Tea House and Table Rock in Death Valley is a 2-3 hour circuit hike that begins and ends at Furnace Creek Ranch of The Inn at Death Valley. So, if you’re staying in one of these locations, you can take this hike without having to spend time driving to a trailhead.
Tea House and Table Rock in Death Valley is a hike that delivers a huge reward in a short time. You will experience expansive 360 degree views of Death Valley. First of all, there are spectacular views up and down the length of Death Valley from the North to the South. Across to the West one can see the entire length of the Panamint Mountain Range and pick out Telescope Peak, Wildrose Peak, Aguereberry Point and the Skidoo area. To the East there are the Funeral Mountains. To the South there is Mt. Perry in the Black Mountains. Immediately below to the West are Furnace Creek Ranch including the Death Valley Visitor Center and camping area, the Inn at Death Valley, the Mesquite Grove and even, on this day (Dec 19th), the river running through Death Valley and a small lake due to recent rains. There is even a small cemetery with early explorer grave sites on one of the hills along the route. All this is documented in the slide show and video on this page.
As soon as you are out of site of Furnace Creek Ranch and the other populated areas, you experience the sensation and solitude of being in a remote wilderness area. You may as well be hundreds of miles from civilization, though you’re never more than a 20-30-minute return time back to Furnace Creek Ranch!
Though this entire hike can be done in less than 2 hours, do wear good trail running shoes or hiking boots, dress in layers (temperatures ranged from 41 – 65 degrees during this hike; expect a similar 25 degree range during the hike). Bring a liter of two of water. I consumed a little less than a liter on this fairly cool day. Prepare for some steep avalanche slopes with loose rock surface and some narrow high ridges with steep dangerous drop-offs on one or both sides. Also, there are some wet spring crossings along the way with deep mud. In fact, after a rain, the mud surface of many hills can cause you to sink a foot or two deep. A friend of my children once sunk a leg 2 feet deep into the mud and upon pulling her foot out, lost her shoe and had to finish the adventure with one shoe. Here shoe is still two feet under the hardened, sun baked ground to this day!
I’d recommend this adventure for late Fall through mid Spring as temperatures in the Summer can soar above 13o degrees! For example, on this day, December 19th, temperatures reached the mid 60 degrees, which is comfortable during exertion.
In fact, this is my very first adventure hike in the mountains at age 10 (56 years from the day of this current adventure). I credit my family with introducing us to the wonders of Death Valley. For years we traveled from Oregon to spend Spring Break in Death Valley. This experience helped give me an appreciation for nature and wilderness adventures that has lasted a lifetime.
All that said, my family’s idea of wilderness exploration was basically driving to a view point and enjoying the view. They preferred to spend much of their time relaxing at the swimming pool at Furnace Creek Ranch. So, what was a 10-year-old who wanted to climb mountains, yet had no car to do during those long days trapped at Furnace Creek Ranch? Explore high places that could be reached without a car! When my eyes first caught a high hill with a structure on its summit near the Inn at Death Valley, I knew I had to go there, so I set out on foot from the Death Valley Visitor Center. This would be my first experience navigating desert canyons, high ridges with sharp drop-offs and avalanche slopes.
When I reached the structure on the high hill — now I know it is called “The Tea House”, I noticed an even higher mountain to the South and just had to reach the summit. It also had a name I did not know — “Table Rock”. For years I referred to this high place as “Flat Top”…close name guess! The entire Northern side of Table Rock was an imposing cliff face, but it appeared there was a gully on the Western end, so I ascended that steep gully, skirted the upper cliff face with it’s scary drop-off, then ascended through an opening in the cliff face to the summit. I had summited Table Rock…”Flat Top”! The return trip down the avalanche slopes on the South side of Table Rock and back to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center was a bit easier.
In later years, when my children were young — age 5 and up — I treated them to this same Tea House/Table Rock circuit adventure. They survived the scary cliff route up Table Rock, and it became a fun, though partially scary, family tradition. I like to think that the fact that they’ve all achieved leadership positions in their careers may be in part due to this little baptism by fire ascending Table Rock. Who knows? On one trip, one of my daughters discovered that you don’t need to ascend the scary cliff face on Table Rock as there is a horse trail that ascends from the West end of the rock!
Curiously, on this day, as I stood at the base of the Northern cliff face, which seemed to look steeper, scarier and more exposed than I remembered, I decided to take the horse trail to the summit of Table Rock! And, that is my recommendation for this hike. Take the safer horse trail on the East side of Table Rock or, at your own risk, attempt the Northwestern scary cliff face. Your choice!
From Las Vegas take Hwy 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) to Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn left on Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn left on Hwy 190 toward Furnace Creek. Park at the National Park Service HQ for Death Valley or in a space along Hwy 190 at Furnace Creek.
Standing at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, you’ll notice a hill to the Southeast, just above The Inn at Death Valley. Head straight for that hill. You’ll cross the main highway, then continue through an RV camping area before beginning to feel like you’re having a true wilderness experience. Your first barrier is a spring-fed stream crossing — Texas Springs? — chocked with reeds and brush. The mud at the bottom can be deep and can add weight by a factor of 2-3 to your shoes, so the challenge is to find a dry crossing. There are a few, you just need to explore the edge of the stream for 10 or 20 feet in either direction.
