Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Telescope Peak

From Badwater or Furnace Creek, look to the west at dawn and notice which peak begins to glow with the first hint of sunrise. From Panamint Valley, look to the east at sunset and watch the same mountain hold the last trace of the day's light. Standing at Dante's View, look down toward Badwater, a mile below the cliffs. Now look up slowly, scanning across the valley, past the salt flats, then the enormous alluvial fans at the mouth of Hanaupah Canyon, and up the mountains to the highest peak in the Panamint Range. You're looking at Telescope Peak, more than a mile above you – more than two miles higher than Badwater.

At 11,049 feet, Telescope Peak is the highest point in Death Valley National Park, and is visible from almost anywhere in the southern half of Death Valley. After a few days in the park, it might start to feel like an old friend. But if you really want to get to know this mountain, you need to hike the Telescope Peak Trail.

The trail can be challenging, but it's always worth the effort, combining the exhilaration of mountain hiking with the wide-open spaces of the desert. In practical terms, it may be the only place in the park where you can find comfortable hiking weather in summer or early fall. (It's also the place where the meniscus in my left knee finally wore out, leading to surgery and several months of physical therapy.) Wildflowers bloom here in July, months after they've disappeared from the valley floor. But it's the views that keep people coming back.

From its origin at Mahogany Flat, the trail leads you out of the piƱon-juniper forest, past twisted and gnarled bristlecones and limber pines, and over windswept rockscapes where the shrubs and cacti huddle close to the ground, the only way they can survive. In early spring, the snow-capped peak stands in stark contrast to the arid valleys below. As the snow melts, it supports wildflowers and even some amphibian populations in the surrounding canyons.

With views of Death Valley to the east and Panamint Valley to the west, you can get a visceral understanding of basin-and-range geology, with its deep valleys separated by steep mountains. You can also see very clearly the role of water in that geology, as you look down on what are obviously two huge dry lakebeds.

Mostly, though, you'll just feel overwhelmed by the size and scale of the desert. 

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