Go Take a Hike! Part One – Telescope Peak

I really love hiking. After spending hours in a plane/train/automobile, it’s a great way to stretch your legs and really see the area that you’re in. Over the years I’ve been on some real duds, but also some absolutely magical ones. This week I’m dedicating my posts to some of my favourites – so without further ado, Telescope Peak!

Telescope Peak – Death Valley, California

Perhaps I was a tad naïve. I should have known that my friend’s statement of “it’s just a little hike, great views, it’ll be fine” really translated to “this is going to be GARGANTUAN, we may totally die”. But after the ridiculous opulence of our last three days in Vegas it seemed like a great way to reconnect with nature. A hike to the top of a mountain in Death Valley! How extreme would that be?

REALLY EXTREME.

The road leading to the start of the trail was bumpy. Our little convertible, which had been so bitchin’ to drive through LA and Vegas with, was now looking a tad out of place as we bounced across the rocky terrain past signs advising only 4x4s with high clearance to continue down the road. Somehow we made it to the parking lot, and we nervously gathered our backpacks and silently started out on the trail.

The hike to the top of Telescope Peak is a pretty good one, as you can see the highest and lowest elevations in the (continental) US from one vantage point. It’s a 14-mile round-trip climb that takes you from the floor of Death Valley up to the top of the mountain located in the Panamint Range. The almost 3,000 ft elevation gain (taking you up to 11,049 ft) is a bit killer.

I think we had been walking for about 30 minutes before the thinness of the air and the change in elevation began to get to us. THIRTY MINUTES. At this point, Dan put his headphones on and nodded, a silent gesture of “Godspeed”, before trudging ahead on his own.

I have trouble walking on flat pavement. The trail starts out steep for the first two miles or so, and while we passed through fields of wildflowers and lush, alpine meadows, I spent so much time huffing and puffing that I tripped over pieces of grass and my own feet. Not good. The temperature steadily dipped as we gained elevation, eventually dropping about fifty degrees from the parking lot where our car was now cooking in the sun.

To save face (for I was extremely winded at points thanks to the elevation gain – not from being out of shape or the result of spending hours poolside the day before drinking yard-long margaritas in Vegas) I stopped periodically to snap photos or guzzle Gatorade. The views from the hike are incredible – yellow prickly pear and pink phlox peaking out from desert paintbrush, pines gnarled by wind and fire, with salt flats in the distance that resemble lakes.

The last two miles greeted us with what felt like a million switchbacks and prompted a million “are we there yet??” comments from me. But finally we began the final summit, an almost vertical climb through knee-deep snow. At this point I was tempted to just lie face-down in the snow and wait for Dan to retrieve me upon his trip back down, but he dragged me up and we began the final climb. On hands and knees. I slipped and sliced my hand on a rock, leaving a trail of blood and a delirious me wondering about bears attacking me (bears in the desert. I was seriously EXHAUSTED). But man alive, we made it to the top.

We scarfed the lunches we had packed and took in the majestic views. From the summit of the Peak, you can see a complete 360-degree view of the surrounding basins and mountains, badlands and salt flats. Badwater is at -280 ft below sea level, and in the distance we spotted Mt. Whitney.

Then reality struck – we had to get back DOWN.

So like any good Canadians, we tobogganed down the side of the mountain. In hindsight, as Dan teetered rather close to the edge at one point, we probably should have walked down. But where’s the fun in that?!

Eager to get back to the car and to give our legs a break, we booked it back down the path, zipping past hikers with proper gear (see: poles and actual hiking boots) who stared at us with amazement. If the elevation gain going up the mountain doesn’t make you feel ill, running back down will do the trick. We blew through all four seasons on that hike back down, shedding layers of clothing as the desert heat slammed us in the face.

Until finally – sweet relief.

Seriously we were exhausted.

I think we ate three dinners that night, and definitely lay comatose at our hotel for a good four hours, watching The Day After Tomorrow – twice. I don’t think we were able to bend our legs for two days. But that hike goes down as one of the best I’ve ever done.

Tips:

  • Check the weather beforehand. We went in May, and the snow was still quite thick (knee-deep in spots). An ice axe, or poles, will come in handy. As will hiking boots that cover your ankles.
  • Bring oodles of water. And lots of food. You will eat all of it
  • Consider staying in the area after your climb. We drove on to Bakersfield, which was a good FOUR hour drive and utterly exhausting. There aren’t a lot of accommodations in the area (it is a desert, after all), but Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells have options. There’s also camping.
  • It will seem ridiculous to pack winter clothing when you’re in a desert. You will need it.