Hiking Death Valley's Highest Peak
Telescope Peak, California — Monsoon moisture pops thunderheads to the south, while drier air pushes down from the north. Somewhere above me those air masses are mixing. Forecast: indeterminate.
It's seven miles from the trailhead at Mahogany Flat to Telescope Peak's summit, and the majority traverse a broad, airy ridge offering not a hint of storm protection. It's up to the clouds as to whether my hiking partner Trevor and I will soon be basking atop one of California's most exotic summits—or playing a terrifying game of duck-and-run as lightning starts cracking.
It seems appropriate that the threat of thunderstorms is at least lurking on the horizon. Telescope Peak is a desert summit, reminding me in many ways of the peaks of the desert Southwest.
The highest point along the north-south Panamint Range, Telescope Peak's 11,043' summit is surrounded in all directions by desert: stark and austere.
I understand that some people find the desert barren, but to my eyes deserts—and their mountains—are places of haunting beauty. Clouds are an inseparable part of that beauty, creating shadows and contrast, painting the landscape with light.
And what a landscape it is: just a few miles to our east is Badwater, Death Valley, lowest point in North America. To the west is the equally-severe Panamint Valley. The Inyo Mountains and Owens Valley are a bit northwesterly, next-door neighbors. Beyond that, plainly visible on the horizon, are the looming summits of the High Sierra: Langley, Whitney, Russell, Williamson.
In the opposite direction, occasional hints of the Southern ranges peak out from behind the shifting thunderheads: the San Gabriels, the San Gorgonios, the desert ranges farther east. There is not a single angle of view that isn't worth pausing to marvel at—hence the name of this remarkable mountain, said to be derived from the exclamation, "You could see no further with a Telescope..."
Indeed. The hike to Telescope Peak's summit, on an easy and well-maintained trail, is modest, but the views are anything but, building steadily from the moment you first catch sight of the mountain on the horizon to even the last hundred yards along the summit ridge, until that astonishing 360° panorama is at last revealed at the very end. So long as the clouds cooperate...
Getting to Telescope Peak involves a fair degree of adventure in its own right. Bring a good map and maybe even a GPS unit. Both will surely come in handy once you leave the straightforward corridor of Highway 395.
Coming from Southern California, Trevor and I follow a series of remote roads eastward, discovering a vast and desolate hidden landscape that makes Owens Valley seem positively cosmopolitan in comparison. Telescope Peak's seemingly-modest outline appears abruptly as we drop down into Panamint Valley.
We pull over for a moment at a viewpoint along the valley's rim. Hot air greets us as we hop out of the air-conditioned car. It's the first time I've ever seen Telescope Peak.
Lying just within the western boundary of Death Valley National Park, the mountain forms the eastern boundary of Panamint Valley, rising indeterminately high above the hot flats below.
How big is it? It's hard to say just by looking, but a check of the map indicates Panamint Valley is somewhere around a thousand feet in elevation. That means we'll be climbing over 7000' just to reach the trailhead.
Back on the road, we slowly cross Panamint Valley. Telescope Peak's enormous rise becomes more apparent as we draw closer to the base of the mountain. We find the initially-paved Wildrose Road, which will take us into Death Valley National Park and high into the Panamint Range. The sense of remoteness in this part of the state is nothing less than surreal.
But for the road, there is nothing of civilization to be seen in any direction. Without a working vehicle and a good supply of water, you'd be in trouble here in a hurry. Up the road we go. Pavement alternates with gravel for a bit, then the pavement is gone, leaving a rough but partially-graded route that winds ever-upward through the rugged narrows of Wildrose Canyon.
The rich palate of colors in the surrounding rocks suggests we're in mining country, and soon we discover that is indeed the case. We pass the impressive historic structures of the Charcoal Kilns, which were used more than a hundred years ago to produce charcoal to fire two smelters at nearby silver and lead mines. Next stop: Mahogany Flat, and the trailhead to Telescope Peak.
Pulling into the parking lot at Mahogany Flat, Trevor and I find a waterless and fee-less campground. We hop out of the car and spy a few promising peeks of Death Valley through the trees beyond.
The weather looks reasonable: blue sky overhead with a few patches of wispy white clouds; no wind. Though the air is pleasantly cooler, everything about the area suggests extreme aridness—the scrubby Pinyon Pine forest, the dusty, barren ground. Like the White Mountains, the Panamints don't appear to get much annual precipitation.
The overriding impression of our trailhead perch is one of airiness: the north-south range drops precipitously down into Death Valley to the east.
Similarly, behind us is the vast drop to Panamint Valley. Though partially blocked by the treetops, those drops already suggest the view from an airplane window.
We hit the trail, which winds its way along the east side of the ridge, giving us increasingly fine views of Death Valley and Badwater. Especially notable are the colors emerging from this interesting juxtaposition of landscapes.
The chalky-white flats of Badwater contrast dramatically with the orange and purple hues of the Amargosa Range beyond, on the eastern side of Death Valley. As the trail traverses around the southeast side of Rogers Peak, the views continue to open. Both Trevor and I are pushing the pace, as if motivated by the ever-expanding sights. Soon, I find myself gasping in the high mountain air, heartbeat pounding in my ears.
What's our elevation right now? Just over 9000 feet. My peak fitness level from the past winter is apparently just a memory, now. Still, the trail's angle is easy enough, and the temperature is pleasant. Overhead, thin and intermittent clouds continue to gather, providing welcome shade from that fierce Southern California sun. A fine day for hiking.
Atop the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peaks is the intriguingly-named Arcane Meadows, elevation 9640'. Here begins the long ridge to Telescope Peak, which is perhaps another four miles distant.
