large tent platforms that can serve as campsites, but bring plenty of water because these campsites are dry.
Mile 27.7 to 29.7 (Mount Whitney Trail to Mount Whitney) There are only 2 more miles to the summit and a little more than 1000 feet of elevation gain. The most difficult hiking is over as the trail gradually reaches the highest point in the Lower 48. Drop your pack and head for the summit. If you are not suffering from the altitude, the next 2 miles will be enjoyable as the trail snakes through impressive rock towers and past windows in the Sierra Nevada crest that provide breathtaking views of Trail Camp, the Mount Whitney Trail, and the Owens Valley far below. On the other hand, this may be the most strenuous portion of the trip because the altitude may have depleted your strength, energy, and desire to continue.
The trail along the west side of the crest provides an excellent opportunity to scramble up Mount Muir and to bag the four 14,000-foot subpeaks of Mount Whitney: Aiguille Extra, Third Needle, Crooks Peak (also known as Day Needle), and Keeler Needle. Each of these peaks is only a couple hundred feet above the trail. From the junction of the Mount Whitney Trail, ascend the two switchbacks and proceed to a large rock cairn marking the cutoff to Mount Muir. The summit of Mount Muir is visible from this point on the trail. Ascend a shallow gully of loose scree, and head toward the notch in the ridge to the right of the main summit. From this notch, angle left and scramble up a small chimney. Traverse left across a sloping ledge. Climb a crack to your right, gaining the small summit block. There is room for only three or four carefully placed climbers on top at any one time. The top 50 feet of climbing is Class 3. From the summit there are impressive views of the east face of Mount Muir directly below, ninety-seven switchbacks in the Mount Whitney Trail, Trail Camp, Consultation Lake, Arc Pass, Whitney Portal, and the Owens Valley far below.
To ascend any of the four 14,000-foot subpeaks of Mount Whitney, leave the trail and scramble up the west slopes to the summit of these needles. All are easy Class 2 scrambling (See note below) and provide a bird's-eye view of the sheer, nearly vertical east face. The top of each needle is visible from the trail. To reach the top of the first needle, Aiguille Extra, leave the trail about 1 mile from the trail junction and scramble to the top. The others follow in quick succession. For the last and highest needle, Keeler Needle, leave the trail before it turns west, heading away from the crest and the trail's final switchbacks.
From the summit of Mount Whitney you will be greeted with impressive views of Mount Langley and Mount Muir to the south; the Kaweah Range and Sawtooth Peak to the west; Mount Russell, Tulainyo Lake (to the right of Mount Russell), the highest large alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada, Mount Williamson, Milestone Mountain, Table Mountain, and Thunder Mountain to the north; and Trail Camp, Mount Whitney Trail switchbacks, Consultation Lake, and Owens Valley to the east. If the weather is nice, spend some time on top; take in the scenery and savor your accomplishment.
After an hour on the summit it is time to consider the hike out. Return to your pack and hike out the Mount Whitney Trail. For a description of the trail, refer to Route 6.
Note - Class 2 Hiking: Includes hiking over uneven terrain, through brush, and up and around rock bluffs, steep gullies, scree (loose and sandy rock), and talus, where the hands may be needed for balance.
The photos were "borrowed" from the Internet. The hike profile and the map were created by Steve Singkofer.
Most of the information on this page is directly excerpted from Mount Whitney - The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Hiking Guide by Paul Richins, Jr., pages 134-142.