Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Telescope Peak

View of the Panamint Range from Telescope Peak
12.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Rough dirt road to trailhead, Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

11,043-foot tall Telescope Peak in California's Death Valley National Park is one of the most remarkable viewpoints in the United States: from its summit, one can simultaneously gaze down to Badwater, the lowest point in the country at 281 feet below sea level, and over to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet above sea level. The fairly challenging trail that accesses the highest point of the national park with America's lowest point is packed with hundred-mile views the entire way. A chance to see some Great Basin bristlecone pines en route to the summit make this a truly great hike- one of my favorite. While seeing the depths and flats of Death Valley are the park's main attraction, this hike to the loftiest summit of the Panamint Range is not to be missed.

The high slopes of Telescope Peak are a good deal cooler than Furnace Creek and other spots along the floor of Death Valley. In the summer, this means that the peak is a good respite from the heat; in winter, it can mean snow even when Badwater is a toasty 80 degrees. In summer, hikers may find nice wildflowers in Arcane Meadows and along the Panamint crest. Visibility is usually a little better fall through spring, especially as wildfire haze and air pollution from cities can often obscure the peak's hundred mile views in summer. In winter months, the trailhead at Mahogany Flat can be inaccessible due to snow, forcing hikers to start at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns instead, adding 3 miles round trip and an additional thousand feet of elevation gain to the hike. This is a serious hike in a dry, hot, and high elevation place, so come prepared. Bring plenty of water and be on the lookout for altitude sickness, especially if you're hiking here after staying overnight below sea level. In winter, microspikes and poles or even crampons and an ice axe may be necessary in snowy and icy conditions.

I did this hike during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra, shortly after the first snowstorm of the season. The hike is a long drive from either Los Angeles or Las Vegas; in winter months, most hikers will find that the hike takes almost all of daylight hours, so it's best to stay nearby. Camping near Wildrose or elsewhere in the Panamints can help with acclimatization but can be very cold in winter. From Furnace Creek, the center of visitor services in Death Valley, you can reach the Telescope Peak trailhead by following Highway 190 northwest past Stovepipe Wells to the Emigrant Campground. Just after passing the Emigrant Campground, turn left onto the Emigrant Canyon Road and follow the paved road 18 miles across a pass and down into the head of Wildrose Canyon. At the intersection with the Wildrose Road, I continued straight, passing the Wildrose Campground. The road continued uphill 8 miles from the Wildrose Campground to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns; the road was initially paved but soon transitioned to a good and wide gravel road all the way up to the charcoal kilns. Hikers arriving from Ridgecrest and Highway 178 can reach the trailhead via the Wildrose Road, which is bumpy but a manageable drive for any reasonable car.

Past the charcoal kilns, a sign indicated that a high clearance 4WD vehicle was recommended for the road ahead to Mahogany Flat. The road narrowed and became rocky, bumpy, and steep, with significant potholes in spots. I was largely able to manage this road in my standard clearance 2WD vehicle but was unfortunately forced to turn around at the switchback just short of the Mahogany Flat Campground due to snow and ice on the road. Without snow, my 2WD sedan would've been able to handle this road, although the road is certainly quite rough so you should make sure you're comfortable with driving difficult roads before attempting it. There is a parking area for about a half dozen cars at the entrance to the Mahogany Flat campground for hikers. There is an entrance fee for Death Valley National Park but visitors arriving from the west may not pass a fee collection site on their way to the trailhead.

Having failed to drive all the way to the trailhead at Mahogany Flat, I returned to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns to start my hike there. This made for a long day hike of 15.5 miles with 4400 feet of elevation gain. The charcoal kilns were neat to check out: pinyon pine on the nearby slopes were stripped and burnt to charcoal in these ten beehive-shaped ovens in the late 19th century to fuel smelters at silver mines across Panamint Valley owned by George Hearst, the successful San Francisco mining magnate and father of William Randolph Hearst. From these charcoal kilns, I followed the gravel road uphill, ascending about 1200 feet in 1.5 miles as I passed the Thorndike Campground and ascended to the crest of the Panamint Range. This road walk was actually one of the steeper portions of the hike! The road followed a canyon before making a switchback near its end and arriving at Mahogany Flat Campground, which lay at a wide part on the ridge crest of the Panamints at 8150 feet.

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
At the entrance to the campground, I made a right turn onto the road leading to Rogers Peak and quickly came to the official trailhead for Telescope Peak on the left side of the road. The sign here suggests that it is 7 miles each way to Telescope Peak but thankfully, it's slightly shorter, closer to 6.2 miles each way from Mahogany Flat. I started out on the trail, which headed south along the eastern slopes of Rogers Peak through slopes of pinyon pine. There were frequent clearings in the sparse tree cover that opened out for amazing views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range peaks to the east, including Charleston Peak in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas. The trail climbed moderately but steadily for the first mile as it followed the side of the mountain to the south, maintaining the same general views.

