Simblissity home > L2H

The challenge is classic. The starting point and finish are pure and uncontrived. And accomplishment is a high on par with the alpine crags around you, soaring over a furnace desert beyond.

For several decades adventurous souls have sought the challenge of traveling on foot from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the highest place in the contiguous United States. Starting at Badwater in Death Valley, California, at an elevation of 279 feet below sea level, they test their mettle on a scorching ribbon of asphalt highway, over mountain passes and across sere basins, and on into the shadow of Mount Whitney, 14,505-foot king of the mighty Sierra Nevada range.

Badwater Road, near the start of the paved race route

Many come in summer, when valley air temperatures can exceed 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 C), and attempt to run the 130+ mile distance, either competitively - with outside support - or self-contained, challenging only themselves. The approach differs with the individual, but the route is almost always the same. Over the years, only a handful have left the highway to travel their own way "from the Lowest to the Highest..."

Introducing the Lowest-to-Highest Route

Overview Map - click to view full size

The Lowest-to-Highest (L2H) is a backcountry hiking route between Badwater and Mt. Whitney. Unlike the traditional "race route," the L2H avoids pavement and vehicle traffic whenever possible, in favor of a scenic, silent journey across the wilderness, as it seeks the soul of a rugged, harsh, and ultimately beautiful land. If the traditional approach is to complete an extreme journey on foot, then the L2H is about living completely in a land of extremes. Indeed, this off-highway journey encompasses even greater extremes of geography, ecology and climate, and is intended to immerse the traveler far more deeply within the environment.

In terms of the route's layout, the Lowest-to-Highest Route represents the first genuinely "backpacker-oriented" way to get from Badwater to Mt. Whitney. The L2H was designed to meet the expectations of seasoned walkers looking for a challenging one or two week trip through desert, mountain, and alpine terrain. To this end, the route offers a number of advantages:

  • Provides a sense of solitude and an opportunity for contemplation of nature away from major roads, traffic, and other manmade intrusions.
  • Travels across scenic, interesting and varied terrain, and over a wide range of elevation and climate.
  • Follows an efficient line of travel between its end points in order to minimize distances between water and resupply.
  • Affords direct access to natural and developed water sources, as well as cache locations, so as to reduce the sense of dependency or discontinuity during the actual journey.
  • Returns to civilization occasionally to facilitate resupply of food and provisions, as well as for rest and recovery.
  • Connects to the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail and nearby PCT, offering options for extended travel into the High Sierra backcountry and beyond.

[ top of page ]

Character of the Route

    Telescope Peak Trail

The Lowest-to-Highest is in fact a route - an informal, unsigned linkage of existing trails, roads, and cross-country travel. Few established trails exist in Death Valley National Park or elsewhere in the areas immediately east of the High Sierras and Mt. Whitney. However, the area is threaded by numerous old roads, many of them former miners' routes, little more than rockbound tracks in some cases. Cross-country travel is often facilitated by the expansive desert landscapes here, which include everything from flat, featureless salt playas, to the lightly-vegetated slopes of arid mountain ranges, to vast alluvial fans at the mouths of canyons.

And yes, several foot trails are found here as well - some of them well-traveled and in excellent condition, in other cases just a rough path with occasional rock cairns to guide the way. Each of these surfaces and modes of travel come together to make the L2H the diverse, challenging and rewarding experience it is.

Distance, Elevation & Terrain

Total mileage from Badwater to Mt. Whitney is surprisingly similar between the highway race route and L2H route. The L2H travels a distance of about 130 miles from end to end, compared to the race route's 135 miles. In fact the race route ends at Whitney Portal, 8 miles and several thousand feet below Mt. Whitney's summit, so the "peakbagging" L2H - which goes straight to the top - is comparatively more efficient overall, at least by the mileage figures. But the more distinguishing difference between the two routes is elevational: By seeking out an adventurous line of travel away from major roads the L2H features a total elevation gain more than double that of the highway route. The following elevation profiles offer a visual comparison of the two routes. (Please note the difference in vertical exaggeration between the two profiles.)

