Sunday, March 29, 2015

Death Valley: Surprise Canyon to Panamint City

Essence: Surprise Canyon's riparian oasis is confined by glistening narrows. Slosh up a series of gentle, sparkling cascades. Walk through two green, spring-fed tunnels. Soaring canyon walls have intoxicating colors and textures. Significant mining ruins in Panamint City include a perfect smelter tower. Miles are rugged with a consistent steepness in this exceptional canyon--a pleasure top to bottom.

Surprise Canyon, south of Telescope Peak, just right of image center, cuts through the western Panamint Range. It is an historic thoroughfare, uncommonly free of impassible barrier falls. Panamint City is almost 4,000 feet off the valley floor. It is nestled under the pink columnar wall at the horizon. This image was captured while rolling along the Panamint Valley Road.

Travel: From Panamint Springs, drive east on CA 190 for 2.4 miles. Zero-out your trip meter and turn right/south on Panamint Valley Road. CA 178 is paved, flat, and narrow. At 14.1 miles, turn right on Trona-Wildrose Road. Telescope Peak dominates the eastern skyline. At 23.6 miles, turn left on Ballarat Road, dirt, and pass a radar installation. In the town of Ballarat, at 27.2 miles, go left on Indian Ridge Road. At 29.2 miles, turn right on Surprise Canyon Road at a green sign post. The crushed-rock road goes northeast, steeply up an alluvial fan covered in creosote. Enter Surprise Canyon at 31.5 miles. Park at Chris Wicht Camp at 33.3 miles. 2WD vehicles with good clearance and sturdy tires should make the trailhead. Note: While Ballarat is a "virtual ghost town," there was an operational general store in 2015 and some RV's parked randomly on the outskirts.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.2 miles includes wandering around Panamint City; 4,000 feet of climbing
Time: 7:00 minimum; 9:00 allows for time to explore the ghost town
Difficulty: Trail, historic mining road; navigation moderate; no exposure
Maps: Ballarat, CA; Panamint, CA 7.5 Quads or Trails Illustrated: Death Valley National Park, #221
Reference: For the definitive guide to the mining history of Panamint City, natural history and geology of Surprise Canyon (and everything else Death Valley), consult: Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline, and Eureka Valleys, Michel Digonnet, 2009.
Date Hiked: March 29, 2015
Quote: For its many well-preserved structures, historic significance, and beautiful setting in high forested mountains, Panamint City is the most exceptional mining site described in this book.  Miles of roads zigzag up into the mountains to dozens of sites--cabins, mills, tunnels, mining equipment, and colorful ore. You will see lots of birds and wild flowers in the warm season, run into burros every day, and soak in the cool springs. Everywhere you go the isolation, both geographic and temporal, is almost palpable. A trip to Panamint City is a bit of all this: you get caught in a spellbinding space-time capsule. Michel Digonnet
Route: Hike generally east up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City. Explore, and return as you came. The lower canyon is brushy, the trail braided, and occasionally you'll have to search around for the best route up the drainage.

Mining operations at Chris Wicht Camp began in the 1870's and continued for 130 years. Mining wreckage and ruins are scattered about the trailhead, 2,630 feet. The up canyon trail begins past a vehicle-blocking gate. The NPS and BLM closed and bared the road in 2005. You'd never dream there was a road in the lower canyon. It's been blown to smithereens by floods. The riparian area is lush with cottonwood, horse tails, and willow. Birds sing sweetly, orange dragonflies dart and blue butterflies flutter.

At 0.6 mile enter the gleaming white, igneous narrows. Digonnet claims the brilliant, resplendent walls are one billion years old. A contrasting diabase dike goes from canyon floor to sky. 

At 0.7 mile, the walls constrict and narrows-play begins. Your feet are going to get wet.

Panamint City was a draw for 4-wheelers. They winched vehicles up the cascades, much to the derision of Ballarat locals who carved their disdain into the wall.

