The Lowest to Highest Trail (L2H) is a challenging route that runs from the lowest point in the contiguous USA (Badwater, Death Valley, -282 feet) to its highest, Mount Whitney (14,505 feet), across 130 miles. This distance is achieved via the popular running/cycling route, run yearly as an ultramarathon, and also by an . There are also other L2H routes plotted by other parties — there are a lot of ways to get from Badwater to Whitney. Typically it is walked in the late winter (February-early March) or early fall (late September-early October); otherwise sweltering heat in Death Valley and snows in the Inyo and Sierra ranges can hinder completion. The hiking route is largely comprised of 4×4 roads, use trail, well-worn trail, and when those aren’t available, very simple straight-line backcountry (e.g. Badwater and Darwin Plateau).
When I hiked in October 2015, I found the most difficult aspects to be the heat (it was 107º the evening I started) and the cold (it was below freezing once a rare storm hit, leaving Death Valley with 100-year rains and the Sierra with 3 feet of snow). I placed caches at Saline Valley road a mile or two in, one cache at Cerro Gordo, and a cache at the bottom of Long John Canyon a couple miles east of Lone Pine. Between those, Hanaupah Spring, Tuber, Panamint Springs Resort, Darwin Falls, and China Garden Spring, I had plenty of water. I’ve created my own, very detailed, map from adjustments/corrections of the route, and share it here. It includes Darwin Falls, goes through Cerro Gordo, and is 128 miles long.
I used Caltopo to compile this map data. It is exportable as Garmin GPS, GPX or KML.
If you’re not familiar with Caltopo.com, start playing with it today! A free account provides features to get started; I’ve found the Pro account to be worth every extra penny. It is the easiest way to connect the dots between landmarks to create your own routes, or hone existing ones. I recommend sending Matt J. over at caltopo.com a donation to upgrade your account, and to encourage him to keep this amazing mapping service running.
Biggest bits of L2H advice:
- Get your permits! Permits are like ballot votes. Show the system you’re using the parks and wildernesses, and you help keep them open. It’s also smart to have them in case you encounter a ranger 😉 If you are sleeping in Death Valley National Park (and you will be), you must have a permit; get one at Furnace Creek. Entering the Whitney Zone requires a permit. I have marked private property and noted BLM on my map as much as possible. Bear vaults are required for Whitney Zone overnights.
- Carry electrolytes. As a former RN, I always recommend stronger electrolytes like Hammer Endurolytes, available at REI or Amazon, and most big bicycle shops. They will come in handy, especially on the brutal Telescope Peak climb.
- Carry a sun umbrella like the Swing Trek Liteflex silver umbrella. There isn’t very much shade on this route. Long sleeves and pants might seem hotter, but wear them: you are actually keeping sweat on your body where it can do its job, and preventing sun stroke. If it is really hot and/or you’re in trouble, cover up! Wet cloth next to your skin is a GOOD thing.
- If you’re hiking alone, carry backup paper maps if you’re used to using your GPS/phone. Getting lost in Death Valley is game-ending.
- Enjoy the Darwin Falls/China Garden Spring and Cerro Gordo “alts.” In my opinion, they should be part of the original route, and that’s part of why I’ve re-written the route. Call Robert D., the caretaker at Cerro Gordo, ahead of time to alert him of your ETA. Cerro Gordo information and Robert’s phone number is available through the Interagency Center (ranger station) south of Lone Pine, phone (760) 876-6222. Give him a donation to help keep the ghost town alive and encourage him to continue treating L2H hikers like gold. DO NOT show up unannounced or expect water at Cerro Gordo. Robert must haul all water up a steep 4×4 road in his truck from Keeler; there is no well, there are no spigots. If you want water, call ahead and pay Robert for it. He is very kind, and reasonable, but also very protective of Cerro Gordo. If arriving unannounced at night, STAY ON THE ROAD. Robert loves his gun rights and is liable to shoot at you. You’ve been warned.
- Stick to use trails when they are obvious. Almost the entire route below tree line (except Badwater past the boardwalk and Darwin Plateau) has use trail. Practice finding it — it takes skill! This route is quickly becoming a trail, and doesn’t need early adopter “switchback cutters” and “off-trail travel” causing unnecessary erosion and death.
- Carry out all your trash, and do not hesitate to carry out other folks’ trash, too.
- Be aware there is a chance you will encounter an illegal marijuana grow in Tuber or Hanaupah Canyon, or possibly near China Garden Spring. And NO, the spring at Hanaupah is not “poisoned.” If you feel like shit on your way up Telescope, it’s because you’re tackling one of the top ten steepest climbs in the WORLD, or drank standing water below the spring, where it might be polluted. Call it what it is.
- I hate to have to add this, because we are all adults, but… Do not create impromptu signs or carve your initials or notes places such as one hiker whose name rhymes with “TUCK-BIRDY” did in 2016 (it’s easy to tell who does it when they WRITE THEIR NAME – forehead smack). Doing this in a National Park is… really inadvisable. Let’s keep a good reputation for all backpackers out there.
This blog post in no way comprises advice to hike the Lowest to Highest Route, and the author assumes no responsibility for the readers’ decision to hike the route described, or choices made while hiking. Any backpacker endeavoring to hike the Lowest to Highest route should be extremely well-prepared mentally and physically, and assumes all responsibility for their own choices. BEWARE! IT IS SEXY, BUT NOT EASY!
Some Photos of Mine
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