Viewed from a much higher point, Lake Hill somewhat resembles a ship afloat on a sea, not unlike the Grandstand, located at the famous playa known as the Racetrack, though Lake Hill is much larger and higher. Lake Hill sits along the eastern edge of a silty playa that at times will indeed be covered with water (just a few inches at the most); to the west are rocky desert slopes rising gradually to meet the Panamint Range, especially notable from the summit is Panamint Butte.
It is not a major summit, and views from it are not too much different than those from the access road, but it is a summit nonetheless, and there is striking scenery during the approach and climb depending on the exact route one takes. Another nice thing is that there are four distinct peaks, two of them separated from Lake Hill proper, so one can turn a quick little outing into something more if desired. Even though the peak is easy to access and easy to climb, it does not appear that a lot of people bother climbing it.
The person who placed the summit register, which contained entries by at least two SP members (now at least three), wrote that the original name of Lake Hill was "The Chocolate Drops." I have been unable to find anything explaining or even confirming this, but it makes some sense given that the complex contains a great deal of dark volcanic rock that stands out in strong contrast with the surrounding desert.
On the Trails Illustrated map, the summit elevation is marked as 2687'. However, other maps I have seen, including the USGS "The Dunes, CA" quad, mark it as 2030'. The summit benchmark does not give an elevation, and I did not bother to bring my GPS device on such a short outing with such an obvious route.
You don't "climb" Lake Hill for bragging rights; at its toughest, the herculean labor that is the climb to the summit is around 1.5 mi, with about 500' of elevation gain.
You don't climb it for the solitude, either; although Lake Hill is in a vast national park, in the desert, and in one of the lesser-used parts of the park, and although the summit register suggests the peak is not frequently climbed, you will probably have plenty of company.
From military jets.
Lake Hill is in Panamint Valley, and Panamint Valley was not part of the original Death Valley National Monument. The valley is long and almost entirely flat, perfect for training runs. My guess is that there was some kind of deal allowing the military to continue its training runs there when Panamint Valley was included as part of Death Valley National Park, created during the Clinton years.
So in all likelihood, you will see and hear fighter planes tearing by while you are out here. One sighting in particular when I was here stands out: atop a ridge, I noticed what looked like a remote-controlled model plane some distance beneath me; when the boom came a few seconds later, I understood that a supersonic jet had just passed me while getting so close to the valley floor that it looked like a toy for all intents and purposes.
Getting There and Climbing Information
Finding the Peak
About 4.4 miles east of Panamint Springs, turn north onto an unpaved road. Although this road is rocky in places and has dips that force you to slow down lest you tear out the bottom of your vehicle, it is easily passable for almost any car when dry. Lake Hill is visible the entire way, and the south end is about three miles up the road. Without blocking the road, just park where you have decided to begin your approach.
The shortest way to climb Lake Hill is to park directly east of the summit and then head out and up. There are cliffs that could cause some trouble, but it is definitely possible to find a way up that is no harder than Class 3.
The easiest way to climb it is probably to park as near the south end as possible and then hike up the south ridge.
Possibly the nicest way, however, is to approach from the north. The highpoint is near the south end of the complex, so this is a longer way, but it passes through some very colorful terrain and offers views of even more. The way is obvious, so I'm not going to go into any more detail than I already have. For reference, please see the map at the bottom of this page.
Do yourself a favor and do not climb this peak in the summer unless you are going around sunrise or sunset, and maybe not even then. Daytime highs at Badwater Basin (-282') frequently top 120 F in the summer, meaning that temperatures on and around Lake Hill will frequently top 110 F. This kind of heat is not only uncomfortable but also potentially deadly, even on short hikes. Actually, short hikes may be more dangerous since there might be a tendency to carry less water than one really will need.
Red TapeThere are no entrance stations in Death Valley National Park, but you are supposed to stop at the visitor center or a self-pay kiosk to remit the entrance fee ($20 in 2011, good for a week of access).
Off-road driving is prohibited. Please respect this regulation. Sadly, some don't.
Camping and LodgingThe nearest developed campground is at Panamint Springs. Right across the road from it is Panamint Springs Resort, with gas, lodging, and a restaurant. The food is pricey, but it is a cool place to make a stop, especially on a hot day when the stomach is empty and the throat is dry.
It is obvious that people camp right off the road heading north into Panamint Valley. While I believe this is legal, I am not positive that it is.
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