Introduction: Why Bother with Palmer?Palmer is a Desert Peaks Section (DPS) summit on the north rim of Death Valley, near the California-Nevada border. However, the mountain has a different season of availability than most Death Valley peaks. The hike starts high, somewhere between 6700 and 7500’. The camping areas on the northeast side of the range are shaded by conifers and may be quite pleasant (even cold) in late spring or late summer.
The ridge to Palmer is rather open, with little brush to fight; as one heads south, the conifers gradually disappear, till the summit stands out as a typical bare Death Valley peak. It’s like a foray into a different land, with the change in vegetation due to change in moisture, not a change in elevation. The summit looks out-of-place; gentle ridges give way to rugged cliffs very quickly.
Palmer shares a trailhead with two other noteworthy peaks, Grapevine (another DPS summit), and Wahguyhe, so it is easy to do several peaks in the same outing. In fact, I climbed Grapevine on the same day that I climbed Palmer. I climbed Wahguyhe the next morn, and thought it was the nicest peak of the three (though it is not a DPS summit).
This is not an easy hike. This route is about 11 miles round-trip, with close to 4500’ accumulated elevation gain for Palmer alone, assuming one starts from the last “good” road. That accumulated gain may seem surprising, given that the peak has just 750' of official prominence; but there are many intermediate lumps on the ways to and from the summit. It’s mainly a simple ridge walk, yet there are a few places where you must pay attention. (Note that if you choose to climb Grapevine the same day, the total accumulated gain will be ~6500', with 16 miles round-trip.)
Getting ThereThe nearest significant metropolitan area is Las Vegas. From Las Vegas, drive ~110 miles northwest on route 95, to the town of Beatty, NV. In the town of Beatty, at a legal stop (sometimes a flashing red light, sometimes just a stop sign!), route 95 suddenly turns right (NV road 374 comes in from the left). From this intersection, continue on route 95 (towards Tonopah) for 12 miles (YMMV!), and turn left (west) on a gravel road (waypoint w1). In 2011, the gravel road had a wire gate, with the instruction to close the gate behind you. Zero your odometer at the gate, and travel roughly WSW on the gravel road. At 12.3 miles (waypoint w2), bear right on the slightly less distinct fork. If you have a modest-clearance vehicle, you can drive to ~21 miles, which is the 6850’ level in Phinney Canyon. The map below shows a large-scale overview of the drive and hike; the waypoints are listed at the end of the next section.
As of April 2011, the gravel road was in very good shape for the first 8 miles. After that, the center hump of the road was occasionally raised, so I carefully drove with two wheels on the very extreme edge of the road, else the birm would scrape the bottom of my 2003 Subaru Outback (7.3” clearance). At ~6400’ to 6600’, there were several pull-offs suitable for primitive camping. At ~6850’, nearly across from an abandoned mine, there was one small pull-off in the conifers, on the left (east) side of the road, suitable for one car and two tents (waypoint w3). After 6850’, the road becomes much worse, very quickly; the road improves in 0.2 miles, but there are no opportunities to turn around in the rough stretch. A burly 4x4 could continue all the way to the pass at ~7500’ (waypoint w4); but if you have any doubts, park at 6850’.
In Desert Summits, Zdon specifies a 4x4 vehicle for the Phinney Canyon Road. However, with careful driving, a HC 2WD truck or more modest car (like a RAV4, CRV, or my late-model Subaru) should be good to 6850'.
Caution: This dirt road tends to get very muddy after a hard rain, especially in winter or early spring.
Alternatively, if coming from California, you can drive to route 95 across Death Valley, by at least two routes. 1) Take the Scotty's Castle Road to route 95, then head 24 miles SE on route 95 (toward Beatty or Las Vegas) and turn right onto the Phinney Canyon Road; then follow the instructions above for Phinney Canyon. 2) Or drive to Beatty via Beatty Junction, Daylight Pass and NV 374, then follow the instructions above for the Vegas approach.
The HikeThe image below shows the hike and waypoints (w3-w10) referred to in text. The numerical list of waypoints is at the end of this section.
From waypoint w3, walk west up the road, eventually through a switchback to the pass at 7500’ (waypoint w4). Leave the road and head S across the pass, then SSW up this ridge in the photo (below at left) to waypoint w5. You can now just follow the ridge to w6, or skirt the west side, as shown in the GPS trace on the map; but be careful not to drop too quickly into the bowl that is SW of point 7980T. After traveling 1200' WSW from w6, you will cross the Nevada-California state line, near the bottom of a saddle. It is possible (though not probable) that you will suddenly have visions of Katy Perry, bunnies, rainbows, and flowers as you cross the state line.
At waypoint w7, you must again pay a little attention. Examine the view below.
The plan is to skirt the east side of the next peak, well below point 7710, but above (W of) the rough, rocky wash. There are one or two vague use trails in this stretch; they mainly serve to minimize the loose talus and small washes that one must cross. Soon you will end up near waypoint w8.
At w9, you can either climb directly to the ~7700’ peaklet, or you can skirt the left (E) side. It’s six of one, a half dozen of the other; a vague use trail follows the east side, but involves some sidehilling on loose rock, while the direct route over the peaklet is more secure, but involves dodging bushes and rocky outcrops.
