Panamint Traverse

from -75′ to +11,049′ and back again, in three days

Mike and I had originally planned to walk the Panamint Crest as part of our big desert trip in 2008, when we took 35 days to travel 425 miles from Bishop to Desert Center, CA.

When we’d reached that part of Death Valley National Park, however, we’d changed the route to continue south along the valley floor instead, since we didn’t want to tackle the rugged Crest with extremely heavy packs.

But we’d always wondered what the Crest would have been like, so we used a recent three-day weekend to see what we’d missed in 2008: this time, we had our our own vehicle for logistics, and bikes to speed some of the road walking. And we had much lighter packs this time around.

The route: Yellow = Day 1 Hanaupah Canyon. Blue = Day 2 Telescope Peak Trail and Panamint Ridge. Day 3 = Johnson Canyon and West Side Road. (Graphic courtesy of Mike and Google Earth.)
Caching the bikes up Johnson Canyon Road. (don't forget the keys to the bike locks!) This would allow us to ride the final 15 miles back to The Sprinter.

logistics, logistics, logistics

Trip prep can be fairly involved — especially if you don’t want to carry a lot of water at any one time.

First we drove into Panamint Valley, which lies west of Death Valley, and up onto the Crest to bury a cache of food and water at 8000′ Mahogany Flat, which we’d pick up in the middle of our route.

Then we drove down and around and into Death Valley on the West Side Road to cache the bikes as far as we could drive up the rough Johnson Canyon Road, which would be the southern end of the traverse. Then we drove back on the West Side Road north to Hanaupah Canyon Road, parked The Sprinter …

Starting the walk. Time: 2pm. Temperature: 99 degrees.

… and started walking — at 2pm. Not the best time to start, but there we were. So we soaked our shirts and loaded up on water and started up the gravel road.

We made 8.5 miles, well up into the canyon and into the shade, before camping in small puddles of exhaustion. The walking wasn’t hard, but heat is excellent for making motivation plummet.

Approaching the summit of Telescope Peak. Flagged bristlecone pines are evidence of many storms.

onto the crest

Next morning, much cooler and happier, we headed up to Mahogany Flat to retrieve our cache of 5 gallons of water and food for that day and the next. The next 7 miles up the popular trail to 11,049′ Telescope Peak, were well maintained and full of intrepid, well-bundled and be-camera’d groups of tourists.

After the trail ended at the summit of Telescope, the walking became much more rugged as we continued south along the ridge over loose rock, between sagebrush, juniper, and bristlecone pine, with scrambling and bushwhacking for variety. Yesterday’s heat was forgotten as we bundled up, with temperatures at 9,000′ – 10,000′ dropping into the 40s and the wind turning gusty.

Intermittent snow showers in the nowcast.
Lots of talus along the ridgetop.

The rest of the day alternated between sun, clouds, and snow showers that made for great views as ragged clouds flew overhead, occasionally obscuring Panamint Valley to the west, and Death Valley to the east.

Storm clouds made for dramatic views of Death Valley far below.
Looking north along the Panamint Crest, with Death Valley at upper right.

The sun began to set as we made our way along the ridge, until finally we were about to descend the last rocky slope (with extra-credit bushwhacking) to the pass … and encountered cliff bands. Yikes … how to get down?  These things often don’t show up on topo maps. Luckily we found a small slot to scramble down through and avoid a cold and windy bivy up in the cliffs.

Once down from the cliffs, headlamps came out. We finally reached the pass and dropped down a little ways to get out of the wind. We’d been going for about 16 hours at this point…

Cozy camp down off the ridge, in the shelter of a large juniper.

We were more than ready to camp, but we needed to find a flat spot on this 30-degree slope. After 20 minutes of descending, Mike found a flattish spot tucked in under a big juniper, out of the wind. We enjoyed a lovely gourmet dinner of hardboiled eggs and Mint Milanos, and spent a cozy night, happy to be out of the cold wind.

johnson canyon, Hungry bill, and one lucky trail

Next day we continued down-canyon in calm, sunny conditions, peeling off layers of clothing as we lost elevation. The morning was calm and pleasant, very different from the day before!
Calm sunny morning, Johnson Canyon.

Once in the canyon bottom, it was easy going to Hungry Bill’s Ranch, with its thousands of rocks piled into neat stone walls, old fences, bits of metal, and just about the largest spring we’d ever seen.

Hungry Bill's Ranch, with hand built stone walls everywhere, maybe to contain sheep? (No wonder Bill was hungry.)
Old survey marker, Johnson Canyon.

At this point we discovered — oh joy! — that a trail led around the thick brush, saving us from a heinous Alaska-style bushwhack that would have continued for miles. We could have gotten water here if we’d needed it, but it’s best to never count on a desert spring actually being active.

Trail around large spring, Johnson Canyon.
Still on the trail around the spring, which had flowing water at this time of year. Would it still have available water in the fall, after a long hot summer?
When the spring finally disappeared a few miles later, we found ourselves at the upper end of the 4WD road that continues down Johnson Canyon all the way to our bikes, and eventually the West Side Road at the bottom of Death Valley. We slogged down this road another few miles to the bikes, loaded ’em up, and rode 5 more miles down the fan to the West Side Road, where it was 10 more gravelly miles back to The Sprinter in 90-degree heat, with a nice tailwind.
Rolling back down the fan and back to The Sprinter, and cold beers.
And our two remaining beers were ice-cold. Bonus!
All in all, A Good Weekend Indeed.

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