Telescope Peak, on the highest ridge of the Panamint Mountain Range bordering the West side of Death Valley is as close as you can get to experiencing the entire valley in one adventure. The feeling is purely magical as you traverse a ridge on top of the world, looking straight from that 11,049ft elevation down to Badwater, lowest point in the Western hemisphere at -282ft. Above Bad Water you can see Dante’s View, another great point of interest. Then, looking across Death Valley toward the North you can pick out Devil’s Golf Course, Natural Bridge Canyon, Artist’s Drive, Golden Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Furnace Creek and the Inn at Death Valley. Further off to the East is the faint outline of Mt. Charleston Wilderness in the Spring Mountains. Turn around to the West and view the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Mt. Whitney and numerous other points of interest I have not yet learned to identify.
The land feels clean and untouched, yet there is an excellent trail guiding you the entire way through a number of climate zones from Juniper, to Pinyon Pine to the majestic and artistic ancient Bristlecone Pine forest near the summit. Some of the trees have been growing in that place for thousands of years creating unique shapes unlike anything seen elsewhere on earth. On this day there was actually a small telescope on the summit of Telescope Peak, reminding one of the incredible night sky. What a place to sleep under the stars!
Telescope Peak Trail is about 7 miles each way. If you start at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns as I did, add an additional 2 miles each way for a grand total of 18 miles round trip. Then, if you take in both Rogers and Bennett Peaks, add in another 1-2 miles for good measure! The elevation at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns is 6,800ft. By the time you reach Telescope Peak’s 11,049ft summit and also have taken in Bennett Peak and Rogers Peak summits you’ve gained around 5,000ft in elevation.
The land can suck all the moisture out of you, so bring plenty of water. I brought 4 liters on this day and had less than a liter left at the end of the adventure. The round trip from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns took me about 10 hours, and I was at a run from the summit of Telescope Peak to the base of Bennett Peak and then from the summit of Rogers Peak all the way back to the Charcoal Kilns. The best time of year for this adventure is June – October due to snow conditions and road closures.
From Las Vegas take Hwy 190 through Pahrump. Continue on 190 through Death Valley. Pass Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Turn left at Emigrant Campground onto Emigrant Canyon Road. Pass Skidoo Rd, Aguereberry Point and Wood Canyon Rd turnoffs continuing to Rattlesnake Gulch where you’ll turn left onto Charcoal Kiln Rd. Continue on Charcoal Kiln Road to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. This is where the paved road ends, so park here to avoid a rough unpaved road (4WD recommended). From the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns it is about a 2-mile stretch on the unpaved road to Mahogany Flat Campground. The Telescope Peak trailhead is at the far “right” end of the campground.
Starting at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, there is a fairly good unpaved road up to Mahogany Flat Campground. The road on this day had been recently re-graded and could accommodate 2WD vehicles. However, the road conditions are constantly changing due to weather, so it’s best to have a high clearance 4WD vehicle. The ascent to Mahogany Flat Campground is from 6,800ft to 8,133ft in around just 2 miles, followed by the 7-mile ascent to the 11,049ft summit of Telescope Peak. It helps to be altitude conditioned with a running base conditioning of 5 or more miles per day during the preceding months.
Once you hit Mahogany Flat Campground and begin ascending up and around the Eastern ridge of Roger’s Peak, the views of Death Valley open up. You’re looking nearly straight down into the valley from this upper edge of the Panamint Range. One great point of interest is the North ridge of Hanaupah Canyon which descends from the Mahogany Flat area in a fairly gradual angle (except for a few places) all the way to the floor of Death Valley, not far from Badwater, just across the valley. I’ve taken that ridge from the valley floor all the way to the summit of Telescope Peak. Talk about ascending through climate zones! You begin in the desert salt pan and end up in a Bristlecone Pine forest. That adventure took 2 days.
As you ascend around the East side of Rogers Peak the pine forest thins out dramatically and the views open up. In the morning with the rising sun angled from the other side of the valley, it can be pretty hazy. But as the sun advances during the day the view sharpens to brilliance! As you continue to ascend to the North side of Rogers Peak you will reach the upper spine of the Panamint Range with an additional spectacular view opening to the West all the way to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
At this point, the trail levels a bit as it winds around the West side of Bennett Peak before beginning the ascent to the summit of Telescope Peak. Having rounded the North side of Bennet Peak, Telescope Peak, straight ahead, looks impossibly distant and high. However, it must be an optical illusion because this final stretch is a lot easier than it looks. The trail is great and a series of more gentle switchbacks help soften the final ascent to the summit of Telescope Peak. The Bristlecone Pines along this stretch are incredibly beautiful both in life and in death.
Topping the final summit ridge there stretches before you about 1/8th mile of fairly level high ridge to the true summit where there is a summit box and, on this day, an actual telescope. More spectacular views in every direction!
On the return trip I summited Bennett Peak. If there is a trail to Bennett Peak summit I missed it and ended up navigating brush part of the way. Not too difficult as there was always a pathway through and up and then down and the summit hill is very gradual. However, after summiting Telescope Peak all the way from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, the psychologically prepared for pure downhill on the return trip, that uphill to the summit of Bennet Peak was a bit of an awakening. The summit of Bennet Peak provides additional unique views missed from the Telescope Peak trail. And, there is an incredible view of the Telescope trail and summit approach. Also on the summit there are clumps of long long needle cacti. Don’t stub your toe on these as the 2-3-inch razor sharp needles easily penetrate your shoes and stick in you feet!
Hardly are you down the North side of Bennett Peak when the summit ascent to Rogers Peak begins! Like Bennett, it’s a gradual enough incline and you’re on the summit before you know it. The views to the North up Death Valley with Wildrose Peak in the foreground and Hanaupah Canyon and ridge below were far more clear as the sun had advanced more to the West by this point. Yes, the telecommunications equipment took a bit away from the pristine natural feel of other parts of the adventure, but it was actually refreshing to rest on a nice slab of cement while overlooking Death Valley.
Then the run down unpaved but fairly good roads from the 9,990ft Rogers Peak summit all the way to the 6,800ft Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, a quick drop of 3,100ft, was actually refreshing. Just put it in neutral and coast!