Day 3: Telescope Peak

Let me admit this right now: Despite this page’s title, we did not actually reach the summit of Telescope Peak.  We tried, we really did, but we never got to the top.  And we can only blame ourselves.

The day started before the crack of dawn, just like we’d planned.  And it was freezing cold, too, with a layer of frost on everything.  We got dressed inside the car, and Vicki headed down the slope to the stove.  Hot coffee was in order.  But when she arrived, she was shocked to discover that a nocturnal varmint had made off with some of our stuff!  A spoon and cup were missing!  She started the water boiling, but wasn’t very happy about it.  She came back and told me as I was getting out of the car.  So I headed down to check it out.  Yep!  Must’ve been a critter, I thought.  It was just getting light, so I wandered down the hill a ways.  I knew that critters were inherently selfish and lazy.  It probably just wanted to lick the things clean, but not directly at the scene of the crime.  So I wandered along the hillside, shining my headlamp back and forth across the slope.  Aha!  I saw something odd.  It was the missing cup!  I continued further, and there was the spoon as well.  Mystery solved (except for the identity of the miscreant, who still remains at large).  Still, we didn’t really want to use those items after all that critter-licking, so we had to share the remaining cup.  No big deal.  We drank coffee and ate breakfast as we watched the sun rising in the east over Badwater.

This time, we critter-proofed everything by stowing it in the car.  Then we grabbed the day-pack and headed over to the trailhead.  We traded photo-taking with another couple (who had driven up from a lower campsite) to get the official photo.  Then we began the hike itself, heading uphill right away.  Good thing it was still cool out.  We had lots of layers on, and we knew we’d be peeling them off soon enough.

The sky was clear and the sun was bright.  There were plenty of views as we climbed higher through the trees.  We were on the east side of Rogers Peak, heading south, so we mainly had views down into Death Valley itself.  Badwater was in the distance across the way, and Hanaupah Canyon was directly below us.  As the trail traversed the slope, it headed east for a bit and we were treated to a short, north-facing section that was still dusted with a layer of snow from the storm three days ago.  Fun!

Panorama video from the lower section of the Telescope Peak Trail

Soon enough, the trail crossed over the eastern ridge of Rogers Peak and headed west, continuing uphill toward the main ridge of the Panamint Range.  Telescope Peak came into view.  We could see the dusting of snow on it’s northern slopes.  The snow contrasted well with Vicki, who was now wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  It was warm hiking uphill in the sun, even though the breeze still had a bit of chill to it.  Perfect hiking weather, in other words.  And better views the higher we climbed.

The views doubled once we reached the ridgetop.  Suddenly, we could see the Sierra Nevada, covered in snow, off to the west.  Mount Whitney was there, as well as plenty of other fourteeners, several of which I’ve climbed.  When we saw them yesterday from the road, they were partly obscured by clouds, but today the sky was perfectly clear.  We took a walk, off-trail, to see a bit further northwest, and were treated to a hazy sight of White Mountain Peak, which Vicki and I had climbed back in 2011.  That really brought back some memories.

It was also quite windy up on the ridge.  It didn’t take long before we were getting chilled, and several layers of clothing went back on.  Brrr!  In the sunshine, it was easy to forget that we were up at 9700 feet elevation at the end of November, but the strong wind provided a dose of reality.  Just the same, it was beautiful up there.

Panorama video from the windy ridge south of Rogers Peak

We continued up the trail a bit further, until we reached a spot where we could see both Mount Whitney and Badwater, the highest and lowest spots in the 48 states.  I mentioned to Vicki that getting to see them simultaneously was one of the main reasons to hike on this trail.  Telescope Peak, after all, is barely higher than 11,000 feet, not a huge peak by Sierra Standards.  It was this particular view (and it’s juxtaposition with Badwater) that made it worth climbing.

Video from the trail where we could see both the highest and lowest points in the 48 states

After taking the usual Whitney-Badwater photos, we began to get seriously chilled.  That wind was powerful and gusty.  It cut right through our clothes.  Vicki wasn’t looking all that excited about hiking much further, either.  We’d already climbed 1500 feet, and had about 1400 more to go.  That’s more than she was ready to attempt, to tell the truth.  So I checked the map.  Thus far, we’d also only hiked about one third of the total distance to the summit.  We’d left at dawn, and it was already nearing noon.  The chances of us bagging the peak and getting back to the car before sunset was essentially zero.  The trail followed the ridge, which meant that it would be windy and cold the entire way.  And even colder in the dark.  Not fun.

