Death Valley’s Telescope Peak

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I had wanted to do Telescope Peak for a couple of years. It stands a little above 11,000 feet in the middle of Death Valley and from its summit, you can see the peak of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the United States, and the lowest point in Death Valley. It’s the only place where you can actually see those two things. When our schedules aligned, Courtney and I decided to make the trip. I was going to rent a Jeep because there is a four-wheel-drive road that leads to the trailhead at about 8,000 feet. It was almost impossible to find one close by, so I did a little more research and came to the conclusion that our Honda CR-V would probably make it.

Getting To Telescope Peak Almost Didn’t Happen – at the Last Mile

I got out of a meeting in Irvine about 11:00 am on Friday, got home by 12:00 pm, and we were on the road by 1:00 pm. The trip was surprisingly fast. We actually made it to the trailhead in four and a half hours. Just past the kilns, as we powered up the last mile, I had second thoughts about my decision not to rent a four-wheel drive. We almost didn’t make it. The road was steep and sandy. With our underpowered two-wheel drive Honda CR-V,  we came about 10 seconds from completely losing traction and not being able to get up – but we did.

With our two-wheel drive, underpowered Honda CR-V, we came about 10 seconds from completely losing traction and not being able to get up – but we did.

The famous Charcoal Kilns left over from early mining operations

The weather was beautiful. It was a full moon that night, so Courtney and I made a fire. I brought a ton of food, and we were planning on eating well, but I forgot the camp stove. We did some improvised cooking over the campfire with a small metal bowl I found in our bin of gear. We warmed some water in the bowl, rehydrated some Mountain House meals, then put the contents back in the bowl and heated it over the fire. We had to really work for our dinner that night, but it wasn’t terrible.

Camping at Mahogany Flat Campground

We had a great night’s sleep, and got up at 5:00 in the morning the next day. The moon was full, but it had moved to the other side of the mountain, leaving our side pitch black. It stayed pitch black until almost 7:00 when we reached the top of a ridge.

About a mile into the hike, the wind picked up with full force with gusts of up to 40 mph. The temperature quickly plummeted to 20 degrees with the wind chill.

Getting on Trail

The trail is a little over 3,000 feet elevation gain and 14 miles up and back. When we left in the dark, the winds were calm. It’d been windy the night before and I figured the wind was going to die down. There were some forecasts for “gale force winds.” About a mile into the hike, the wind picked up with full force with gusts of up to 40 mph. The temperature quickly plummeted to 20 degrees with the wind chill. At that point, it was still dark and was pretty miserable.

The moon is still high as the sun rises on the other horizon

When we got to the ridge in about three miles, the moon was setting. The full moon was setting right over Mt. Whitney as the sunrise was happening on the other side of the horizon, and it was absolutely beautiful. I thought Courtney was not gonna make it. She had a little touch of altitude sickness. I gave her some 5-Hour Energy, which is almost always a cure for altitude sickness if it’s mild.

I thought Courtney was not gonna make it; initially she had some altitude sickness. I gave her some 5-Hour Energy, which is almost always a cure for altitude sickness, if it’s mild.

Telescope Peak
Telescope Peak in the distance

She did better with the caffeine but about six miles into it, we were both almost out of gas. The last two miles of the trail were pretty steep. When you add the cold 40 mph winds and 11,000 feet of altitude, it sapped our strength.

Telescope Peak Trail
Almost to the summit
Telescope Peak Summit
The view of the valley from the last segment of the trail

Telescope Peak Summit!

When we got to the summit, we could see 100 miles in every direction. The wind was gusting hard and the temperature was still close to 35 degrees. We spent 10 minutes up there enjoying the view, shot a little video, then headed back down.

Telescope Peak Summit
Summit!

On the way up, Courtney had had some pain in her legs, and her hip flexors were really sore, so on the way down she was suffering almost the entire way. It was a long, long way down. When we finally got back to the car, we were pretty exhausted. We got to the car at about 1:00 pm, the same time we had left the day before.

Telescope Peak Trailhead
Back to the trailhead!

So we started back home, and by about 6:00 pm, 30 hours after we left, we were at home. It felt pretty great to take a nice hot shower and have some real food. It was the perfect micro adventure, and we still had Sunday left to rest and catch up on life.

Elevation Profile

Telescope Peak Elevation Profile

Trail Map