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