Everyone knows that California’s Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States, but exactly how high is it? Official measurements have ranged from a “low” of 14,494 feet above sea level to as high as 14,505 feet. Not that this will make much of a difference when you’re taking the last few steps to the summit… and likely gasping for air as you do.
Ever since the peak was first climbed in 1873, geologists and surveyors have attempted to precisely determine the actual elevation of the summit. When construction of the 211-mile John Muir Trail was completed in 1930, a plaque was bolted on a rock near the summit, identifying the peak’s elevation as 14,496.811 feet above sea level. The plaque remains on the summit to this day, and while the elevation figure is precise, it is no longer considered accurate.
When I climbed the peak (twice) in the 1990s, the 14,494′ elevation was the “official” figure in general use. Since then, advances in surveying and the advent of using the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) to determine elevation have resulted in a generally-accepted figure of 14,505′. However, a recent article in The Bakersfield Californian indicates that there is still some controversy regarding the actual height of the mountain. Adding to the confusion, geologists generally agree that, due to plate tectonics, the mountain is gradually rising in elevation.
For more information on the highest point in Inyo and Tulare Counties, the Sierra Nevada, the State of California, and the continental US, check out Mount Whitney.com.