Morning light on Death Valley, viewed from the Panamints
At just over a mile into the hike, the trail wrapped around the southeast ridge of Rogers Peak and a whole new set of views opened up. All of Death Valley was visible to the south and ahead of me rose the lofty, soaring summit of Telescope Peak. At 11,043 feet, Telescope Peak is far from being the tallest peak in California or even in the Basin and Range, but it rises directly from Badwater, a height differential of over 11,300 feet in just a few short miles. In the contiguous United States, only Mount Rainier can boast a similar rise in such a short distance. This spot on the southeast ridge was the perfect spot to study the mountain's precipituous rise from the below sea level depths of Death Valley. Snow covered much of the northern facing upper slopes of the mountain.

Mighty Telescope Peak
After rounding the southeast ridge, the trail turned west and continued ascending steadily for just over a mile as it cut across the south slopes of Rogers Peak, aiming for the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peaks on the crest of the Panamint Range. The trail was narrow at times here and the slopes of Rogers Peak were quite steep; while it was not an issue during my hike, I could see this stretch of trail being a bit more problematic if covered in snow. The tree cover thinned even more, providing constant views from this stretch of the trail straight down into Hanaupah Canyon, where the wash at the bottom of the canyon was 4000 vertical feet below me.

After 2.2 miles, the trail leveled out as it came to Arcane Meadows at the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peak. As I crossed the grassy saddle, the first views to the west opened up. What a view it was! Panamint Valley lay below me, the desert flats of its valley floor over 8000 vertical feet below me at just 1000 feet above sea level. Sand dunes- massive in person, but small from this angle- filled the northern end of the valley. Beyond Panamint Valley rose the Argus Range and the Inyo Mountains, and beyond that rose the great granite wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra formed an already impressive wall as it rose gradually from the south before coming to massive Olancha Peak; heading north from there, the range became only greater, breaking the 14000 barrier with Mount Langley before culminating in a row of pinnacles topped by Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the United States outside Alaska. To the north of that, the range maintained its height as it boasted a long line of soaring peaks, including Mount Williamson and the Palisades.

Sierra Nevada, Inyo Mountains, and the Panamint Dunes
Panamint Valley
I got to enjoy more of this view over the next mile of hiking. Leaving the saddle, the trail descended slightly as it headed south along the Panamint crest and wrapped around the western side of Bennett Peak. The hiking was generally flat here as the trail contoured around the peak, with more views to the southwest opening up as the trail rounded Bennett Peak's west ridge. Beyond the southern end of Panamint Valley lay Searles Dry Lake, where I could spot the coal-fired power plant and borax and potash mining operations at Trona. Beyond that lay the many mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert north of the Garlock Fault and on the horizon rose the massive peaks of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges: Mount San Antonio (Mount Baldy) in the San Gabriels, Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardinos, and Mount San Jacinto in the San Jacinto Range. Each of the peaks of the Three Saints exceeded 10000 feet in sea level and each rises from the low-lying coastal area around the Los Angeles Basin.

Searles Dry Lake and the Mojave Desert, the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges in the distance
As I wrapped around to the southwest side of Bennett Peak, Telescope Peak returned to the view to the south. From this perspective, the rest of the route became clear: there was a bit more flat hiking to reach the saddle between Bennett and Telescope Peak and from there, an ascent along Telescope Peak's north ridge would bring me to the summit. At 1.6 miles past the Rogers Peak-Bennett Peak saddle and 3.8 miles from the trailhead, I reached the saddle between Bennett Peak and Telescope Peak. This saddle was 150 feet in elevation lower than the previous saddle, meaning there's a slight ascent on the return trip. From here, there was a final 2.4 mile stretch to the summit covering about 1550 feet of elevation gain.

Approaching Telescope Peak
This last stretch of trail delivered continuously stunning views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range. The upper slopes of Telescope Peak host a grove of limber pines and bristlecone pines, ancient trees with gnarled trunks that form spectacular shapes. These trees formed beautiful subjects to backdrops of fading ridges of the Basin and Range.

Death Valley and the Basin and Range
The final ascent up Telescope Peak began fairly gently, with the trail ascending at a steady but moderate grade along the eastern side of the north ridge. Views of Death Valley were complemented by views of Rogers and Bennett Peaks, the two mountains which I had just hiked around, to the north.

Bennett and Rogers Peak
As afternoon lighting began illuminating the Black Mountains to the east across Badwater, the remarkable colors of the northern Black Mountains began to pop, delivering views of Death Valley that were to die for. Mount Perry displayed hues of brown and red while to its north bands of yellow and pink cut across the range, with occasional pops of unearthly greens around Artists Palette and brightly colored golden badlands around Zabreskie Point. Behind the Black Mountains, the intensely banded peaks of the Funeral Mountains were also quite colorful.