Arcane Meadows offers us a flat spot to rest as well as a fine perch from which to admire our first true views of Panamint Valley, to the west, and the great Sierra beyond. I drop my pack, fish out my camera, and look around. Of course the Sierra captures my attention first. Yes, it's a little hazy over Owens Valley, but I can clearly identify the big peaks nonetheless.
Trevor and I consult briefly as to which is Whitney, and which is Langley. From this angle, both have a similar shape, and both tower over their respective neighbors.
Also interesting, from this perspective, is what appears to be a great V-shaped gully between Whitney and Russell. It's fun—and challenging—to try to identify Sierra Peaks from this distance.
Behind us, to the east, is the rugged country of Hanaupah Canyon, plunging down, down, down to Death Valley. And this view deserves a bit of special mention.
You see, in winter, Telescope Peak gets snow.
And naturally, I've already begun contemplating skiing this mountain. The road to Mahogany Flat is closed in Winter, but the lower part remains open as far as Charcoal Kilns, offering one avenue of access. But there is another possibility: rumor is there exists an established hiking route from Shorty's Well up Hanaupah Canyon to Arcane Meadows and Telescope Peak beyond.
Now, if the thought of hiking with skis from Badwater to Telescope's summit strikes you as a little off kilter, you've probably just safely passed a quick and dirty sanity test. I, however, have apparently failed that test myself, as I find myself looking down that vast distance and wondering...
Would I do such a thing? Could I do such a thing? I file the idea away for future contemplation.
Along the Ridge
The sky darkens as we begin hiking the long, flat stretch across Telescope Peak's north ridge. I eye the clouds warily, not willing to get caught on this exposed ridge if a storm develops.
Rain streaks appear about Telescope Peak's summit. I suggest a lunch break, wanting to stop now and assess the weather before we're fully committed to the summit—and the ridge. As we pull out our snacks, I feel a cool mist brushing against my arms, and then it's raining. I move my camera toward the more-protected interior of my backpack.
The rain is brief and light, but it doesn't inspire much confidence in the weather. Still, our lunch break does its job, giving us time to see that the squalls are short-lived.
A check of the clock suggests we're seeing about as much buildup as the day is going to produce—hopefully. We decide to press on.
I realize, as we progress farther along the ridge, that Telescope Peak Trail is not only well-maintained, it is also well designed. The trail strategically avoids the apex of the ridge, instead traversing beneath it, providing just enough distance to give some protection in the event of a storm.
That does help ease my worries about the weather. Also—and more importantly—I see the sky to the southwest clearing, suggesting we're going to get a nice window of clearing in the next hour or so.
So: I keep my fingers crossed and hope the sky behaves itself.
Here and there along the ridge, sunlight emerges intermittently through the clouds, igniting the landscape and causing the abundant wildflowers to pop against their green backdrops. I'm guessing Telescope Peak isn't normally so verdant. These rich colors are no doubt the happy product of the previous winter's heavy snows, sending normally reticent flowers into full bloom.
And those same clouds that worry the sky create striking shadows across Death Valley to our east. The valley floor is an impressionist's canvas today, speckled with contrasting colors of cool and warm that are ever-shifting in the afternoon light. Some two vertical miles above, we float along as if on a ship of green in the midst of a sea of vast, unending desert.
Highs & Lows
Somewhere on the last hundred yards or so along Telescope Peak's summit ridge it hits me: I haven't even reached the top yet, but this is already one of my favorite mountains.
The views! The crazy, mind-bending views! Look here: to the west is Panamint Valley, a drop of some 10,000+ vertical feet. If that's not enough for you, turn to the east and gaze now at the alkaloid sands of Badwater, Death Valley, elevation -283 feet, lowest point in North America—currently some 11,331 vertical feet below us.
My mind boggles as I try to process these vast numbers, this remarkable juxtaposition of alpine and desert worlds, all of it focused here at Telescope Peak's modest ridgeline summit.
Part of what makes it all so wonderful is the fact that we enjoy unrestricted views in all directions. Telescope towers above the surrounding landscape almost as far as the eye can see.
In its expansiveness and totality, the view reminds me of the sights atop Mount Shasta. But Shasta does not share such scenic neighbors as Death Valley, nor the High Sierra.
In the narrowness of the summit ridge, and the dramatic opposing views of Death Valley and Panamint valley, the view reminds me of the sights atop White Mountain over Bishop.
But White Mountain's westward look is dominated by the big peaks of the Sierra, and the eastern view shows us mostly only the barren interior of central Nevada.
No, this perch atop Telescope Peak is indeed something unique among California mountains. After a time I remember to begin taking pictures of these magnificent views, though I know they will each of them fail to capture the grandeur of what I'm seeing here in person. Finally, I shoot a short video clip, rotating 360° to show as much of the panorama as possible. Will even this video be able to bottle some of the magic I'm seeing? I hope so.
The clouds, I'm happy to say, have cooperated today—collaborated, even, you might say. Without the clouds, and their many shadows, the landscapes would not be nearly so arresting, the colors not nearly so vivid. Happily the feared storms have not materialized. Overhead now is bright blue sky. On the horizons distant are nonthreatening white puffs, building and dissolving according to their own unknowable rhythms. Perfect.
What now? Let's stay a while. The wind is calm. The air is pleasantly cool. The canvas about invites long lingering gazes rather than hasty glances. Will I be back here again someday? I hope so. Not all places are worth revisiting, I know, and there is only so much time even for those that are, but I have a feeling I'll be back. And until then, the photos will have to do.