She didn’t want to ruin my hike, of course, but I could tell that she’d had enough.  I told her not to worry about it, that the view we’d just gotten of the high and low spots was my main goal in hiking up here.  Bagging yet another peak would have been nice, but it certainly wasn’t required.  So we decided to find a comfy spot out of the wind and eat some lunch.  Besides, if we headed back early, we could check out more of Death Valley, and find another good spot to camp.  Somewhere warm, if possible.  We were both in favor of that.

We hiked east and found a spot behind some scrubby pines that was relatively wind-free.  It had a great view out over Death Valley.  We ate our lunch and checked out the map, and made a plan for where we wanted to camp.  It was a spot directly below us, on the road into Hanaupah Canyon.  We imagined how warm it would be down there.  We also made a decision on what we would do tomorrow, the final day of the trip.  Then Vicki took a nap in the sun while I read my book, our usual division of labor.

After that, we packed up everything and headed on down the trail.  We hadn’t made it to Telescope Peak, but we certainly had a fun day of hiking, with great views.  Not a bad consolation prize.

Downhill was easy hiking, and we got to the parking lot within an hour or so.  Then we threw everything into the back of the car and started driving down the hill from Mahogany Flat.  It was a bit after 2pm, and we had nearly a hundred miles to drive, with quite a bit on slow dirt roads.  But that didn’t bother us.  We figured that we’d find a good spot to camp before sundown, and that’s what really mattered.  We drove over the same snowy road as the day before, and saw a lot of people stopped at the Charcoal Kilns.  Thanksgiving weekend was a busy time in Death Valley National Park.  In fact, it was so busy that when we stopped at Stovepipe Wells, we discovered that they had run completely out of gas!  It was a bit unnerving to see it, and we were sure glad we’d topped up the tank the day before.

Video of us driving down a snow-covered dirt road just below the Mahogany Flat Campground

We continued along Highway 190 and drove past the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, which seemed to have plenty of gas.  It was a much bigger station.  We decided to come back there the next morning for gas, as it was getting late.  Next stop:  Finding a campsite along the West Side Road.  This was a dirt road that paralleled Highway 190 southward through Death Valley itself, but on the west side.  Hence the name.

It was a well-maintained dirt road, plowed smooth and relatively flat, with just a hint of washboard.  We stopped at the beginning and read the sign describing it, and looked across the valley at various large dust clouds generated by other vehicles traveling on the road at high speed.  It had to be high speed to make that much dust!

Soon enough, we got the car up to 30 mph, and were creating our own huge clouds.  We could have gone faster, since most of it was dead straight, but I was a bit nervous.  So most of the time we went much slower.  I didn’t want some deep rut to show up out of nowhere and tear the bottom out of our rented car.  But everything turned out OK, and we had plenty of fun.

We headed down the valley until we reached Hanaupah Canyon Road.  We turned right and drove much more slowly, up the rocky dirt road that ran directly on top of the huge alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.  The fan was composed of all the rocks and sand and debris that had washed down from Telescope Peak during flash-flooding events over the millennia.  As we looked around at the brown and oxidized rocks, we realized that very few of them had moved in hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.  Except for the white, freshly-plowed road we were driving on.  We had seen this road earlier in the day, when we were eating lunch high on the ridge above the canyon.  It was plainly visible from 10 miles away.  The scars you make on this arid landscape would last for years and years.

As we drove up the road, the sun appeared to descend behind the mountains, and all the glare in the windshield was gone.  It was getting late, and we needed a place to camp, but the road was narrow and the terrain was made of river rocks.  We were sleeping in the car, it’s true, but the Park’s Rules said that you had to follow Leave No Trace Principles, meaning that you could only camp where others had obviously camped before.  This prevents further damage to the land that all of us must share.  It’s a good rule.

Suddenly, just off the road, we saw a tent-sized spot completely cleared of rocks.  This was the place, we decided.  Our original plan had been to continue uphill, all the way into the canyon itself, but we decided that this spot had its own charm.  We had come to Death Valley National Park, and here we were, in Death Valley itself!  It didn’t get much better than that.  We slowly drove the car up onto the old brown rocks next to the road and did our best not to disturb any of them.  If we were careful, no one would realize that we had been there.  That’s Leave No Trace in a nutshell.

We put on some warmer clothes and Vicki cooked up some dinner while I blew up the thinner air mattresses.  We had decided that the cheapo inflatable twin bed was too thick; we kept hitting our heads on the ceiling when sitting up.  Our backpacking mattresses would solve that problem, by giving us an extra five inches of headroom.

We ate dinner while watching the sun setting on the mountains to the east.  There weren’t any clouds to speak of, so there was no great display of color, but it was peaceful just the same.


For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page

For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page


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