Black Mountains and Badwater
The final mile of the hike consisted of steep switchbacks cut into north ride of Telescope Peak as the trail ascended through the final thousand feet to reach the summit. Here, high above the rest of the Panamint Range and growing higher than any other tree was a grove of Great Basin bristlecone pines. This species is endemic to the Great Basin in the United States, with Telescope Peak representing the far southwest corner of this tree's range. Usually growing only in the harshest alpine conditions, bristlecone pines are the oldest known non-clonal trees on the planet. In the Snake Range of Nevada and California's White Mountains, these trees reach up to 5000 years old. While the bristlecone pines at Telescope Peak were not quite as gnarled and ancient-looking as the ones I've seen in those two more famous bristlecone pine forests, they still exhibited the characteristic twisted, wizened trunks of bristlecones. The juxtaposition was striking: these symbols of longevity rose from Telescope's snowy slopes, with the hottest and driest spot in the country, a landscape that supports so little life that early visitors saw it as an unsurvivable hellscape, just miles away and below.

Bristlecone pine, Badwater, and Charleston Peak
Looking over two miles down into Death Valley
Bristlecone pines of Telescope Peak
The numerous switchbacks of the final ascent ended up being challenging for me as I started feeling the effects of being at high altitude. Still, I pushed on and soon enough I arrived at the top of the false summit that I had gazed up at for quite some time. The trail leveled out upon reaching the false summit, with just a final fifth of a mile of hiking along a high ridge to reach the summit. Views stretched in all direction and bristlecone pines lined the slopes on both sides of the peak, making this a stunning approach to the final climactic view at the summit.

Approaching the summit
A final, short uphill push brought me to the highest point in Death Valley National Park. The surrounding 360-degree view was astonishing, perhaps the most incredible view in the entire Great Basin. The view encomapssed everything I had seen along the way but now added on the complete southern half of the Panamint Range: as Telescope Peak towers over the rest of the range, I could see the range's many peaks rising one after the other to the south until they faded away to the desert. The endless layers of parallel ridges and ranges to the south was soul-stirring and indescribably beautiful. To the west, the Great Western Divide's snowcapped granite peaks were now visible beyond the peaks of the Sierra Crest between Mount Langley and Olancha Peak. The ridges and badlands of the Panamint and Argus Ranges illustrated the incredible erosive power of water in one way, while the broad alluvial fans on the Panamints' eastern slopes illustrated the same processes in a different way. I read somewhere that the peak is so named because a better view couldn't be had with a telescope: I couldn't agree more.

Panamint Valley and the Sierra Nevada from Telescope Peak
Telescope Peak and Death Valley are both part of the Great Basin, which is the nation's largest endorheic watershed, and the Basin and Range, a physiographic province characterized by the parallel sets of valleys and mountain ranges that filled my view at Telescope Peak. Precipitation falling in the Great Basin never flows to the sea, instead evaporating from desert basins. Rainfall here is scarce as the region is in the rain shadow of the mighty Sierra Nevada; most precipitation falls as snow on the mountain ranges separating the many basins. Such a dry climate was necessary for the formation of Badwater Basin, which can sustain dry land nearly three hundred feet below sea level as there is never enough precipitation here to support a permanent body of water in the basin. 

Badwater Basin and the hundreds of other basins that form the Great Basin in eastern California, Nevada, and Utah are a result of crustal extension processes that created the Basin and Range. The Rocky Mountains were formed by the low-angle subduction of the Farallon Plate beneath the North American Plate; by a few million years ago, much of the Farallon Plate along what is now the US West Coast had fully subducted beneath the North American Plate, save the Juan de Fuca Plate in the Pacific Northwest, which is a remnant of the Farallon Plate. The new boundary between the North America and the Pacific Plate was a transform boundary: the strike-slip San Andreas Fault. This relief in pressure on the continental plate caused the crust to relax and extend, pulling apart the crust apart at many faults to create many parallel north-south mountain ranges, each separated by deep basins that filled with depositional sediments. This became the Basin and Range.

Looking south along the crest of the Panamint Range
Telescope Peak is one of just 57 ultraprominent summits in the contiguous United States, meaning that it has a topographic prominence of over 5000 feet. The view from its summit encompasses numerous other ultraprominent peaks: Hayford Peak, Charleston Peak, White Mountain Peak, Mount Whitney, Mount San Gorgonio, Mount San Jacinto, and Mount Baldy.

I spent nearly two hours at the summit enjoying these tremendous views before retracing my steps along the trail to the Mahogany Flat Trailhead and then back down the road to my parked car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.

Charleston Peak above Death Valley
If hiking Telescope Peak in winter, timing is quite important during limited daylight hours. I started my hike at sunrise during my November visit and got back to my car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns just 20 minutes before sunset.

On a sunny, beautiful November weekend day with little wind, I encountered perhaps 25 other hikers on the trail. This trail may be more popular during summer and over the holidays, but overall the trail didn't feel too crowded considering that I was in a national park and the destination was so excellent. This is one of America's most spectacular hikes. Don't miss it.

No comments:

Post a Comment