Alaska is the size of one-fifth of the contiguous United States. It’s also home to 15 higher peaks than any other mountains in the Lower 48, including Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. So let’s ignore the vast immensity of Alaska and its great wilderness for now. What is the tallest mountain in the Lower 48?
What Is the ‘Lower 48’?
In the United States, people often refer to the 48 contiguous states between Canada and Mexico as the “Lower 48.” Because many Americans will never travel to Alaska or Hawaii due to the distance and expense, many travel destinations separate into places to visit in the Lower 48 and then places to visit in Alaska and Hawaii.
The land is also vastly different. Alaska has soaring mountain peaks and ice-covered wilderness areas. It is so large that Alaska could fit Texas, California, and Montana within its borders. It seems like another country. So when people ask about the longest river, the tallest mountain, or the deepest canyon, they usually talk about the Lower 48.
Where Is the Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48?
California’s highest peak and the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney. Sitting in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Mount Whitney is in east-central California. It’s about 85 miles north of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in America. Mount Whitney’s west slope is in Sequoia National Park, while the eastern slopes are in Inyo National Forest. The southern end of the John Muir Trail is at the peak’s summit.
Pro Tip: If you visit Sequoia National Park, spend the night at one of these 11 Best Spots for Sequoia National Park Camping.
Just How Tall Is the Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48?
Although Mount Denali rises over 20,000 feet, Mount Whitney is no slouch. It has an elevation of 14,505 feet. Denali is over a mile taller, but very few Americans will get to see its magnificence. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, seems much more attainable for visiting and summiting.
Is Mount Whitney in a National Park?
The Great Western Divide mountain range blocks views of Mount Whitney from park roads in Sequoia National Park because it sits on the far eastern boundary. So even though it’s within a National Park, it’s challenging to reach from the park.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, head to the Interagency Visitor Center on Highway 395, south of the town of Lone Pine. Lone Pine is home to one of the best boondocking spots of all time and our personal favorite, Alabama Hills.
Can You Climb the Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48?
Those who want to climb Mount Whitney start from the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and remain in Inyo National Forest throughout their hike. However, you can also start in the west, at Sequoia National Park along the High Sierra Trail. This 60-mile trail takes much longer to reach the summit than the 10.7-mile trail from Whitney Portal in the east. Although you need ice axes and crampons in spring and early summer, you won’t need that technical equipment from July to October.
All hikers entering the Mount Whitney area must obtain a permit for day use or overnight camping. You’ll need to apply for a Mount Whitney permit from Inyo National Forest if you’re climbing from the east or a wilderness permit from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks starting in the west. The western trail will take at least six days to reach the summit.
Pro Tip: Before you hit the trails, make sure you have these 10 Hiking Essentials You Should Never Hit the Trail Without packed.
Can You Drive to the Top Of Mount Whitney?
Unfortunately, no roads lead to the summit of the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. However, Whitney Portal Road will lead visitors about halfway up the mountain. Like the Mount Washington Auto Road on the East Coast, Whitney Portal Road near Lone Pine, California, will offer stunning vistas and breathtaking scenery.
The road is well-maintained and open all year, but you’ll find it almost impossible to navigate in the winter. Although you need a permit to hike Mount Whitney, you don’t need a permit to drive along Whitney Portal Road. It’s only thirteen miles long and ends at the trailhead at about 8,000 feet.
There are some steep and winding stretches of this two-lane road, which can be scary for some drivers. There are also sharp switchbacks, but the numerous turnouts and overlooks along the route make this drive worth it. The views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills are spectacular.
What Is the Climate At Mount Whitney?
Under the Köppen climate classification, Mount Whitney has an alpine tundra climate. The average monthly temperature never rises above 50°F. Even in the summer, you could have temperatures below freezing, yet you could also experience highs of 80°F.
If you’re planning to climb the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 and don’t want to carry technical climbing equipment, don’t arrive before July. There will be snow on the trail well into June. We were there when an avalanche occurred in April, and this risk runs well into the early summer.
Other Things to Do Near Mount Whitney
Driving the Whitney Portal Road or hiking to the summit are two options to experience the grandeur of Mount Whitney. But there are other things you can do in the Lone Pine area to make your visit enjoyable.
Visit the Manzanar National Historic Site
East of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks along Highway 395 is Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of ten confinement camps during World War II where the government relocated and rehoused Japanese Americans in temporary assembly centers, Department of Justice camps, and other facilities.
While here, you can drive or bike the 3.2-mile self-guided auto tour road. Along the way, you’ll see the original sentry posts, Block 14 buildings, the cemetery monument, remnants of the administrative complex, rock gardens, orchards, the hospital grounds, the uncovered foundations of the Children’s Village, and more.
Visit the Museum of Western Film History
Sitting in Lone Pine, the Museum of Western Film History displays gallery exhibits of memorabilia about Westerns from the silent screen days to some of the latest releases. This museum focuses on the region’s epic landscapes, like the Alabama Hills, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Death Valley.
The exhibits and collections highlight the role these landscapes played for over 100 years of Hollywood productions. Producers first came to Lone Pine in 1920 and have used the amazing scenery in more than 400 feature films. The museum is open daily and is pet-friendly.
Drive Highway 395 Through Alabama Hills
The Manzanar National Historic Site isn’t the only popular place to visit near the tallest mountain in the lower 48. This stretch of Highway 395 passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States. It parallels the Eastern Sierra mountains and includes the famous Alabama Hills.
This recreational area has been the backdrop for western movies for decades. Various movie locations include the Lone Ranger ambush point. The recreation area named rocks after famous actors who graced the Alabama Hills, like Gene Autry and Gary Cooper. There are also numerous arches throughout the unique rock formations. A visit to Alabama Hills can take anywhere from one to two hours.
Hike to Lone Pine Lake
The Lone Pine Lake hike begins at the Mount Whitney trailhead off Whitney Portal Road. It’s a steady and consistent three-mile ascent to the lake. As you follow the trail, there are excellent views of the valley and desert. After about 3.2 miles, you’ll see a sign directing you to the left to Lone Pine Lake.
The far side of the lake offers the best views of the Eastern Sierra mountains rising above the lake and the Alabama Hills below. Make sure to pack a picnic and enjoy the area before heading out.
Walk Downtown Lone Pine
Lone Pine is a full-service town. You’ll find hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and other conveniences. Check out the Interagency Visitor Center, where you can get information about the area. Only about 2,000 people live in Lone Pine, but the small town offers an excellent place for visitors to have a home base during their visit to Sequoia National Park, Mount Whitney, and other local attractions. Enjoy walking downtown, dining in cafes, and supporting small businesses during your stay.
Is a Visit to the Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48 Worth It?
Most people won’t ever make it to Alaska. The Last Frontier State is too far and wild for many Americans. But you can experience the breathtaking majesty of Mount Whitney in California. If you’re a climber, summiting the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 is probably on your bucket list. But even if you want to view the peak from turnouts and overlooks along Whitney Portal Road, a visit to east-central California is worth it.
Will you join the 30,000 people who will make it to the summit of Mount Whitney in 2023? Or will you perhaps be one of the visitors taking selfies along the scenic route of Whitney Portal Road? Whatever path you choose, enjoy the journey!
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