By Michael Lanza
We set out at a brisk pace from the Telescope Peak Trailhead, at just over 8,100 feet in Death Valley National Park, for a good reason: It’s 29° F at just after 7 a.m. on this Saturday in the third week of May. That’s exactly 80 degrees colder than the big digital thermometer at the park’s Furnace Creek visitor center read when we arrived here four days ago. But the fifth-largest U.S. national park—and the biggest one outside Alaska—is nothing if not a place of extremes, both of temperature and physical relief. Today, besides notching the coldest temp we’ll see over four days of hiking in Death Valley, we intend to tag another of its extremes: the highest summit in Death Valley National Park, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak.
Within minutes, we’ve warmed up and emerged from the sparse forest to 50-mile views that will accompany us the rest of the way. The sun shines warmly—the virtually constant meteorological reality in one of the driest deserts on Earth—balancing out the chilly temps. We’re hardly breaking a sweat.
I’ve come to Death Valley National Park with three companions, and we’ve already spent three days backpacking up Surprise Canyon in the Panamint Range to a mining ghost town called Panamint City. This is our last day here, and it seemed fitting to spend it tagging the park’s high point, a 14-mile, nearly 3,000-foot round-trip hike.
The Telescope Peak Trail is a beautiful hike, wandering a circuitous route up into the Panamint Range, delivering views of the valleys on both sides of Telescope Peak, Death Valley to the east and Panamint Valley to the west—both more than two vertical miles below the summit of Telescope. Barren, rocky ridges cut sharp angles in their long plunge to the valley floors. In early spring, we’d see wildflowers blooming across these slopes. Higher up, we hike past gnarled, ancient bristlecone pines.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is best known for two things: the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet (86m) below sea level; and the hottest temperature every recorded in America, 134° F (56.7° C) on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek.
But there’s much more to this park. Besides being America’s fifth largest at well over 3.3 million acres (1.5 times the size of Yellowstone), it contains America’s largest federally designated wilderness in the Lower 48, at over three million acres. Only five wilderness areas in Alaska are bigger.
Few places in the country have the relief of the Panamint Range: Over 11,000 vertical feet separate the crown of Telescope Peak and Badwater Basin. That’s as much relief as there is between the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, and the tiny Eastern Sierra towns lying at its foot, and between the summit of Mount Everest and its primary base camp.
As we reach 10,000 feet on the Telescope Peak Trail, the air thins enough to slow our pace and force us to deliberately breathe more deeply. The final mile to the summit grinds through numerous, long switchbacks. But after the last of them, we follow the summit ridge as if walking the crest of a steep-sided roof, with views in all directions, up to the broad patch of rock and dirt at the roof of Death Valley.
We reach the summit in under three hours, at just after 10 a.m., and spend almost an hour up there, in warm sunshine, drinking up some big panoramas.
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Standing here, the enormity of Death Valley becomes more visual. To the west, 85 miles from the lowest point in North America, we can see the highest peak in the contiguous United States, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney (which I stood on top of with my son a month ago). The flat pan of salt-bottomed and sandy desert thousands of feet below us strikes a sharp contrast with the dark rock of the mountains across the valley, the snow-capped High Sierra off to the west, and an electrically blue sky.
Telescope Peak may not be on the radar of many hikers—or Death Valley National Park, for that matter. But put it on yours. A well-constructed trail, scenic almost every step of the way, with a grand finish along the crest of the summit ridge—as a hike or trail run, it’s a lesser-known gem of the National Park System.
See all of my stories about Death Valley National Park, including “A Mind-Boggling Chunk of Lonely: Backpacking in Death Valley National Park,” and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks at The Big Outside.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR reasonably fit hikers. Challenges include reaching an elevation over 11,000 feet, where some people may feel the effects of altitude (probably shortness of breath, possibly a headache), and hot alpine sun. The trail is quite obvious and easy to follow.
Make It Happen
Season The prime seasons for hiking Telescope Peak are April to May and September often into November. Even at high elevations in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park, summers can be unbearably hot. Winter hiking is possible, but sometimes requires gear for hiking on snow and ice. The trail usually becomes snow-free by sometime in May.
The Itinerary From Mahogany Flat campground at 8,133 feet, follow the Telescope Peak Trail seven miles (one-way) to the summit. It ascends at a very moderate (runnable) angle much of the way, getting steeper in the last mile to the summit.
Getting There Drive CA 190 to Emigrant, 9.3 miles west of Stovepipe Wells Village in Death Valley National Park. Turn south onto Emigrant Canyon Road and follow signs about 22 miles to the Telescope Peak Trailhead at Mahogany Flats campground. Depending on road conditions, low-clearance vehicles (most cars) may have to park at Charcoal Kilns, adding 1.5 miles of road walking each way to the hike.
Map Trails Illustrated Death Valley National Park no. 221, $11.95, natgeomaps.com.
Guidebook/Website Hiking Western Death Valley National Park, by Michel Digonnet, $19.95, available for purchase at the park’s Furnace Creek visitor center. I also recommend the excellent website panamintcity.com, which describes and has photos of dozens of hikes and backpacking trips in Death Valley National Park.
• There are no water sources on the Telescope Peak Trail. Bring all the water you’ll need for the entire hike.
• Temperatures get dangerously hot from late spring until fall, although that varies greatly with elevation.
Contact Death Valley National Park, (760) 786-3200, nps.gov/deva.