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Mt Whitney: the Tallest Peak in the Lower US

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Mt Whitney: the Tallest Peak in the Lower US
Sequoia National Park, California

Standing only 84.6 miles from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, which is the lowest point in North America (-282 feet), Mt Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet – a whopping 14,787 foot difference! Rising dramatically over the Owens Valley and Lone Pine, some 10,778 feet below and 15 miles east, the west slope of the mountain is within Sequoia National Park’s boundaries with the summit considered as the southern terminus of the famed John Muir Trail.

Mt Whitney Sierra Nevada California

Moonset over Mt Whitney from the Alabama Hills.

In Cretaceous time, masses of molten rock that originated from subduction rose underneath what is now Mount Whitney and solidified underground to form large expanses of granite. Then in the last 2 to 10 million years, the fault-block system (analogous to a cellar door) that runs along the eastern base of the Sierra was pushed up. This enabled glacial and river erosion to strip the upper layers of rock to reveal the resistant granite that makes up Mount Whitney today. It rises relatively gradually on the west side, lying only about 3,000 feet above Guitar Lake, which is in stark contrast to the eastern slope towering above Owens Valley.

Mt Whitney Sierra Nevada California

The west (back) side of mt Whitney approached by the JMT or HST.

In July 1864, the members of the California Geological Survey named the peak after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of California and benefactor of the survey. Residents of Lone Pine financed the first trail to the summit, which was completed on July 1904. Just four days later, the new trail enabled the first recorded death on Whitney when Byrd Surby was struck and killed by lightning while eating lunch on the exposed summit.

Mt Whitney Sierra Nevada California


Today, Mount Whitney is arguably one of the most popular hikes in the world with permits (via annual lottery) required year-round. The most popular route to the summit is via the Mount Whitney Trail that starts at Whitney Portal. This hike is approximately 22 miles with over 6,100 feet of elevation gain. Being so strenuous, most people opt to backpack for a night, completing the trip in 2-3 days, but if done in one, it’s a strenuous 12-18 hours of hiking.

Mt Whitney Sierra Nevada California

Top top of the infamous 99 Switchbacks.

The other main route is to approach from the more gently-sloped west side of the mountain, but this is done by the much longer multi-night John Muir Trail and High Sierra Trail hikers.

Mt Whitney Sierra Nevada California

Whitney Trail (Mt Whitney not pictured)

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