Comparison of Elevation and Length: L2H (at left) & Race Route (vertical exaggeration differs)

Long John Canyon, Inyo Mountains

The difference in total elevation gain between the routes is the result of topography and the way each route confronts it. Much of this land is at the western edge of the vast Basin and Range province, with fault-block mountain ranges rising sharply out of deep, wide valleys. By adhering to paved 2-lane highways that follow the path of least resistance, the "race route" does not climb as high nor as often as the L2H, which approaches the ranges directly, via more primitive and steeply graded surfaces.

The L2H confronts three major ranges - the Panamints, Inyo Mountains, and the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada massif at Mt. Whitney - and along the way crosses Death Valley, Panamint Valley, and the valley of the Owens River. Elevations on the crests range from 9000 feet above sea level to over 14,500' at Mt. Whitney. Valley elevations are much lower - so much lower in the case of Death Valley that the climb into the Panamint Range (to Telescope Peak) represents the fourth greatest valley-to-summit elevation gain in the United States, just behind Washington's Mt. Rainier. In addition, east of the Inyo Mountains the L2H follows the rolling 5000' Darwin Plateau for a number of miles, with easier hiking and more moderate temperatures.

[ top of page ]

Highlights of the Adventure

Change is seemingly the only constant on the Lowest-to-Highest. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can a person so quickly travel on foot between markedly contrasting environments, between worlds so far apart in character that it is hard to reconcile their physical proximity.

Such is certainly the case in the journey's early miles. The route leaves Badwater - an undrinkable saline pool - crosses the harsh, flat, and often torrid salt playa of Badwater Basin - at 282 feet below seal level the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere - then ascends over 10,000 vertical feet to the crest of the Panamints near Telescope Peak, where thousand-year-old bristlecone pines thrive in the short growing season between long, cold winters.

Or imagine walking among desert canyons of bone-dry greasewood and endless rock, only to turn a corner and discover the miracle of Darwin Falls. Here, a series of perennial cascades dash among shade trees and lush undergrowth. Bird song fills the air, punctuated incongruously with the "hee-haw" of a feral burro hidden somewhere up-canyon, living testament to a bygone era when miners and mule teams did heavy work here.

Strange spikey forms dot the distant horizon ahead, looming taller as the route approaches its first stand of joshua trees, great sentinels of the Mojave desert. Their multi-armed masses form a veritable army of green and gray across the expanse of Lee Flat, yet make no sound to stir the utter silence of the land.





Colorful mine tailings and even a wooden ore tramway reveal the human history of the rugged Inyo Mountains, where the past comes alive at the ghost town of Cerro Gordo. The American Hotel is located here, a real Old West saloon and guest house occasionally still serving travelers today, "especially those romantics born a century too late," says the proprietor and sole resident here at 8000 feet.

photo courtesy David Hough

Reaching Trail Crest and the eastern divide of the mighty Sierra Nevada, you turn north to join the John Muir Trail and walk a narrow ridge far above treeline. The sky, reflected flawlessly in alpine lakes below, is blue and confident but the air is thin, forcing you slowly, euphorically ahead. Ever higher you climb, past sun-cupped snowfields, among pinnacles, to the very top of the world it seems. The summit of Mount Whitney commands a view of peaks more numerous than all the sands in the desert, you think to yourself. And there, below and to the east, the route you've journeyed for more than a week slips away toward the distant horizon, back to the sand, salt and heat of Badwater in a universe all its own.

[ top of page ]

Strategies for Success

Hiking the Lowest-to-Highest Route safely and successfully requires a familiarity with both desert and alpine environments, their particular challenges and demands, and the equipment and techniques for dealing with them. By its very nature, the route is neither easy nor without risk; indeed, this is a land of potential danger beyond the norm. Furnace-dry heat, strong sun, an infrequency of natural water sources, and rugged, steep, remote terrain are standard fare when traveling in this harshest of desert lands, while snowpack, cold and/or changeable weather, afternoon thunderstorms, and altitude sickness can become concerns at higher elevations along the route. The information presented here assumes an ability to accept and respond to such potential hazards along the way, as well as a proficiency with the particular requirements of long-distance hiking that involves resupply and/or backcountry caching. Do not approach the route unprepared.

Season of Travel

Death Valley digits: "a little warm" for late June

The Badwater to Whitney foot race occurs each year in July, typically the hottest month in Death Valley, where the all-time high temperature record stands at an otherwordly 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 C). Meanwhile, snow can fall in the high country beginning in mid-autumn, with remnant snowpack sometimes blocking trails on Telescope Peak into the following June, and on Whitney into July.

