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Lowest to Highest Route: Badwater Basin to Mt Whitney

Lowest to Highest Route: Badwater Basin to Mt Whitney

Ever wondered what it would be like to hike from the lowest point in the contiguous US to the highest?  The Lowest to Highest Route travels from Badwater Basin (-282 ft) to Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft) over 135 miles.

This route is NOT for the faint of heart.  It is brutal, despite the short mileage. 

You’ll climb 4 mountain ranges and hike the biggest single elevation change in the contiguous US…which is surprisingly not up Mt. Whitney.

My partner Karma and I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route (L2H) in October of 2017.  We maybe had a love/hate relationship with it…but we still think about it often.  I’ll never forget foraging for pine nuts while cross-country hiking up Telescope Peak.

If you’re ready to level up your navigation skills, bake in the low desert, and shiver on mountain ranges, this post is for you.

This post contains affiliate links.  I have used every product mentioned and if you purchase one of these products I can make a small commission at no cost to you.

Lowest to Highest Route Map & Warning

Woman backpacker cross-country hiking up a steep slope on the lowest to highest route.
Steep Cross-Country

You should prepare to suffer at least some on this small but mighty thru-hike.

Starting the Lowest to Highest Route in Badwater Basin can be a shocker.  Not only at you at -282 ft of elevation, it’s salty, muddy, and brutally hot. 

Then, you can go from sweltering heat to frigid temperatures on Telescope Peak and Mt. Whitney. 

Moreover, temperature swings in Death Valley can throw your body for a loop.  Even down low, you can get freezing nighttime temperatures in some areas. 

Basically, make sure you’re physically fit and have a range of gear to protect you from BOTH extreme heat and frigid cold.  Brett Tucker warns you that you should not be sick when attempting the L2H and he’s correct.

Lowest to Highest Route Difficulty

Two thru-hikers steeply climbing a ridge.
Steep off-trail hiking

The Lowest to Highest Route packs a surprising amount of difficulty into a short route. 

The only “easy” part is the lower mileage. 

You’ll hike through massive temperature swings, and elevation swings, AND need to stay on your navigation game.

I would rate this a difficult hike!

Getting To and From the Lowest to Highest Route

Three thru-hikers and their friend with a dog starting the Lowest to Highest Route at night.
*iPhone 6 night starting photo

Logistics At A Glance ⬇️

🏡 Stay in Bishop or Lone Pine, CA before your hike. The Hostel California is great for adventurers.

✈️ Grab a flight in and out of Las Vegas or Los Angeles Airports.

🚙 The L2H is in the middle of nowhere – rent a car if coming in from the airports.

🎒 Need Extra Gear? There’s a gear shop in Lone Pine (Elevation Sierra) or in Bishop (Sage to Summit).

For starters: Death Valley is in the middle of nowhere. 🌌

You’ll either need to road trip to the Lowest to Highest Route or fly and rent a car.

Next, you’ll need to decide to self-support or if you want to rope a friend in to help you.  If you self-support driving or flying and driving, you’ll want a “home base” per se.  You can make this in either Bishop or Lone Pine, California.  You can likely find willing adventurers at The Hostel California in Bishop that you can pay to drive you to the start. 

Thus, here are the two main ways to get to and from the L2H depending on your method.

Via (Long) Road Trip

Self Supported:

If you choose to road trip yourself to the Lowest to Highest Route, you’ll want to check out options to leave your car in Bishop or Lone Pine, California. 

Both locations will likely have populations of rock climbers and van lifers who might want to make a few bucks to drive you to Badwater Basin.  You could also look into companies that do bike shuttles.

On the way to Badwater Basin, you should consider caching some water to break up a few long water gaps.  See the caching section below.

Once you finish the route and climb down Mt. Whitney, you will end up going down to Highway 395.  From here you can hitchhike back to Bishop or jump on Eastern Sierra Transit

With a friend’s Help:

Since the Lowest to Highest Route will only take you about a week, you could reasonably convince a friend to road trip with you.

After your friend helps you cache water and drops you off, they can go do some tourist activities wherever they’d like in the area.

If said friend wants to be super helpful, they can meet you where you cross Highway 395 and drive you to the Ranger Station to try for a next day, walk-up Whitney Portal permit.   

Lastly, they can pick you up at Whitney Portal after you summit!

If you have a friend on the fence about an extra road trip, have them grab a tour from Get Your Guide while you hike!

Via Flight & Rental Car

If you’re not reasonably local to the Lowest to Highest Route, you’ll need to fly into Las Vegas or Los Angeles and rent a car.

Like above, this would be easier if you could convince a friend to come along.  If so, they can have the rental car while you’re hiking for their own trip!

The public transportation options to get to the Eastern Sierras are not very modern.  The Eastern Sierra Transit might have an option from the edge of LA to Bishop a few times a week.  But, it might not help much here.

If you rent a car and don’t have a friend with you, you can find a spot to stash it in Bishop or Lone Pine, then pick it up after the hike. 

After you finish climbing Mt. Whitney, you will end up at Whitney Portal Trailhead.  Hitch down to 395 and hitch back to your car or check the Eastern Sierra Transit bus schedule.