Following the stream crossing, you are at your first avalanche slope to the approach ridge. I’d circle around the base of this first ridge and ascend the second ridge that comes after an intervening wash. On this day, I took the first ridge only to realize that I had to descend a couple hundred feet and pass through the intervening wash to the approach ridge that takes you to the Tea House summit. No big problem. The additional descent and ascent did not take too much time or trouble, but could have been avoided.
About a third of the way up the Tea House approach ridge there is a large memorial marker and small cemetery with marked off graves to early explorers of the region. Continue up the ridge to the Tea House summit. This is where you’ll notice dramatic cliff drop-offs on either side of this narrow ridge with its loose gravel surface. It’s safe going as long as you don’t get too close to the loose gravelly edge! The Tea House destination is visible during most of this adventure, so it’s hard to get lost.
The Tea House itself is just the skeleton of a structure, originally build in the 1930’s by the Chinese staff of the Inn at Death Valley. There must have been large picture windows at one time facing each direction. Only the empty frames exist today. There is some satellite communications equipment on the summit for mobile phone and internet reception. The floor and lower sides of the Tea House is the same beautiful flag stone construction that one sees at The Inn at Death Valley. Take some time at the Tea House to take pictures and to rest.
To the South, about a mile or so away, you’ll see a large long (East-West) hill with a rather dramatic cliff face on the North side – the side facing you. This is Table Rock. To reach Table Rock begin by finding a small use trail descending the East side of the Tea House summit. Take this trail downward, along ridges, using a small road at the base of the ridge as your landing point. Immediately before arriving at the road you’ll need to cross the brush-choked spring again. There is an easy crossing where the stream dives underground for a about 10 feet leaving a dry ground natural bridge.
Cross the stream and then ascend the road you saw from the Tea House Summit until Table Rock becomes visible. At that point, begin to watch for a horse trail that heads off toward the East side of Table Rock (the right side, opposite to Furnace Creek Ranch). Alternately, you can head for the scary cliff face on the Northwest side of Table Rock. Both are clearly pictured in the video and slide show on this page. In fact, on this day I headed for the Northwestern cliff face approach, reached the base, looked up and decided to skirt the base of Table Rock to the Eastern side and take a more gradual approach ridge.
If you’re taking the scary Northwestern cliff approach, which I have taken 10 or more times in the past, ascend the gully on the Northwestern side of table rock. You’ll weave around huge chunks of composite material that have fallen from above. Though they look as if they are about to crush you, they are pretty stable and secure. The gully will become steeper and steeper until you reach the vertical cliff face above. Then, take a left along what I refer to as “The Terrible Traverse”, which skirts the head wall for about 30 frightening feet with an exposed drop off immediately below. Then, there is a 6-foot vertical section to ascend with a huge drop-off immediately below. You might want to have rock climbing shoes for this section. There are precious few, if any, hand and foot holds, and nothing but loose rock to grab at the top. In previous trips it was only the momentum of that last lunge that got me up that section. But once you’re on top, it’s a relatively easy trek to the summit. There’s also a great resting spot on the West side of Table Rock immediately below the summit. The combination of shade and the expansive view from this spot is incredible, especially on higher temperature days.
Now, if you decided to take a more gradual ridge approach to the summit of Table Rock, skirt the base of the rock to its East side. As you begin to circle around the East side take the first wash to your left and ascend within 50 feet of the wash opening up the left (North) rim of that wash to its upper ridge. Once on the upper ridge it’s an easy walk to the summit.
Once on the summit, look down toward Furnace Creek to plan your return trip along the washes that lead back to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. You’ll notice a triangular shaped group of golden hills below. I made a mental note to skirt the right (North) side of this triangle, then take the wash back down to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. But first, I had to decide how to descend Table Rock.
From Table Rock Summit on this day I descended by the most gradual route, the horse trail that skirts the Southern summit ridge of Table Rock descending along the edge in an Eastern direction toward the Funeral Mountain Range. That ridge lands at the Eastern edge of Table Rock. From there, take a left and head for a pass on the Northeastern side of Table Rock, then skirt the Northern cliff side of table rock. That’s a right turn after going through the pass. Eventually, as you reach the West side of Table Rock, the golden hill triangle will appear. It’s then relatively easy to skirt the right (North) side of the triangle, then take the wash back down to Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Along the way as you pass through the mud hills, you’ll notice a lot of white powder. This is the alkali from which Borax Soap is processed. The alkali was processed on the desert floor at Harmony Borax Works, then carted out of Death Valley in 20-mule-team wagons at first (1883-1889) through 20-Mule-Team Canyon. In 1894 a steam powered tractor named Dinah (remember the song “Dinah, won’t you blow your horn.”) was used for one year until the mule teams proved a more reliable mode of transportation. Still later, the Old Death Valley Railroad (1914-1941) was a major mode of transportation into and out of Death Valley.