The upshot of these limiting factors is a narrow seasonal window in which to travel the Lowest-to-Highest without undue hardship. In essence, the L2H is open to traditional thru-hiking (which is to say, minus a mountaineering component) only during the months of September and October, after the desert heat lessens and before the early snows arrive. In most years, a start date at Badwater during the first week of October should allow enough time to reach Mt. Whitney before ice or snow make conditions hazardous there. Make no mistake though - the lowest terrain of the route may still be quite warm to downright scorching, even well into October. Other times, the weather can be chilly and inclement, including at the bottom of Death Valley.

Navigation: Maps and Databook

Because the L2H is an unmarked, unsigned route, detailed topographic maps are absolutely essential for navigation as well as for an understanding of the terrain through which the route travels. To this end, as of mid 2015 we are now offering a complete "navigation bundle" for prospective hikers which includes high-resolution, annotated topo maps, elevation profiles, and a companion databook, as well as GPS tracks and waypoints. The maps and databook are presented in easy-to-use PDF file format, and they can be printed either at home or using a professional document printing service like FedEx Office. The GPS data is formatted for compatibility with most current GPS units. Click on the following link to view and download the navigation bundle.

Lowest to Highest Navigation Bundle

This resource has been some time in the making, and we hope it simplifies the planning process for prospective hikers. We've opted to make it available to try for free. If you find it useful and would like to support our efforts to keep this resource up-to-date, then please consider purchasing the navigation bundle above.

The maps, databook, and GPS info detail the main route of the L2H as well as a number of "alternate routes" that hikers may opt to use along the way. The alternates are typically a few miles longer or shorter than the portion of the main route they replace; some of them may prove easier in some way, either in terms of the terrain or logistics, while others may be more scenic or adventurous. Refer to the maps and databook for more info.

Along with the maps contained in the navigation bundle, additional large-area overview maps can also prove helpful in finding your way. The DeLorme California Atlas & Gazetteer offers a broad perspective of the terrain, including roads leading away from the route toward developed areas where assistance would be available if needed. Trails Illustrated produces a folded, waterproof map of Death Valley National Park, with numerous secondary and primitive roads and even some trails and x-c routes depicted. Additionally, the entire L2H route is covered (without actual route depiction) in 1:100,000 scale detail on four maps produced by the BLM. Visit the Public Lands Information Center website to order the BLM's Death Valley Junction, Darwin Hills, Saline Valley, and Mount Whitney surface management maps.

Locating Water

With an average annual rainfall of less than 2 inches, coupled with high temperatures and low dew points, Death Valley defines aridity in sharper terms than almost anyplace on earth. Yet the ranges that rise so prominently above Death Valley and surrounding basins do capture precious moisture from occasional weather systems, draining it into the basins to evaporate in salt pans or well up in unusual, unpotable ways as at Badwater. These ranges also retain some of their moisture, as evidenced by their more abundant flora and fauna. And in a few places this vital water runs at the surface, clear and drinkable.

A lack of abundant natural water sources is a fact of life on the Lowest-to-Highest Route, at least before reaching the Owens Valley at the edge of the well-watered Sierra Nevada. In its desert reaches, hikers will at times need to carry a considerable amount of the wet stuff - perhaps several gallons - and walk with a purpose from one known source to the next.

High desert surprise: goldfish in China Garden Spring

The L2H route has been carefully laid out to make the water situation as manageable as possible for experienced desert travelers. Several natural sources are encountered along the way, of which a few are fairly dependable. Developed water is also reached at intervals throughout the route, and can generally be counted on during the normal hiking season. Further scouting of the route will be necessary for a definitive assessment of natural water source reliability. Nevertheless, the following table reflects current knowledge (as of summer '15) on the subject. It also lists potential on-route cache locations, where one could leave a supply of water beforehand to be picked up during the hike. (See the following discussion.)