Season & Weather Concerns

Thru-hiker walking across Panamint Valley drinking water.
Extreme Weather

Due to extreme temperatures and snow, the season to hike the Lowest to Highest Route is relatively small.

The ideal time can shift each year depending on heat waves or snowstorms.

Usually, each year you can find a small May window and a slightly larger October window to hike this week-long thru-hike.

It’s a delicate balance between the extreme heat you can face in Badwater Basin and Panamint Valley with the possible snow on your climb up Whitney Portal.

You should prepare for 100 degrees in the afternoons down in the valleys and 20s or 30s at higher elevations AND/OR at night.

When we hiked it in mid-October, we had days where we were sweating profusely with our umbrellas.  In the mornings, sometimes we started hiking in all our layers trying not to freeze.

For extra safety, I recommend getting a Garmin InReach Mini and a basic safety plan subscription.

Water & Water Caching

Caching water in the desert to pick up and pack out later.
Caching Water

The Lowest to Highest Route does not have a lot of water.  Your misery level might decrease if you cached water in a few key locations.

It’s not necessary to cache water, but know that if you don’t, you will have to carry a lot more water than if you do.

➡️ IF YOU CACHE, please practice LNT and pack everything out!

Brett Tucker lists every possible water source on his website when you buy the map set.

✨ Pro Tip ✨  Bring a pick axe and a shovel if you want to bury your water caches…that dirt can be SOLID.

Navigation on the Lowest to Highest Route

Mountain views and valley dust in the Eastern Sierras.

The L2H is firmly in the “route” category of hiking.  That is, the lowest to highest route is completely unmarked and you will use bits and pieces of other trail systems, dirt roads, and cross-country hiking.

You should know how to read and use topographic maps whether they’re paper, digital, or both. Basically, you should have a good command of your off-trail navigation skills.

I used Gaia GPS to navigate this route and it worked out great.  I did pack an extra battery pack and keep my phone on airplane mode most of the way. 

How Does it Compare to Other Brett Tucker Routes

Woman backpacker waking up after cowboy camping on the side of a mountain.
Cowboy Camping

I’ve seen that most people start their route journey with either the Grand Enchantment Trail or the Lowest to Highest Route.

If you’ve already hiked the GET, you will likely find the L2H fun as well! I started with the Lowest to Highest for my first Brett Tucker Route, but I had a lot of prior experience with off-trail navigation.

Overall, I’d say it was harder than the Desert Winter Thru-Hike, but I also have trouble with large elevation swings.

Whether one route is harder than another will largely depend on what year and season you hike them in.

Badwater Basin Hiking Tip

I highly recommend hiking across Badwater Basin in the evening or at night.

We started at 7 pm in early October and it was still 97 degrees Fahrenheit.

Between the heat, the salt, and the surprise crazy mud in the middle, we were only making about 2 mph hiking.

Be smart and hike safely.

Mt. Whitney Permits

Ranger station at sunrise.
Ranger Station near Lone Pine

Whitney Portal is a HIGH use area and thus, it has a crazy permit system in place to protect it for long-term human recreation.

Strategies vary on getting permits whether you’re thinking ahead of time or you’re going last minute.

Whitney Portal Hiking and Overnight Camping Permits

Thru-hiking couple on top of Mt. Whitney: the end of the Lowest to Highest Route
Mt. Whitney Summit

You have two options to get Whitney Portal permits for the Lowest to Highest Route

Between May 1- November 1 there is a quota system in place for both hiking and overnight camping permits. 

Option 1: Get it well ahead of time on in the lottery system.  If you’re selected, plan your hike around this date.  If you need extra wiggle room, take a zero in Lone Pine or Bishop.

Option 2: Last minute, next-day cancellation permits.  Since the lottery permit system is so far in advance things often come up and people cancel their permits.  Those permits become available the day before as walk-up permits.  Some days there are more than others, so it’s a gamble!

Best Option to get Walk-Up Permits on the Lowest to Highest Route

  1. Spend the night in Lone Pine. 
  2. Get up early and hitch 2 miles to the ranger station. 
  3. Sign up for cancellation permits for the following day. 
  4. If you get it, ask for a hiker/biker site at the car camping campground at Whitney Portal Trailhead. 
  5. Hitch back to the route and hike to the hiker/biker campsite and camp.
  6. Do the out-and-back hike up Whitney Portal to summit Mt. Whitney.

If you don’t get a walk-up permit because you came too late or no one canceled, take a zero and try again the next day.

Final Thoughts

Climbing up Mt. Whitney to via Whitney Portal.
Whitney Portal trail.

The Lowest to Highest Route is a beautiful, remote, rugged thru-hike.  If you’re up for a challenge and you are solid in your off-trail navigation, this is a great route for you. 

Before you go, check the weather!  Make sure you’re prepared for extreme heat and frigid cold. 

Know the signs of altitude sickness and don’t be afraid to turn around if you need to.  Altitude issues are almost always solved by descending.

Happy Trails, y’all.