Account of Events
Charcoal Kilns near the Wildrose Peak trailhead
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Marble at Mosaic Canyon
Sometime I just have to get away from the City of Angels. As much as I love the city and its many hidden and well-known secrets it can be overwhelming at times. After days and weeks wasting my time while sitting in the car on the almost always packed inner-city freeways trying to get from one place to another, the urge of getting away grows slowly but steadily. So I guess it was time again in mid November when I decided to spend a weekend away in Death Valley. I have been there before twice, every time stunned by the beauty and uniqueness of its landscapes. The last time, some years ago, I visited the main attractions of the park, such as Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Badwater, and others. This time I wanted to hike more. I usually get very excited the days before a trip. I visit the local outdoor shops buying maps and browsing through their guides and travel books. There were many points of interest, too many actually given the short weekend trip, but I always like to have different options. I was very tempted in climbing Telescope Peak (11,049’), a mountain I always wanted to hike up. However, there were many uncertainties with that plan. According to a park ranger, whom I called, the summit ridge was covered in snow and winter equipment such as crampons and ice-axe was highly recommended. The other potential problem was the approach to the trailhead. In winter the rough dirt road leading to the Telescope Peak trailhead at Mahogany Flats may be inaccessible for cars, almost certainly for two-wheel drive, low clearance vehicles such as mine. One could park the car at the end of the paved road adding more than 5 miles and 2,000+ feet of elevation on the dirt road to the trailhead. Given the distance to get there from my planned campsite at the Furnace Creek campground and the relatively short days in November, I decided not to attempt Telescope Peak this time. Instead I set my eyes of hiking Wildrose Peak (9,064’), a few miles north of Telescope in the Panamint Range, which should pose no problems in terms of winter equipment and length of approach. For Sunday, I was planning to explore one of the many marvelous canyons before I had to drive back to Los Angeles. Another peak that could serve as a backup plan in case Wildrose Peak falls through was Corkscrew Peak (5,804’) off Highway 374 to Beatty. That peak would be much closer to my campground.
With that in mind and the car full of camping and hiking stuff I left Los Angeles on Friday early afternoon hoping to avoid the typical weekend rush hour before I reach the desert beyond Cajun Pass. Once on the 210 Freeway going east I realized that a few thousand others probably had the same idea. It was not bad for LA standards but still it took me longer than expected to reach the Mojave Desert. I absolutely love driving on the 15 Freeway through the Mojave: incredibly beautiful desert landscape with volcanic cinder cones and sparse but amazing Joshua trees and other desert flora. Once passed Victorville the traffic was better and I reached the Highway 127 turn-off to Death Valley at Baker around sunset. The drive to Shoshone and further to Death Valley Junction (turn-off to Highway 190) was fast and I reached Furnace Creek campground in complete darkness at around 7pm. I was pleasantly surprised by the walk-in, tent-only campsites; very nice spots with fire pits and a table. The campground was pretty full with many families and young couples obviously enjoying the still warm desert days and nights. I was happy to have chosen Furnace Creek as my campground as it lies actually below sea level which meant warmer temperatures especially at night compared to the other possible campsites higher up the mountains and closer to the trailhead, e.g. Wildrose campground. The forecasted low temperature at night at Furnace Creek was in the low 50s while they were below freezing at Wildrose. I was happy with my choice. After setting up the tent I crawled in my sleeping bag pretty early and fell asleep very soon despite the loud snoring of my next-tent neighbor looking very much forward to what the following day had to offer.
I started at around 8am after buying the National Park Pass and getting registered at the campground. The drive to the Wildrose Peak trailhead was amazingly beautiful and full of contrast. I drove on Highway 190, the main east-west connection through Death Valley, to Stovepipe Wells and further to the Emigrant Campground (about 35 miles from Furnace Creek). From there I took the scenic Emigrant Canyon Road to Wildrose Junction (about 20 miles) and continued on Mahogany Flat Road to the end of the paved road (about 5 miles). It took me about 90 minutes to drive there from Furnace Creek. I parked the car at the end of the paved road (about 2 miles below the trailhead at the Charcoal Kilns). The dirt path did not look too bad and would have been possibly passable for my car but I did not want to risk anything. Besides, 2 miles to the Kilns did not seem too much. So I started around 10am on the dirt road to the Charcoal Kilns, where from 1877 to 1878 charcoal produced by the kilns was to be used as fuel for two silver-lead smelters in the Argus Range 25 miles to the west. The trail up Wildrose Peak starts from the most northern (left) kiln at a sign. At first, the path parallels the dirt road and offers beautiful views over the upper end of Wildrose Canyon. After less than half a mile the very well maintained trail turns to the east and heads first gently and then moderately steep directly up a drainage through pinon pines and juniper trees to a forested ridge overlooking Death Valley several thousand feet below. The view down to Badwater and across the valley to the Amargosa Range was simply stunning. From there the trail led through the forest mainly on the ridge to a saddle south of Wildrose Peak. The last part up to the summit area was steep with numerous switchbacks. Once on the bare summit area a small ridge connects to the true summit. Ice-cold strong winds were blowing on top so I had to seek shelter just below the highpoint behind some small bushes. I only spent maybe 15 minutes on the top, enough for a quick snack, and started to head back the way I came. There were only patches of snow in the forest near the saddle south of the summit. Looking south, considerably more snow covered the north slopes of Rogers Peak, but the trail up Telescope Peak seemed to have been doable without winter equipment. On the way down I thought about how beautiful the sunset must look from the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Getting excited by that idea I speeded down the mountain and reached the car about 2 hours later. On the entire trip up Wildrose Peak and back I met 5 other people. Overall, it was a very nice and rewarding hike with amazing views.
