Ever since I moved to California, I’ve made a goal to explore as much of the state’s wilderness as possible. So far, it hasn’t disappointed. From the deep powder of the Mammoth back-country, to the sun-soaked boulders of Joshua tree, to the rolling waves of the Pacific coast - I’ve always returned back to "real-life" wanting more.

Over the course of these trips I’ve met dozens of other outdoor enthusiasts, and in talking with them, there was one destination I kept hearing again and again: Mount Whitney. Famous for being the highest peak in the continental United States (14,505 feet), Mount Whitney is also notorious for its incredible beauty, and extremely limited permit access, with overnight passes typically booked months, and even years in advance.

As much as I love hiking, I’m not the type of person to plan my expeditions a year in advance. For that reason, I assumed it was going to be a long time before I would be able to cross Whitney off the bucket list. A few weeks ago I received a call from a friend letting me know they had an extra Whitney permit, and if I would be interested in joining the trip. The permit was for August 24th - which happens to be my birthday. Naturally, I said yes.

Getting to Whitney from Los Angeles is about a 4-hour drive, assuming you get lucky with traffic. You head north to Highway 14, and then on to Highway 395 which features wide open roads and stunning views of the desert and mountains. To access the Whitney trailhead you take a left off the highway in the town of Lone Pine, and head due West into the Sierra Mountain range. The Whitney Portal starts at a lofty 8,360 ft elevation, but otherwise begins like any other big mountain hike: steep switchbacks, tall pine forests and the occasional water crossing. It’s not until you reach the first few valleys that you really start to appreciate the landscape.

While I was expecting great views and wildlife, I was unprepared for the beauty of Whitney’s mountain lakes. Colored in deep green hues, and surrounded by jagged points of granite they’re like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I tried swimming in Mirror Lake, but it didn’t last long. Even on a hot August day the water was only about 40 degrees.

Other than the freezing water, Whitney was an incredible experience that offered a perfect mix of physical challenge and visual rewards. I’d highly recommend it, especially to those who like to set their travel itineraries well in advance.

If you’re like me and have a more impulsive spirit, fear not. A few days after hiking Whitney I had a chance to go on another Sierra mountain hike 50 miles north in an area known as Big Pine Lakes. While it’s not as famous or elevated as Whitney, it shares a lot of the physical beauty. You can also camp anywhere along the trail at Big Pine Lakes, and you don’t need any permits.