Death Valley III: Hiking the Silent Desert   2 comments

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

I think Death Valley National Park – by virtue of its size alone is worth more than a couple days – offers some of the best desert hiking in the West.  The last post highlighted some great ‘starter’ options.  But if you are an avid hiker like me you’ll want to go beyond the “standards” that any ranger will steer you towards.  And this goes double if you visit during a busy time like March/April, or to a lesser extent October.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

I don’t want to give the impression that you should avoid springtime in Death Valley.  With perfect temperatures, blooming cactus, and a fresh look to the sparse but fascinating plant life of the desert, there are reasons aplenty to come here at that time.  And since this is a huge and still little-visited park, we aren’t talking Yosemite- (or even Yellowstone-) crowded here.

I prefer November through February.  But this last visit was my seventh time to the park, and each time for a solid week.  So as they say, it’s all relative.  If I were coming for the first time, I would consider a week in March/April, but one without Spring Break happening in any of the West Coast states (this is somewhat important!).

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Here are a couple strenuous and less crowded (but still well known) options:

  • Marble Canyon is accessed from a dirt road that takes off from the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells.  It is normally okay for a 2wd with decent clearance.  You’ll be able to drive further up into the mouth of the canyon if you have a good 4wd vehicle, but not really all that much further.  It is a big and bold canyon, and you can make this as long a hike as you want by turning around at the place of your choice.  The adjoining Cottonwood Canyon is also accessible.  If you’re a scrambler you could spend a week in this area.
  • Telescope Peak: The climb from Mahogany Flats to the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak at 11,050 feet (3370 meters), gives you an experience that is completely different from that on the valley floor.  You can spend a truly wintry day up here and then sleep in the dunes under the stars at 80 degrees!  The first time I climbed Telescope, we snow-camped at Mahogany, got up at 1st light for melted-snow oatmeal and Death Valley Dates, then proceeded to plow through hip-deep snow drifts to the summit.  We got back near dark, feeling very played out.  We were young bucks too!  And this was late March!  The next time I did Telescope, in April, it was a hike of 5-6 hours. Completely different.
The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

And here are a few hikes where with one exception I’ve never seen another hiker.  Not all are strenuous:

  • Mesquite Flat Walks: The dunes at Mesquite Flat touch the highway at one place, and it’s here where almost everyone walks into them.  If you want to climb the highest dune here, this is the place.  But I’ve been to Namibia and even the highest one here is but a dimple.  Better is to pick a different access point, especially if you want footprint-free pictures.  Also, you can commune with the inter-dune ecology in complete solitude.  Here are two options:
  1. Park along the Marble Canyon road just past the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells. If you look to the right you’ll see a line of low dunes.  Walk toward them.  There might be someone else doing this, since if you camp at Stovepipe it’s easy to just hike out here from your campsite.  Amazingly few people do this though.
  2. Park at the site of the historic Stovepipe Well (get directions to it from somebody at the village of Stovepipe).  From here you can walk out into the valley towards the dunes.  It will take about a half-hour minimum to get into the dunes.  You can easily do a sort of triangular loop from your car, with the far end of the triangle being empty and beautiful sand dunes.  The only tracks you’ll see are those of the critters that prowled about on the previous night.  If your sense of direction is not the best, have a GPS so you can get back to your starting point.  Or you could just wander in the dark until you find your car.
  • Lamoigne Canyon: This is a fascinating side-canyon hike on the opposite side of the valley from the highway, between Stovepipe Wells and the junction with the road to Wildrose.  If you have a 4wd you can drive a rough jeep trail most of the way across the valley to the canyon’s mouth.  If not, you’ll need to walk it.  The latter is the way I did it, and it turned into an all-day hike.

When you get to the canyon mouth, go up the left fork, which is easy to distinguish for its striking white volcanic tuff rocks. This is the only canyon in Death Valley that is cut into volcanic tuff.  At the top of this canyon, you can climb up and over to the main Lamoigne Canyon t o the north.  Then descend this to make an adventurous loop.  Or do this in reverse.

Get directions and advice from the ranger at Stovepipe, and have a good map and plenty of water.  I actually saw people on this hike, which was odd until I caught up with them and discovered they were botanists from the USGS and University of Nevada.  We talked about the different plants growing on the volcanic tuff.

  • Panamint City:  This is a small ghost town located way up a gorgeous canyon on the Panamint Valley side of the park.  From Ballarat (another ghost town) drive as far up the Surprise Canyon road as you can and park.  Work your way up the canyon bottom, switching sides as needed to avoid brush and other obstacles.  You will pass waterfalls as the canyon narrows, and some truly enormous barrel cactus.  It takes some perseverance to make it all the way to the ghost town.  This is a real ghost town, with nobody but the former residents around.  If you can talk to ghosts, ask them why in the world they named this place a “City”.  This is one great hike!
An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

Just a further point on the western Panamint side of the park. Make it a point to come over here, and not just to hike Surprise Canyon or Darwin Falls.  It’s quieter and its side canyons contain abundant water in the spring – very different from the main valley.  You’ll probably see wild burros and also you can walk out on the pancake-flat playa – a great experience.  There is also a little-visited (even by me) dune field on the north end of Panamint Valley.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

You can do a loop, driving the Wildrose road into the Panamint Range to visit Mahogany Flat (with its photogenic charcoal kilns). You can camp at Wildrose.  Then go down into Panamint Valley and drive back up to Panamint Springs (near where the Darwin Falls hike is located).

Next up is a geology primer for D.V., with some sights I haven’t covered yet.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

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2 responses to “Death Valley III: Hiking the Silent Desert

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  1. Thank you!

  2. INCREDIBLE shots!

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