Telescope Peak (11,049 ft / 3,368m) is the highest peak in Death Valley, with a well-established route to the summit from Mahogany Flat campground.
Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is half the fun… I’ve stayed the previous evening at Panamint Springs after flying in from Australia. It’s about a three hour trip by car from Las Vegas (McCarran) airport and I’ve arrived in the late afternoon, so the drive was all in darkness. My first view of the Death Valley area was the 50min drive from Panamint Springs (the closest accommodation, unless you are camping) to Mahogany Flat, via Panamint Valley Road and Trona Wildrose Road.
There’s almost no other traffic at 8am, and the scenery is pretty spectacular in the morning light. It’s also pretty desoldate. While I’m glad I’ve brought a jumper as it’s around 47 degrees F (8C) according to the car, you can imagine how hot the vast plains get in summer.
Most of the roads are in good condition, although they get increasingly more pot-holed and narrow as I near Wildrose Campground. From Wildrose Campground to Charcoal Kilns the sealed road is great quality for the first five miles or so, before it quickly deteriorates to gravel and features large potholes and washed out sections. I’m glad I selected an AWD car with a bit of clearance – I would have struggled in the Dodge Challenger I orginally booked! (The road up Charcoal Kilns is generally suitable for any vehicle, but I’d seen warnings that storms had damaged the road.)
Charcoal Kilns is a tourist attraction – ‘though it’s a long way to drive if you’re just coming to see these. Built in 1877 and used to create charcoal for local mining operations, the odd-looking domes are well-preserved. They are considered to be the best known surviving example of such kilns to be found in the western states. The reason for their preservation may be that they were only used for about two years.
There’s a warning sign at Charcoal Kilns that the last section of road to Mahogany Flat is suitable for high clearance vehicles only. It looks OK so I continue by car, rather than walking the 1.6 miles. There’s a few rough bits, but I make it past Thorndike Campground and almost to the end of the road. A particularly badly rutted section spooks me a bit (despite my general philosophy that rental cars can go anywhere!) and I walk the last 0.5 miles on foot. The roads ends at Mahogany Flat Campground at 8,133 feet (2,479m) above sea level, where the start of the Telescope Peak walk is clearly marked.
The trail starts climbing immediately but very gently (the trail has an average 8% grade), and there’s soon views down into the North Fork Hanaupah Canyon and the salt flats far below. Although there’s not a lot of shade, there are a variety of trees, including the single-leaf pinyon and limber pine along the track.
After about 1.5 miles, there’s the first view of Telescope Peak in the distance, and the long ridge that leads up to it.
After 2.6 miles i reach the broad plateau of Arcane Meadows (9,620 feet / 2932m); above to the north-west is the communications facility on Rogers Peak. This is the only non-wilderness high point in the park, and has been used as communications and instrumentation site by various government agencies since the late 1950s. For the first time there’s a view to the west – and it looks like a lot of smoke from wild fires in California will impact the views from the top 🙁
The next few miles is pretty much flat – in fact, my GPS shows a slight descent, as the trail follows the western side of the long ridge, crossing a few sections of talus rock. Directly ahead is Telescope Peak.
It’s easy walking along the well-defined track as it follows the broad ridge, with views mostly to the west, and occassional views (below right) to the east and down what I think is Middle Fork Hanaupah Canyon.
Towards the of this section, as the trail starts to gain some altitude, there are some impressive examples of the bristlecone pine. These huge, gnarled trees on the higher slopes are up to 3,000 years old. Even after death, these pines often stand on their roots, for many centuries due to the wood’s extreme durability.
There’s a final steep section – although, with many switch-backs, it’s never particularly steep. There’s three “mounds” that are ascended, before the final one that leads to the 11,049 ft (3,368m) summit.
The views are amazing, my guide book says. You can see as Mount Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states), it says… But not today. The haze and smoke from the distant fires have significantly reduced visibility. Looking to the south and south-west is Sentinel Peak directly ahead, part of the Panamint mountains that stretch to the south. Below is the Panamint Valley, and barely visible on the far side of the valley is the Argus Mountains.
Looking back to the north, Death Valley is below and barely visible on the other side of Death Valley is the Margosa Range. Despite the poor visibility, it’s an impressive view down 11,300 feet (3,400m) to the Badwater in Death Valley far below – only three other mountains in the US exceed this elevation difference!
It’s not too windy at the top, but after taking a few photos I head back down the mountain – I’m not exactly disappointed with the walk, but it would have been amazing on a clear day!
With the hard bit over, I’ve got more energy to admire the flora that survives in a pretty brutal environment. Another massive bristlecone pine stands at the edge of the trail, looking like leaves might sprout in the next rain – but it may also have been dead for over a 100 years.
Where there are no trees, an abundance of low-lying grasses and ground plants survive in the rocky landscape.
The most impressive views are on the last part of the descent, looking down into Death Valley and across to the Margosa Range. Ironically, due to the haze, as I descend the views get better!
I make it back to the car around 3:30pm – it’s taken me just under 7 hours to cover the 13.7 miles (22.1km) return trip. A bit less than the signage, as I started below the trail. And a bit slower than I expected, but after a long flight the previous day I didn’t feel in top form! With daylight endng pretty early in November, I enjoy my first (and only) Death Valley sunset on the way back to my accommodation at Beatty.
I’m glad I did this walk – but I’ll have to come back! Maybe next time I’ll do the nearby Wildrose Peak, on a hopefully clear day!
|Location||Start from Mahogany Flat Campground if possible, or park at Charcoal Kilns. Road from Charcoal Kiln may be closed in winter or impassable in 2WD/low clearance vehicles. There are some places yo can park along the access road or at Thorndike Campground about half-way up the 4WD road.|
|Distance||13.7 miles (22.1km) return – including part of the 4WD road.
Signage states 7 miles one-way, from trailhead, but is slightly less.
|Grade||Moderate. Total elevation gain of 3,690 feet / 1,125m|
|Season/s||All year, but may have snow on trail Dec-Feb|
|Maps||National Geographic “Death Valley” 1:165,000|
|GPS Route||Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.|