Between w9 and w10, the ridge gets much rougher, with a far more obvious use trail that winds around rocky outcrops, often losing and regaining 10 to 20’ of elevation in a short distance.
At w10, you must again make a choice. The picture at left (below) shows three route choices for navigating the 100’-high cliffs on the NW side of the summit; the picture at right is taken from the top of the “nasty rib.”
The very first thing you should realize is that the summit is NOT right in back of the visible cliff; it is about 500’ farther SE, and this knowledge should temper your desire to climb the cliffs as quickly as possible.
The DPS quide, and Zdon’s “Desert Summits,” describe the class 3 chute shown in the picture, and also the class 2 bypass. Supposedly, the bypass route is ducked; I saw just one duck at the very top, so don’t depend on finding any. I took the bypass just part-way, but from what I saw, it should be the easiest route, with just a bit of navigation to cross a steep gully. I did take the class 3 chute; it’s pretty easy going up, but requires some attention on the way down, as the frictional rock and loose talus are invitations to a face plant. I also took the “nasty rib” (see figure above) up, and DO NOT recommend this route; it looks tempting, but is very steep (at least class 4) and the holds are not trustworthy. The rib also holds a significant danger of slipping on barbeque sauce.
(NOTE: If you download the GPS track on this page, realize that it does NOT contain the class 2 bypass, but only the class 3 chute and the nasty rib!)
From the top of the cliff, it’s just a class 2 walk, with some obstacle avoidance, to the true summit. As of April 2011, there was no logbook in the summit ammo box. The views from the summit are intriguing, as there is a sharp contrast between cliffs to the south, and the gentler terrain one has just traversed.
Now for the way back! Study this picture below, which shows the waypoints on the view N from the summit. This is confusing territory; the ridges are subtle, and there are unseen deep valleys between many ridges, so be wary of any “shortcuts” you might plan. Head back the way you came, paying particular attention between waypoints w8 and w7.
Waypoints (decimal degrees relative to WGS84)
w1 37.04924, -116.77168 (Turn W from route 95 through wire gate)
w2 36.98880, -116.97551 (Keep right at fork)
w3 36.95193122, -117.11100922 (Pull-off 6850')
w4 36.95374879, -117.12236969 (Saddle)
w5 36.95044620, -117.12420781 (1st ridge)
w6 36.94331961, -117.12389249 (view of Palmer, descend ridge WSW)
w7 36.93659789, -117.13869252 (before sidehill past point 7710)
w8 36.92986373, -117.14134828 (Low point)
w9 36.91743102, -117.14545982 (Sidehill on E)
w10 36.90897102, -117.13541353 (Below summit block)
What to BringPlenty of water! The route is absolutely dry, but it is easy to cache water en route for the return trip.
I rarely use trekking poles, but I found them useful for this trip. There is a fair amount of side-hilling on loose terrain, and should you turn an ankle, you will appreciate the support, as you will be miles and miles from help.
If you have a modest clearance car, consider bringing a fire extinguisher for the road trip. The sage on the center hump of the road tends to get stuck around a car’s exhaust system, and may be on the verge of bursting into flames by the time you stop.
CampingAs mentioned in text, above, there are several small camping spots between 6400’ and the end of the relatively good road at 6850’. There are good camp spots at the saddle at 7500’, but a burly 4x4 is needed to reach that point.
This area is within Death Valley National Park. Campfires are prohibited at backcountry sites that lack an official fireplace. The rules for obtaining a backcountry camping permit are vague; as of May 2011 the park service states:
Free voluntary permits for backcountry camping may be obtained at the visitor center or any ranger station. Solo hikers may want to provide additional information about plans and emergency contacts.
It is unclear if a permit is really needed for this extremely remote area, and if there will be a penalty for not having one. There is no ranger station anywhere near Palmer, at least in terms of driving time. There does not seem to be a way to issue these permits over the internet. I called a Death Valley ranger station to ask about voluntary backcountry permits, and the person answering the phone had no idea what I was talking about.
Best Times to Go / WeatherThe best times are spring and fall. Obviously, this hike could be miserable in the dead of summer. This area can be quite cold and snowy in winter. Check the weather forecast below and look for windows of opportunity.
The NWS map is here.
Junk Food Oasis
No drive through Beatty, NV, would be complete without a stop at:
Eddie World and the Death Valley Nut and Candy Company. This somewhat tacky oasis offers many traveler delights, including reasonable gasoline prices, clean restrooms, good ice cream, a Subway shop, and an outrageous collection of bulk junk food. Eddie World is located on the left (W) side of the road a short distance N of the intersection of routes 95 and 374.
Easter Eggs and Barbeque Sauce
This mountain page continues my tradition of offering information on the most obscure peaks, which I expect few will ever visit. I try to offer a few "warm fuzzies" to these out-of-the-way places. I'm also curious if people read this stuff in detail before they vote, so there are a few modest Easter eggs. I've intentionally left out the the most dramatic views. You need some reason to go there, right?
As Seen from Other Mountains
Some good trip descriptions:
According to the DPS guide, the mountain was named in honor of the biologist, Dr. Theodore S. Palmer. However, I would prefer to think that it was named after Don Palmer of Minden, Nevada.