When traveling north or south along the eastern edge of California, between locations in Southern California and destinations around Lake Tahoe, or to Reno or Mammoth, or for those rare travelers heading north beyond Reno, perhaps to Gerlach, Nevada to see the Fly Geyser, or even to the nearby Black Rock Desert to go to Burning Man, or maybe just to visit Sierra Army Depot outside of Herlong, California, the road for most travelers is US Highway 395. One question often comes up, while traveling through the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra between the towns of Ridgecrest and Bishop: which one is Mt. Whitney?
California’s tallest mountain, and the tallest in the contiguous US, stands at 14,505 feet tall, some 66 feet taller than the tallest mountain in the Colorado Rockies, Mt. Elbert, at 14,439. In fact, Colorado has some 53 “Fourteeners,” mountain peaks over 14,000 feet tall, while California has only 12 Fourteeners. But Mt. Whitney stands above them all, a fact that provokes the consternation of many a Colorado hiker.
Of course if you venture outside of the contiguous US, the stakes change drastically. Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491 feet, and Canada’s Mt. Logan reaches 19,551 feet high. Mexico has a round half-dozen mountain peaks taller than Mt. Whitney, and Canada has an even 10, but none of them are taller than Alaska’s Denali, at 20,310, the only mountain in North America above 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. Interestingly, the second tallest mountain in Canada and the United States is the same mountain, Mt. Saint Elias, at 18,009, along the US/Canadian border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
So compared to those giants, Mt. Whitney is relatively modest, but it’s what we have, and we’re proud of it. So when you’re traveling along the Eastern Sierra, and want to locate California’s tallest mountain, look to the west around the town of Lone Pine.
There’s a large mountain peak in the foreground slightly to the left, with two jagged ridges that transverse diagonally, downward and to the north, reaching the very base of the mountain just above the valley floor. Scan to the right from there, down along a saddle ridge, past a smaller secondary summit, and you’ll see a series of jagged, rocky, sawtooth peaks. The largest and tallest of those is Mt. Whitney, rising nearly 11,000 feet above the valley floor. The summit elevation is calculated at 14,505 feet, although the USGS brass benchmark anchored into the summit reads 14,494. It has been reputed that Mt. Whitney is visible from Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America’s lowest point, but that assertion appears to be apocryphal.