cacheWest Side Highway @ Hanaupah Canyon Rd
Hanaupah SpringSouth Fork Hanaupah Canyon: up to 1 mi off-route
Tuber Springseveral potential springs in Tuber Canyon
possibly year-round
cacheTrona-Wildrose Rd
spigotsWildrose Campground: 4 mi off-route (or directly on alternate route)
tap, bottled H20Panamint Springs store & restaurant
Darwin FallsDarwin Canyon: 0.5 mi off-route
China Garden SpringDarwin Canyon (via alternate route)
cacheHighway 190 @ Saline Valley Rd
cacheCerro Gordo ghost town - cache possible if vehicle can make it
no water at Cerro Gordo itself
Mexican Springcrest of the Inyo Mountains
snowmelt dependent
springLong John Canyon
unknown reliability usu. tiny pool
cacheOwenyo-Lone Pine Rd
Owens RiverLone Pine Narrow Gauge Rd
questionable purity
tap, bottled H20town of Lone Pine
spigots or creekLone Pine Campground
Lone Pine CreekWhitney Portal National Rec. Trail
spigots, creekWhitney Portal campground & store
creek, lakes main Mt. Whitney Trail

Water Caching

At first glance, the above water chart may seem to indicate that water caching is unnecessary on a thru-hike of the L2H. And for experienced desert hikers willing to pack heavy water loads, it may not be necessary. But for safety's sake more than mere convenience, all hikers, regardless of ability or inclination, should at least consider caching some water along the route.

10k vertical feet cross-country elevation gain

Three areas of the route in particular suggest the benefit of water caching: the western and eastern base of Telescope Peak, and the long stretch without surface water west of China Garden Spring. The climb of Telescope Peak's ridge is steep, extremely long (10,000+ feet of elevation gain), remote, and mostly cross-country. Although Hanaupah Spring to the east is considered reliable, what happens if your arrival is delayed by the unexpected? Or what if the springs in Tuber Canyon happen to be dry when you're absolutely counting on them? To be caught on either side of the mountain with empty water bottles could very easily prove disastrous. Water caches left at nearby road crossings would provide a margin of safety, and make this challenging ascent and descent much more manageable, especially as the caches would permit a more deliberate pace in difficult terrain. Water left near the entrance to Hanaupah Canyon at the western edge of Badwater Basin would also help to ensure a safer and more enjoyable crossing of this lowest, hottest, driest region at the very start of the route.

Setting up a last minute water cache on the route about 7 miles west of China Garden Spring would be fairly straightforward. Upon reaching the store at Panamint Springs, one could purchase water in plastic jugs and then hitchhike 12 miles west along the highway to its next intersection with the L2H route. There, the hiker could hide the water nearby in desert brush, then hitch back to Panamint Springs and continue along the trail, retrieving the cache on foot in a day or so. (And being sure to pack out all supplies from the cache!)

Additional water caches would require more targeted vehicle assistance. For those with no outside support, one tested solution would be to rent a car in the town of Pahrump, Nevada, 1.5 hours east of Death Valley National Park. This would be done prior to arrival at Death Valley, for example if flying into Las Vegas beforehand. After placing the water caches, one could either return to Pahrump and then hitch back to the Death Valley area, or potentially arrange to have the vehicle picked up by the rental company for an extra charge. In this last scenario hikers could arrive at Badwater under their own power and start the hike on a schedule of their choosing.


Welcome to Panamint Springs Resort (just around the bend)

The Lowest-to-Highest Route offers two potential opportunities for resupply along the way. Packages of food and supplies can be shipped to Panamint Springs Resort (with prior permission) and the town of Lone Pine prior to the hike, then picked up along the way. The route heads directly through both localities.

Although the Panamint Springs resupply may not be truly necessary on a hike of this length, it can still be helpful in terms of reducing overall packweight; by minimizing the weight of food supplies, it becomes easier to carry the heavy loads of water which are sometimes unavoidably necessary.

Panamint Springs Resort has a campground, motel, restaurant, and small store with mostly snack items. Maildrops may be held at the discretion of the proprietor, and must be shipped via UPS only. Call to confirm details: (775) 482-7680. Be sure to mention that you'll be hiking through Death Valley and give an approximate date of arrival. For best odds when calling, you might also plan to reserve a motel room for when you'll be passing through.

