Lone Pine Lake is located in California about 3 miles from the Whitney Portal on the Mt Whitney Trail. It sits at an elevation of 9,850 feet and is as far as you can go on the Mt Whitney Trail without the required Mt Whitney Special Permit. But it’s also a satisfying day hike in its own right with maximum elevations of about 10,000 feet and plenty of wild and rugged jaw-dropping beauty along the way.
Distance: 5.5 miles
Duration: 4 hours
Elevation Gain: 1775 feet
From Hwy 395 in the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, California, take the Whitney Portal Rd 13 miles toward the magnificent looking peaks and park as close as you can to the Whitney Portal. There are a couple parking lots including an overflow lot reasonably close to the Whitney Portal trailhead.
Me and fellow recon hiker Kim did this hike on a whim one hot August afternoon as we headed down from the Bluesapalooza festival in Mammoth. The temperature was in the mid-90s in Lone Pine as we drove up to the Whitney Portal. And it was already late afternoon. Probably not the best way to do this hike, but we stepped on the trail by 3:00 pm.
Kim at the Whitney Portal trailhead
This trailhead is probably where most of the hikers doing Whitney start and finish. And it’s also where hikers finishing the John Muir Trail end up after completing their hike. The majority of the hikers you will see at the Whitney Portal are there to hike the 14,505 foot high Mt Whitney. Don’t let that intimidate you from enjoying the beautiful six-mile round trip hike to Lone Pine Lake. Tip your hat to them and enjoy your hike.
The famous Mt Whitney Trail pack scale
As mentioned above, the hike to Lone Pine Lake starts at the Whitney Portal and follows the Mt Whitney Trail. You’ll walk past the famous scale used by Mt Whitney hikers to weigh their backpacks. But you won’t need to weigh anything since you are only going for a 6-mile round-trip day hike. The actual trail starts just past the scale.
Wild Beauty of the Mt Whitney Trail
Just a short ways up the trail, you will encounter outstanding views of various nearby peaks and wild terrain. Although not an overly steep section of trail, it’s still a steady upward climb. The first section near Whitney Portal takes you through a lush forested area as seen in the above photo. It’s a pleasure to hike trails like this. Especially knowing that you’re only going three miles in.
North Fork Lone Pine Creek crossing
In about 0.8 miles, you will reach the North Fork Lone Pine Creek crossing. Depending on the weather and water level, the stream can be fairly easy to navigate across on the rocks that are laid out across the stream. Or downright treacherous if the water level is high and the current fast. The rocks can get very slippery in even the best of weather. So you do have to pay attention. Trekking poles come in handy, but be prepared to turn around if it isn’t safe to cross.
Entering The John Muir Wilderness
A few feet past Lone Pine Creek, you will enter the John Muir Wilderness. This is not to be confused with the John Muir Trail. There is a rustic but well-preserved sign next to the trail which makes a great spot for a photo. If you’re from Southern California like me, you will truly appreciate the awesome beauty everywhere you look. Very few trails in So Cal can even begin to compare with what you’ll see here.
JMT Hikers Brian and Jenna
If you get a late start like Kim and I did, you will likely encounter several hikers and backpackers working their way down from the Mt Whitney summit. We started our hike in the afternoon and met several friendly hikers on their way down, including Brian and Jenna featured in the above photo. Brian and Jenna were hiking down from the Whitney summit after completing the John Muir Trail. Despite their long journey, they were in great spirits.
I wrote a separate trail journal titled Hikers On The Mt Whitney Trail featuring some of the other hikers we encountered on the trail, including Brian and Jenna.
Lone Pine Creek log crossing
Just before you reach the spur trail that leads down to Lone Pine Lake, you will encounter another stream crossing. This time you have logs positioned above the stream to walk on. But instead of leading across the width of the stream, these logs run with the stream. Again, depending on the water level and weather, this can be a fun way to test your sense of balance. Or a precarious way to walk the plank.
Lone Pine Lake spur trail
Finally, after your steady climb uphill and two stream crossings, you come to the spur trail leading to Lone Pine Lake, conveniently marked by a sign. From here it’s just a short walk down to the lake. Of course, that means you’ll have to climb back up from the lake to get back to the trail, but that’s to be expected.
The small but pristine Lone Pine Lake
Ok, I’m not going to sugar coat it, Lone Pine Lake is somewhat of a letdown. Especially when compared with the surrealistic beauty of Big Pine Lakes several miles north. Not only is the lake fairly small, but the views aren’t that spectacular. I wouldn’t call it drab, but just don’t expect something special.
What makes Lone Pine Lake a worthy destination is that it allows you to hike and experience the beauty of a small portion of the Mt Whitney Trail without a permit. And do it in only 5.5 miles round trip. So show it some love and grab your picture there if you can.
Kim takes five at the Whitney Zone sign
After climbing up from the lake, you can then return back down the Mt Whitney Trail the way you came. But before you do that, I suggest you go the other way for another hundred feet or so until you reach the sign declaring that you are now entering the Whitney Zone and that a special permit is required.
Unless you DO happen to have the required permit, this is where your turn around and head back to the trailhead and parking lot, enjoying the views along the way. It’s a great spot for a photo.
Come Back Kim!
As it turns out, my fellow recon hiker Kim, wanted to keep on going. I had told her about Outpost Camp from my previous time here and she wanted to see it for herself. Fortunately, I was able to lasso her in before she got too far and we hiked back to the trailhead in the peaceful tranquility of a true wilderness location.
Lone Pine Lake Wrapup
The hike to Lone Pine Lake won’t win you any accolades or that-a-boys, but it’s definitely a superb hike and a nice introduction to the beauty of the High Sierra wilderness. You won’t want to forget your camera for this one!
Hike Date: August 2, 2015