California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California's Mount Whitney
The highest spot in the lower United States is Mount Whitney in California. As you're coming up Highway 395 on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can't tell that Mt. Whitney the highest mountain at 14,491 feet with the naked eye because there are so many high peaks in front of it that block the view. In fact, if you're not very familiar with what Mount Whitney looks like, you might mistake another mountain for it. The town of Lone Pine has a good view of Mount Whitney from the center of town, and the Visitor Center has a viewing lens pointed right at Mt Whitney so you know for sure which one it is. Mt Whitney is situated in the Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park, so you can also go see the Giant Forest while you're in the area. The Sierra redwoods are some of the biggest and oldest trees, and taking the scenic drive to see them is another interesting way to spend an afternoon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Mt Whitney in California is the highest peak in the United StatesDue to its elevation, Mount Whitney is above the tree line and has an alpine climate and ecology. Very few plants grow near the summit: one example is the Sky Pilot, a cushion plant that grows low to the ground..The only animals are transient, such as the butterfly Parnassius phoebus and the Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. The eastern slope of Whitney is far steeper than its western slope. This is because the entire Sierra Nevada is the result of a fault-block that is analogous to a door: the door is hinged on the west and is slowly rising on the east. The rise is caused by a normal fault system that runs along the eastern base of the Sierra, below Mount Whitney. Thus, the granite that forms Mount Whitney is the same as the granite that forms the Alabama Hills thousands of feet below.

The granite that forms Mount Whitney is part of the Sierra Nevada batholith. In Cretaceous time, masses of molten rock that originated from subduction rose underneath what is now Whitney and solidified underground to form large expanses of granite. In the last few million years, the Sierra has started to rise. This has enabled glacial and river erosion to strip the upper layers of rock to reveal the resistant granite that makes up Mount Whitney today.

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. During the same expedition, geologist Clarence King attempted to climb Whitney from its west side, but stopped just short. On August 18, 1873, Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas of nearby Lone Pine, had become the first to reach the highest summit in the contiguous United States. As they were fishermen, they called the mountain Fisherman's Peak. But in 1891, the United States Geological Survey's Board on Geographic Names decided to recognize the earlier name of Mount Whitney. The name Whitney has remained, resisting a movement after World War II to rename the mountain for Winston Churchill.

Residents of Lone Pine financed the first trail to the summit, engineered by Gustave Marsh, and completed on July 22, 1904. Just four days later, the new trail enabled the first recorded death on Whitney. Having hiked the trail, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries employee Bryd Surby was struck and killed by lightning while eating lunch on the exposed summit. In response to this event, Marsh began work on the stone hut that would become the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, and completed it in 1909.

Mount Whitney part of the Sierra Mountains in CaliforniaAnyone used to be able to camp on Mt Whitney. Nowadays, you need to get a wilderness permit to hike on the Mount Whitney trail. You can reserve your wilderness permit up to six months ahead of time, so if you are traveling to Mt Whitney to hike and backpack between May 22 and October 15, be sure to hold your permit as soon as possible, since these sell out early, especially during the weekends. The Mt. Whitney trail takes you through the scenic backcountry of the High Sierra to the highest point in the contiguous United States. Often, visitors will forgo hiking up the entire way up Mt. Whitney and will instead drive up to the trailhead at 8,361 feet then hike the rest of the 11 miles. Although it's not a practical goal, many tourists will try to hike this round trip 22 miles route within 24 hours.

Mountain climbers will appreciate the steep eastern side of the mountain, while backpackers and hikers undertaking the challenging hike on the western side of Mt. Whitney can expect to view picturesque sunrises, giant granite peaks and even encounter strange little animals called marmots. Mt. Whitney , east of the California town of Lone Pine along US Highway 395 is most easily accessed by the Whitney Portal Trailhead (8,365 ft), 13 miles east of town. This granite peak of the Sierra Nevada Range, located in the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia National Park, is the highest point south of Alaska. Mt. Whitney is one of the most popular wilderness destinations in the world! Backpackers and climbers visit Whitney from all corners of the globe. While accessible without extensive training or technical equipment, summiting Mt. Whitney still requires planning, permits, practice and preparation.

You will need to take precautions for bears and marmots! Marmots will chew through your tent to get to anything that smells interesting, leave the door open so they don’t make their own entrance. Food and even empty food containers (such as ice chests) must be stowed in bear proof boxes at the Whitney Portal, not in your car; bear canisters must be utilized by hikers on the trails unless they have a one-day permit only and even then, consider using one.

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