On the Eastern border of California, and near the Western border of Nevada, is an area that is full of mystery, wilderness, and desert solitude. This area is Death Valley National Park. The name alone “Death Valley” transcends time and space, and for hundreds of years has been a beacon to prospectors, explorers, adventurers, and today, casual visitors. While Death Valley is, as its name suggests – a fundamentally hostile environment, with temperatures regularly soaring over 100 degrees from April through October, it is more than a flat wasteland. In reality, Death Valley is one of the most geologically diverse environments on the planet, where the remains of glacial Lake Manly are laid bare, and the effects of active volcanism and erosion are easily visible. Within the confines of Death Valley, one can find tall, uplifted mountains, year-round waterfalls, volcanic craters, sand dunes, eroded canyons, and the lowest spot in North America.
The Route/Conditions: As I mentioned above, I chose Rogers Peak for my snow survey of Telescope because it was an “easy” way to get the information. While access to Rogers Peak is through a fire road, it is worth noting that in winter, nothing is “easy” as it seems. Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Rogers Peak is a 9,994 foot mountain, and like most things in life, “easy” is a subjective term that can mean many things to many people. Finally, for people that are not familiar with the area, Rogers Peak is one of three mountains in the Panamint Range of Death Valley that are generally climbed together – a sort of “three peaks in one day” challenge. The other two are, respectively Telescope Peak (the highest point in Death Valley at 11,043 feet), and Bennett Peak (9,980 feet). While Rogers can be climbed as part of the three Panamint Peak trifecta from the main Telescope Peak trail, it can also be climbed separately as a stand-alone mountain via the fire access road.
Start in darkness. End in darkness. This is what I was thinking at 11:49 p.m. on March 14, 2015. At that point, David Wherry and I had been mountaineering for almost twenty-four hours straight. Minutes before, we had exchanged a few words about how it would be nice to be back at the car before the next day began at 12:01 a.m.; but despite this conversation, we are still shambling along at a crawl into the Badwater Basin our normally powerful gaits reduced to pitiful zombie-esqe shuffling. My legs hurt. My back hurt; and as of 11:32 p.m., my feet had finally started hurting. I felt more dead than alive. At that moment, a mere quarter mile from the car, I was thinking of nothing but two things: “Start in darkness; end in darkness” and its “not mountaineering until someone draws blood”. What we had been doing was mountaineering; there was no doubt in my mind about that. As we finally reached the car, there was one thing I understood fully though: the Shorty’s Well Route was indeed the “impossible hike” and the hardest mountaineering route in North America.
While most of the mines in the park have been sealed by the National Park Service for the public’s protection, some of the mines in the more remote areas of the park can be found and explored by intrepid visitors. Such exploration is not for the faint-hearted: as the above sign states, abandoned mines carry a plethora of hazards. If those physical dangers aren’t enough of a deterrent, the Panamint Range of the park is rumored to harbor a series of large underground caverns containing strange creatures and even stranger relics. If you are interested in exploring a Death Valley mines safely, or just seeing an open Death Valley mine, despite the above listed hazards, the easiest mine to see in the backcountry is Shorty’s Mine.
When most people think of Death Valley National Park, they don't think of stunning sunrises and sunsets. The truth of the matter is that they should. From Zabriskie Point, to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and into the mountains like Dante's BM and the summit of Telescope Peak, the park has a number of amazing spots to watch the planet spin. In my opinion, the best - and easiest location to catch the sunrise is Father Crowley Vista. While it does not have the cache of Zabriskie Point, Father Crowley Vista has a great panoramic views of the Panamint Valley below, Rainbow Canyon, and the Panamint Range in the far distance. Moreover, its location - directly off of Highway 190 on the park's far West border ensures that it will not have the crowds that the more popular spots listed above will. The location is named for the Padre of the desert, Father Crowley, and is a great spot to stop at even if you miss the sunrise. Do note that unlike other park locations, this is a spot that is just a vista, and not much for hiking, unless you want to walk from the parking area down the unpaved dirt road of the actual viewpoint; but it is a great spot to start (or finish) your Death Valley adventure.
When is a mountain not a mountain? When the mountaineering community says so, of course! Dantes Peak or “Dante’s BM” as it is known in the climbing community will never confuse anyone with Mt. Everest. For starters, at over 29,000 feet, Mt. Everest is the prime diamond jewel in the climber’s crown. At 5,704 feet, Dantes Peak is more like a climber’s emerald toe ring. There’s also the unfortunate fact that Dantes Peak is over four times smaller than Everest, and over two times smaller than Mt. Whitney. Heck, even its neighbor – Telescope Peak – is almost twice as big as it at 11,049 feet. But you know what? Not everyone gets to climb Mt. Everest, and not every mountain has to be Mt. Everest. Sometimes, things should just be enjoyed for what they are. And, for what it is, Dantes Peak is a great beginner’s hike with great views of Death Valley from the Black Mountains.
There’s a lot of hikes in the National Park system that get a lot of press as the “best hikes”. And, when I say “press”, I am not just talking about articles written by journalists and bloggers. I am talking about word-of-mouth hikes that are discussed between hikers and non-hikers; discussions that percolate world-wide about places that should be seen or, in some cases, depending on who is talking, have to be seen. A lot of these hikes deserve the reputation and the discussion that they get; and a lot of these hikes don’t deserve the reputation that they get. I’m not going to weigh in about which hike deserves what as it’s a matter of personal opinion in my book. What I will say, is that the best secret hike in the National Park system is the hike(s) I’m talking about here and last week: Golden Canyon.