I drove back the same way and reached Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes shortly before sunset. These dunes surrounded by mountains on all sides and which sand source most likely is the Cottonwood Mountains to the north/northwest are a strange but fascinating sight. Apparently, due to the easy access these sand dunes have been used in many movies, including Star Wars. Many people were already wandering in the dunes. I parked the car on the road and headed through creosote bush and some mesquite to one of the bigger dunes. I could not make it all the way to Star Dune, the highest dune, before sunset. After what I have already done that day, I was glad when I reached my goal and sat down in the sand. The display of colors ranging from warm reddish to a bluish-purple as the Amargosa Range was bathed by the last rays from the sun setting behind the Panamint Range. I was sitting there for more than 30 minutes relaxed and in awe. Eventually, I had to head back to the campground and after a nice quick dinner and beer at the campfire I was ready to get a nice sleep.
Waking up at around 6:30 am and welcoming the early morning sun at chilly temperatures I was looking forward to hiking in one of Death Valley’s many beautiful canyons. I decided on the popular Mosaic Canyon near Stovepipe Wells at the foothills of Tucki Mountain, because it was close to Furnace Creek and it was supposedly an absolutely marvelous canyon. I quickly packed my staff and left Furnace Creek. From Highway 190 just west of Stovepipe Wells, a graded dirt road climbs up an alluvial fan towards the canyon entrance. That road did not seem too rough so I decided to drive the 2.5 miles to save some time. There were about 4 other cars at the parking lot at the end of the dirt road. After a short walk towards the canyon entrance on a dry wash and around a bend I was immediately fascinated by the narrow, marble and breccia covered steep canyon walls. I learnt that eons ago, during the Paleozoic Era, that area was covered by a vast sea and layers of sediment embedded with fossils of marine life were deposited. Over time the sediments compressed into limestone and related dolomite, which were subsequently transformed by heat and pressure into the metamorphic rock, marble, that we see today. The path was easy with some scrambling at spots. There were warning posts advising against entering the canyon after rainstorms. Given the polished marble rocks and vertical, often over-hanging canyon walls it is easy to understand. After about half a mile the narrow canyon opens up to a wide amphitheater-like arena. I have to admit that this sight was amongst the most spectacular scenery I have seen in a long time. A small group were taking notes and studying the rocks in this area, presumably a geology class field trip. I decided to hike the canyon further up constantly marveling at the surrounding beauty. After less than a mile I reached the spot where the path was partially blocked by large boulders, which can be easily bypassed on the left side squeezing and climbing through the rocks. The canyon now narrowed again dramatically with overhanging walls on both side. No other people were in this part of the canyon. I hiked further about half a mile until I reached an about 20 feet high dryfall. The rock there seemed quite good so I decided to leave my backpack at the bottom and climb up the wall. It was not that difficult and I reached the top and was welcomed by another wide canyon. Since I left my backpack with all the keys and valuables behind I decided not to go on and climbed down, which was much more difficult than the way up. After reaching the amphitheater I climbed up the steep slope immediately to the right of the entrance to the narrow canyon part. At the ridge I was greeted with stunning views north over the vast Death Valley. I could see the parking lot deep down with now many more cars. I had a little snack and enjoyed the absolutely breathtaking scenery from my little viewpoint.
At around noon I was back at the car. I decided to take the Highway 190 west over the Panamint Range towards Lone Pine and head back to Los Angeles on Highway 395. The drive towards Lone Pine was spectacular with amazing scenery near Towne Pass (4,956’) and Panamint Valley. Since it was still early I stopped for lunch at Panamint Springs and enjoyed a fabulous meal. I continued past Father Crowley Point at Rainbow Canyon and stayed on Highway 190 south of dry Owens Lake to reach Highway 395. The traffic on Highway 395 towards Ridgecrest and further towards San Bernardino was surprisingly good. However, shortly before merging onto Interstate 15 coming from Las Vegas the typical weekend traffic around Los Angeles hit me hard. It took a long time to eventually get back at the Westside. I arrived back home at around 6pm. Although a lot of driving it was nevertheless an absolutely fabulous weekend with fantastic landscapes. I promised myself to be back very soon.