Lone Pine is a small, tourist-oriented town with most services available, including a medium-sized grocery store. Sending a maildrop would probably be unnecessary if heading west toward nearby Mt Whitney, but might be helpful if intending to continue on the JMT beyond Whitney or if hiking eastbound on the L2H toward Badwater. The Lone Pine post office (zip code 93545) accepts packages addressed for general delivery.

A small store is also located at Whitney Portal at the base of the Mt Whitney Trail. The store sells snack items and has a grill with limited menu options.


Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail,
en route to Permit Country

In its final 8 miles the L2H ascends Mount Whitney via the main Mt. Whitney Trail and John Muir Trail. Due to the extreme popularity of hiking Mt Whitney, access to the summit is available by permit only. A limited number of permits for entering the "Mt. Whitney Zone" are available each day throughout the hiking season. Permits are available by reservation - days or weeks in advance of the hike - as well as on a walk-in basis the day of the climb.

During the peak hiking season in July and August permits to enter the Mt. Whitney Zone from Whitney Portal are generally all reserved well in advance. September and October pose less of a concern for the hiker arriving without advance reservation, except on weekends. Either way, L2H hikers may want to secure a permit in advance, provided a climbing date can be specified accurately. (Permit dates are non-adjustable.)

"Walk-in" permits can be obtained at the Lone Pine InterAgency visitor center 1.5 miles south of Lone Pine. For more information, or to try to reserve a permit online, visit the website of the Inyo National Forest.

[ top of page ]

The Route In Abstract

From Badwater (279 ft below sea level), the L2H heads west across Badwater Basin to Hanaupah Canyon, where it follows 4WD road to Hanaupah Springs. [e.g., 1st camp] It then proceeds cross-country to Telescope Peak's ridge (10,000 ft), northbound via the Telescope Peak Trail, then west x-c into Tuber Canyon. An old track in Tuber Canyon passes a few potential springs, [2nd camp] and continues downhill to Wildrose Road (2500 ft), where the L2H joins faint dirt tracks northwest to sere Panamint Valley and the village of Panamint Springs, with food and water available (el. 2000'). [3rd camp: motel or campground] Scenic, perrenial Darwin Falls and China Garden Spring lie southwest of Panamint Springs, which the L2H approaches before proceeding cross-country on rocky, volcanic slopes through the untracked Darwin Falls Wilderness [4th camp] to a junction with the Highway 190 "race route" (4800'), then north via Saline Valley Rd toward Lee Flat joshua tree forest (5500'). From a road junction along the historic White Mountain Talc Rd (4900') [5th camp], the L2H climbs westward to the living ghost town of Cerro Gordo along the rugged Inyo Mountain crest, then turns north on 4WD to Mexican Spring (9200') and the ruins of the Saline Valley salt tram. A vague, cairned trail heads west downhill in Long John Canyon, past a possible spring (5800') [6th camp], and into the Owens Valley via Lone Pine Narrow Gauge Rd to US 395 and the town of Lone Pine. (3700') [7th camp: motel] Here the L2H joins the Badwater-Whitney Portal roadwalk route up Whitney Portal Rd, but leaves it at Lone Pine Campground (5900') to follow the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail. The route is concurrent with the Mt Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal (8300') [8th camp: Whitney Portal Campground walk-in backpacker campsites, reservations required] to Trail Crest, then follows the John Muir Trail to its terminus at Mt Whitney's summit.

Death Valley Weather Forecast
Current snowpack at 11,400' near Mt Whitney

[ top of page ]

L2H Interactive Map

Take a virtual tour of the Lowest to Highest Route with Google Maps. The following interactive map illustrates the route of the L2H (in red) as well as various alternate route options (blue). Toggle betwen a traditional map view and satellite imagery for an informative look at the varied landscapes through which the route passes.


L2H on Instagram

Cam "Swami" Honan, Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva, Joshua "Bobcat" Stacy, and Greg "Malto" Gressel
after finishing their L2H thru-hike. (Photo by Cam Honan)

| #LowestToHighest | #L2HRoute
#LeaveNoTrace | #PackItInPackItOut

Please do your part and do not leave anything behind after your hike,
all water / supply caches. These will otherwise become litter.
We, as well as DVNP, the BLM, and Inyo NF, appreciate your help.
Click here for more info.

[ top of page ]

  Copyright © 2018 simBLISSity Ultralight Designs