It doesn't have to be Mount Whitney - Spiral out when seeking adventure
"We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been.
Spiral out. Keep going..." - Tool - Lateralus
This is just something I notice every year. Spring rolls around and I see everyone talking about the Mount Whitney lottery. Are you going? Did you get your permits?
Some people try to go every year and sometimes multiple times a year. For many, this is their first trip to the Sierra Nevada and their first overnight backpacking trip. I've noticed people without enough experience risking their lives by attempting the summit too late in the season, with too much snow and not enough daylight, because those were the dates they could get permits from the lottery.
Some consider the mountaineers route without understanding the skills and gear required to get there. People die every year, for a variety of reasons. Some people attempt it as a day hike, which, to me, has never sounded like a great way to see one of the Sierra's most iconic mountains.
To be clear: I love Mount Whitney. I stare at it with awe every time I'm along the 395. My memories of my two trips there resonate with me often. They were 26 years apart and have changed the core of who I am.
I recommend everyone find a way to get to the summit. I just don't think it should be everyone's first choice. I feel the draw to visit Mount Whitney, I really do. I will definitely go back. But I don't think I would ever register for the lottery to go up the Mount Whitney Trail. It's fine to exit that way, but going up it? I can't imagine it being as amazing as other options.
Before you go decide to go up the Mount Whitney Trail, I recommend the following options:
Try someplace else in the Sierra Nevada area
There are so many other places in the Sierra Nevada (and nearby) that are absolutely gorgeous and have far fewer people. Try some of these places to get a taste of the Sierra before you bite off the big chunk of Mount Whitney. I can't begin to list them all, but below is just a few examples of amazing places to go:
At least try a different way up Mount Whitney
Even if you want to go up Mount Whitney, there are other ways to go about it. You don't even need to sign up for the lottery if you enter from somewhere else. You can go to recreation.gov and choose "Mt. Whitney (Trail Crest Exit)" as your exit option. Sure a quota applies, but you'll have a greater chance of getting your permit, as far fewer people do it this way.
You'll also only have to hike the Whitney Trail on the way down. Take some time and enjoy the journey, rather than hiking both up and down what I call the Zombie Highway. Think of an interesting route to get you up the western side and out to the east. I approached once from Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon, and once from Horseshoe Meadows and Miter Basin.
Spiral out to distant lands
Explore the map, stretch out a little bit, and try something completely new. Visit a new county, state, or even a new country. Instead of visiting a national park and hitting all the sites by car, consider backpacking into it. You'll get all of the world class scenery without all the crowds. Scan Google Earth and look for distant peaks, lakes, and meadows and then see what it would take to get there. Exploring and dreaming is half the fun. You'll get a great idea on how varied and beautiful this world is.
It doesn't have to be Mount Whitney.
Or Joshua Tree
Or Cedar Creek Falls
Or Three Sisters Falls
Spiral out, open your mind, and expand your experiences. It will be worth it.