Two peaks in two days above Death Valley
Appeal Staff Writer
Halfway through a two-week camping and hiking trip of Southern Nevada and the Death Valley area, Chip and I decided to repeat a nice, high-mileage weekend I had done in 2004 of hiking Wildrose and Telescope peaks back to back.
The road to the trailheads is an infrequently visited section of the park up winding Emigrant Canyon to almost 7,000 feet above the valley floor. Some folks come to see the beehive-shaped charcoal kilns at
Wildrose, but only those intent on climbing Telescope venture up the very rocky, high-clearance-vehicle road beyond.
The odd, tall, dozen-or-so kilns were built by Chinese laborers in the 1870s to process piñon and juniper wood into charcoal. The highly sophisticated masonry has been restored to its original, attractive marriage of form and function. The trail starts right behind the first kilns.
The mules of the woodcutters established this trail, which begins by traversing up a hill. It becomes a steep grade under dense mountain mahogany and the woodcutters’ target trees, passing through an interesting slide area of gray-blue sandstone and quartzite.
After about half mile, you come to a ridge with the first views of Death Valley, with the Grapevine Mountains behind it. You can pick out the Furnace Creek golf course, RV park and campground, very far from which maybe 90 percent of park visitors never venture.
The trail heads up the back of the ridge in a dense area of trees filled with the songs of chickadees, flycatchers, nuthatches and pinyon jays, and the occasional croak of a raven.
At a saddle, you have more great views of the valley and of Telescope Peak to the southeast. Right below you are colorful “calico hills” and horizontal layers of the former ocean floor which formed the valley. To the northwest, you see the Panamint and Saline valleys.
Now you begin climbing in earnest up about 2 miles of switchbacks along the back of the peak to the nearly flat, shale-and-quartzite dome of Wildrose Peak. You are now at 9,064 feet above the valley floor in just over four miles. You’ll be glad you packed a windbreaker as it can be very, very breezy up here.
You see the White Mountains – with White Mountain proper and Nevada’s highest point, Boundary Peak – far to the north and the Inyo Mountains in the foreground. Across non-visible Owens Valley, you see the Whitney Corridor and the highest peak in the Lower 48, Mount Whitney at 14,495 feet.
In the second week of March, we understood why June Mountain ski resort closed in mid-February, as there was a shocking, woefully scant snow cover, even above 12,000 feet, in the Southern Sierra.
Back at the Wildrose trailhead, the not-too-bad-4WD road accesses two campgrounds, so remote that the Park Service doesn’t even charge for them. We had been camping in the backcountry up until then, so an outhouse and a picnic table seemed like a luxury. The morning of the hike, two ravens waited patiently to begin “vacuuming” under our table for food scraps. Note: You must bring your own water. Thorndyke Campground is the least windy, with good tree cover, but the views at 8,133-foot Mahogany Flat can’t be beat.
The trail starts at a large sign describing the area’s trees and variety of conifers, including the fabled bristlecone. We learned that in the mountains of the Great Basin, no large trees grow between 6,000 and 8,000 feet because of the heat. Limber pines start at 9,000 feet and bristlecones at 10,000 feet, each with adaptations to withstand extreme wind and ice.
A good mile of switchbacks brings you to a broad meadow at 10,000-plus feet. To the west are the first views of the Whitney Corridor. In 2004, I heard an odd noise here – a lone burro, trotting away while expressing his extreme displeasure at seeing me with indignant brays. This time, we saw a flash of vivid blue in a tree below us; how ironic to be in California and see the Nevada state bird, mountain bluebird, cavorting in our state tree, the piñon.
You angle up and down a saddle to more switchbacks on the back of the mountain, with views of Death Valley, Badwater – the lowest point in North America at minus-282 feet – and the Panamint Range.
This far south, the treeline (the elevation at which there is not enough topsoil to support large trees) is very high so you pass by healthy stands of juniper, pinon and limber pine. We examined every old, weather-beaten dead tree, convinced it was a bristlecone. But back at the trailhead’s tree sign, we discovered that what we thought were limber pines were actually bristlecones. We felt dumb to realize that not ALL bristlecones are 4,000 years old, and that maybe hikers in 2,000 years hence will see the classic gnarled, ancient trees that we now see as youngsters.
More switchbacks on the west slope take you through snow patches, but nowhere near the amount I hiked through in February 2004. Soon, you reach the undulating ridge leading to the shale-covered summit, at 11,331 vertical feet above the valley floor. We drank in the 360-degree views of hundreds of miles of Southern Nevada and Sierra mountains and the vast Great Basin deserts extending to the east.
On top that day was a group of young Boy Scouts out on a spring-break backpack trip, from, of all places, Sparks.
As I took their group photo, I said, “Now, boys, did you know are looking at the highest point in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney; the lowest point on the continent, Badwater; and some of the oldest-living things on earth, bristlecones?” This provoked solemn nods all around and grins from the den dads.
If you go:
WHAT: Wildrose and Telescope peaks, Death Valley National Park
DISTANCE: Wildrose: 8.4 miles round trip with 2,100 feet of gain; Telescope, 14 miles r/t with 3,016 feet of gain
BEST TIMES: Spring and fall
WHERE: From the Death Valley park headquarters in Furnace Creek, go north on Highway 190 past Stovepipe Wells (gas up here!) to the left turn at the Emigrant Canyon Campgrounds, signed Telescope Peak. Go up Emigrant Canyon about 25 miles to the trailhead for Wildrose Peak, with its beehive-shaped charcoal kilns. For Telescope, go straight another 8 miles to the trailhead at Mahogany Flat campground.
MAP: Tom Harrison’s Maps Death Valley National Park or National Geographic/Trails Illustrated No. 221 (Death Valley)
• Contact Pat Devereux and firstname.lastname@example.org
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