A Litttle Used Trail Right Next to Mount Whitney
Introduction: When most people travel up the Whitney Portal Road to hike, they have come to do the Mount Whitney Main Trail. Everyone seems to have blinders on for that one trail and isn't remotely interested in doing another hike that is nearby and offers a much better wilderness experience, and access to many other peaks if a hiker also enjoys a little scrambling. Not only is the Meysan Lake Trail located in the basin which is immediately adjacent to the Whitney Zone and the basin with the Mount Whitney Trail, but it is accessed right off of the Whitney Portal Road and through the Mount Whitney Family Campground no less. Still, this trail sees few hikers, and you might have it entirely to yourself if you overnight it.
Quota: While trails in the Whitney Zone require a permit for day hiking, the Meysan Lake Trail and all other trails in the Inyo National Forest do not require a permit for day use. This is great because it allows a Whitney Permit holder to easily hike the trail before or after a Whitney climb, or if denied a walk-up permit for Whitney it makes for a nice hike instead of the Whitney Trail. If you plan to overnight, the quota is set at 10 people entering per day. There are 6 reservable spots and 4 walk-in spots. Odds are, you won't have any trouble getting an overnight permit. I walked in to the permit office and was able to get a same day entry permit on a Friday in August. When I arrived at Meysan Lake, only 4 other people had entered that day. It is not a busy area. When those people left Sunday morning, I had the lake and possibly the entire basin to myself as I saw no other tents at the other lakes along the trail. I only encountered 1 day hiker while I was leaving the basin Monday at midday.
Hike: The trailhead is on the side of the Whitney Portal Road and next to the lower part of the Mount Whitney Family Campground. The sign for the trailhead faces the direction of traffic that is descending the road, and parking is available on the side of the road next to and around an emergency fire access gate for the Mount Whitney Family Campground. If you park on the south side of the road near the gate and walk down the emergency access road into the campground, there are some kiosk signs with wilderness information and a simple map of the trail. There are also some brown bear lockers to store food in which are exclusively for the use of the Meysan Lake Trail users. From this point, the trail turns left, or south, and passes a water tap before it continues on the paved road in the campground. You will cross the small creek and then see a toilet building. At this point the trail turns left again and moves west into the summer home area. As you move through the summer home area, look for the small wooden signs that point out the trail. They aren't hard to find, and if you think you have lost the trail, just retrace your steps. After less than a half mile total of hiking, you leave the summer home area and start to climb up switchbacks that take you around some granite cliffs and onto the south facing slope in the Meysan Lake Basin. From here until the trail ends, it is around 4&1/2 miles of easy switchbacks that climb steadily to Meysan Lake. The trail is very easy to follow until just past Camp Lake. Beyond Camp Lake, you must look for ducks/cairns and pay attention to the trail. You are near the end at that point, and you will find yourself on a hill overlooking Meysan Lake. From here you can get to the lake by what ever way is easiest.
Vegetation on the trail is typical for the dry south eastern high Sierra Nevada. You start out in mixed Jeffrey Pine, White Fir, Single-Leaf Pinyon Pine and Mountain Mahogany. As you climb, Limber Pine, Foxtail Pine and Willows the along wet areas replace the lower elevation trees. Eventually, the tress will disappear and only small alpine plants will be found amongst moraine. At this point you will find yourself overlooking Meysan Lake. Because the area is dry and on a south face, the cover is open, and it is very sunny. You might find the area below 10,000' to be hotter than expected due to the sun. You will definitely want a hat or something to protect yourself from the sun, which seems to be omnipresent on this high elevation hike. After leaving the campground, there is no easily accessed perennial water until Grass Lake at the 4 mile point.
Camping: While this is a great day hike, it is also a great place to overnight as a backpacking trip, or if you plan to climb any of the peaks which are accessed from the basin. A few of these peaks are Lone Pine Peak, Mount Mallory, Mount Irvine, and Mount Le Conte. They all require a little route finding, but are not out of the realm of possibility for inclusion into an overnight trip on the trail. Overnight camping can be found at any of the lakes which are encountered after 4 miles on the trail. The first lake is Grass Lake, next is Camp Lake, and last is Meysan Lake. Both of these lakes are on the small side, but they provide water and a place to camp. I prefer Meysan Lake.
Meysan Lake is an alpine lake high in the basin and at the foot of Mount Irvine and Mount Mallory; both mountains were named for two mountaineers who died while trying to summit Mount Everest in the 1920s. The lake sits at 11,474' and is fed by snow melt. There are numerous camp sites situated on some cliff above it on the north side, on a sandy beach on the south side, and in the glacial carved outflow area near the rim of the cirque that hold the lake. The lake makes an ideal place to camp if you plan to climb any of the peaks that ring the basin. If you are especially brave, you can swim in Meysan Lake. I spent about 5 seconds under the water, and coming out felt much better than going in.
Solitude: If you choose to hike this trail, you might have a hard time believing you are only a short distance from the Whitney Trail. As apposed to 160 people per day, you will have substantially fewer, and might only encounter 1 or 2 people on your trip. This basin really does offer a much better wilderness experience for being where it is. If you still want to see it, a few of the peaks that ring the basin offer great views of Whitney and the Whitney Zone.
Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.