Hiking the Whitney Portal Road – “Taking the slow lane!”
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
My travel companion Julia and I wanted to visit the Whitney Portal today because it had been years since our last trip to this place. The weather was perfect and we started our ascent early that morning. As we drove up Whitney Portal Road, we were suddenly stopped by a ‘suggested’ road closure sign. Now typically I will cruise around signs like this, but I knew of the serious damage that occurred up the road by a massive rock slide in late January 2017. I also knew that the debris was recently cleared with dynamite and heavy equipment, but what I didn’t know was if the road was ready for traffic or not. Driving Whitney Portal Road past the big switchback gets pretty narrow and the options for turning around are limited, especially for the Starship so I thought that rather than risk driving over cement that wasn’t cured all the way and ruining it, it would be better to just stay away.
“End of the line, or is it?”
Julia suggested that we hike up to the portal from the road block instead. I thought it was a fantastic idea since we always miss photo opportunities due to a lack of places to pull over. This would definitely put our physical abilities to the test to see just how in or out of shape we were. As soon as we gathered everything we needed, we strapped on our camera gear and set off on a steep road hike to the portal.
“It’s a steep and long way up, but we were making an adventure out of it anyway.”
“You could see a lot from up here, Alabama Hills looked so small from this perspective.”
“Julia captures me getting distracted by the immense views to the east.”
“Break time at the Hairpin!”
Once we got to the big hairpin turn, we hung out for a bit and took a small break. The view from here was fantastic. You could see as far as the Coso Range Wilderness to the southeast and as far north as Independence. The road was refurbished in Autumn 2016 so it was still very new, but due to the heavy winter we had earlier this year, some of the sections near the portal were severely damaged by massive granite rockfalls. Julia and I were intrigued to see what it looked like.
“Break time at the hairpin.”
“Clouds and Stone mark the higher elevations in this beautiful region.”
As we moved around the granite outcrops near the edge of the hairpin turn on the highway, I spotted this survey medallion with no elevation printed on it. Not too far away, there was also evidence of some previously drilled granite for use with explosives which I imagine was used to either widen the road here or eliminate a potential rock slide risk.
“Survey markers and holes bored in solid granite.”
“One stretch of highway down, another stretch coming right up!”
“Julia and I were getting a little winded, but we were having a blast!”
“We were getting close to the next big curve in the road, just a few more paces.”
“Looking down, the highway we had just hiked got smaller and smaller.”
“A piece of Caltrans District 9’s heavy equipment was still parked at the next turn into the portal.”
“Once we made the turn, the view became incredible!”
Whitney PortalGPS Coordinates: 36.588535° N, 118.231206° W
Reaching this point of the road is always a treat for the eyes. With every turn of the highway, you get to see a bit more of the view that makes this part of the Eastern Sierra so majestic and awe inspiring. Julia and I had visited the portal once before in 2014, but we drove it to the campground and never really had the opportunity to stop for the ample photo opportunities we saw. This is why hiking the road to the Portal was probably the best idea ever and resulted in a big photo yield.
“Lone Pine Peak from a northern perspective looks just as impressive as from the east.”
“The new asphalt and railing we seriously damaged after trying to stop a moderate rock slide here.”
“Just above the road, you can see the future potential rock slides in the making.”
A gigantic patch of cement, a.k.a. “A highway bandaid”
Further up the road Julia and I finally discovered the grand daddy of all the recent rock slide damage to the new Whitney Portal Road. The debris and affected area was much larger than I had originally anticipated. The size of the cement patch that was laid down reveals just how big the granite rock slide was. From my best estimate, you could park two full length semis with trailers end to end and it would barely cover the length of this cement patch. Some of the boulders were as large as a small house from what I had seen in previous online article photos. Caltrans District 9 crews were responsible for cleaning up the big mess and did a pretty slick job at restoring access to The Portal. “Great job guys!”
“A little dynamite, some clean up, lots of cement, and road access has been restored.”
“From the other side, Julia stands on the cement patch for scale.”
As Julia and I continued our highway trek, we had noticed that a couple of drivers had actually gone around the road block sign and driven up the road. I was wondering if they would cause damage to the cement in case if it had not cured deep enough to support the weight of a vehicle, but surprisingly there appeared to be no visual damage. The road however, must have been truly blocked further up the way because they had both turned around and passed us again on their way down again. The second vehicle stopped and two older gents wearing cowboy attire asked if we needed a lift back down, but we politely declined and said no thank you. After all, it would defeat the very purpose of our foot travel to this point.
“One of the vehicles was a ford explorer and as you can see it is extremely dwarfed by the immense surroundings.”
“I had not realized that I managed to capture the faintest presence of the moon in the sky just over the mountain top.”
“Up and onward toward the campgrounds…”
“Looking across to the gorge, we saw evidence of a foot path cutting along the base of Lone Pine Peak.”
We had finally reached the Whitney Portal Campground and saw why the two vehicles had turned back. There was some pretty good snow and ice from the entrance on into the campground. Definitely not worth the risk for them without four wheel drive and some chains. Julia and I continued, but kept an eye on the weather forming high above Mt. Whitney. When mountains get this tall, they tend to generate their own weather systems. The weather formation can be quick and without warning, so it’s always a good idea to keep tabs on your meteorological surroundings.
“Julia loves pinecones as a photo subject, she seems to have found a good one.”
“The view from here was absolutely spectacular, this is the closest we would get to Whitney that day.”
“…well unless you count a telephoto shot, then THIS is how close we had gotten to Whitney that day.”
We only stayed for a short while since the weather was starting to change rather quickly. It got very cold and we started seeing flurries fall from the sky so this was our cue to start heading back down. The overall stats for this brief hikes was a distance of 2.68 miles (4.31 km) from the initial road block sign to the campgrounds. Our elevation started at 6,581 ft (2006 m) and ended at 7,851 ft (2,393 m). That was 1,270 ft (387 m)of elevation gain in 2.68 miles (4.31 km) which is pretty rough, but well worth it. To make sure we escaped the approaching mini snow storm that was coming, we dialed back on the photo stops and hoofed it like race cars!
“Scrambling like race cars off the mountain Benny Hill style…lol.”
“A well deserved dinner after a long and steep photo walk.”
And another exciting day of exploration comes to a close. We went back into town with our legs feeling very achy and just a bit exhausted. Of course we had to refuel ourselves, so we each grabbed a delicious and well deserved Rib-Eye platter at ‘The Grill’ in Lone Pine. After that, we retired back to our room at the Dow Villa Motel and relaxed for the rest of the evening. That just about wraps up this venture into the Mt. Whitney Portal region, hope you enjoyed the photos and as usual…
Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”
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