Walk up the ivory, stair-stepped cascades covered in green moss. It is one of the supreme pleasures in Death Valley.

The canyon widens at 1.0 mile. How hard can it be to hike quickly up a canyon? The terrain is brushy, there is a high bypass upcanyon-right, the trail is threaded and the wrong choice left us cliffed out more than once. Go back. Thus, the going is slower than anticipated. The incongruous Limekiln Spring, is at 2.0 miles. A tangled, thick mat of grapevines covers the slope north of the trail. Plow through the vegetation.

Above the spring, the canyon is dry, vegetation dissipates, and the old road appears to assist progress. At 2.4 miles, the canyon makes a left bend and a large side canyon comes in on the right.

At 3.2 miles, water once again flows in the desert. Walk through a green tunnel in the shaded shallow stream to Brewery Spring. Burros live in this area so you may wish to treat water you gather. (THW, photo)

At 3.7 miles, a large side canyon joins upcanyon-left. In March, flourishing clumps of lupines dominate the flowering community.

At 4.3 miles, Woodpecker Canyon joins upcanyon-left. The grade is continuous and consistent. Progress accelerates on the abandoned, gravelly road. Euphedra and sage line the track, piñon-juniper cling to steep slopes.

At 4.8 miles the smelter smokestack comes into view, right of center in the image below. Look around. The road, once Panamint City's 1.5 mile-long Main Street, is framed with stone ruins of the once bustling town of 2,000 people. Many walls are beautifully crafted. Digonnet writes the discovery of silver-bearing quartz veins in 1872 yielded enough silver bullion to ship out 400 pound ingots by 20-mule team.

It took us a little over three hours to hike the 5.7 miles to the smelter smokestack at 6,300 feet. Precisely cut dolomitic limestone blocks form a robust foundation for this gorgeous monument to perfection.

The towering smokestack of the historic smelter is the town's crowning jewel. Built of half a million bricks, it is a magnificent 45-foot tower tapering from a massive square base to a finely ornate crown. In all of the California desert, there is not another structure like it.  It stands watch over the town like a timeless sentinel, a priceless landmark in the history of the American West. Erected in 1875, it was for one short year the silver-churning heart of the Panamint mines, their life-line and pride, and it survives today as their finest symbol. Digonnet

The workshop, open-sided with a metal roof, houses a generator and assorted machinery. I resupplied water at an open spigot. Cabins are shockingly well-preserved. Two have tin roofs and intact glass windows. Backpackers shelter here; the cast-iron stove is functional.

The porch is festooned with metal mobiles artfully made from mining relics and kitchen utensils. They put up a pleasing racket when the wind blows. A dump truck is parked outside the workshop.

A hillside cabin has a sweet iris garden. My favorites are the beds of ornamental irises. Originally planted to brighten the town's gardens, they took a liking to the high desert and have been blooming over and over for more than a hundred springs. Digonnet

The Coso people, known for their rock art, are a Native American tribe associated with the Mojave Desert of California. Polychrome pictographs in white, yellow, orange, and red are painted on a ceiling darkened with soot inside a rock shelter in the Panamint City area. (THW, photo)

The rock of Surprise Canyon presents a sensory overload. Colors are bizarre, textures complex, and the variety is endless. While I especially favor dazzling dolomite, ores are multi-hued: malachite, azurite, silver, zinc, gold, and tungsten.

Return as you came, perfecting your down canyon route. Two burros forage between the springs.

 In the cascade-infused narrows, frogs hopped and croaked.

Surprise Canyon is one of the few drainageways in Death Valley that successfully penetrates a mountain range. I'd like to return and climb Panamint Pass, then continue east down Johnson Canyon into Death Valley. See Digonnet for a lengthy description of hiking options in the Panamint City region, especially suited for backpackers.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Death Valley: Telescope Peak, 11,048'; Bennett Peak, 9,980'; Rogers Peak, 9,994'

Essence: Hike the standard trail to Telescope Peak, the commanding and noble high point of Death Valley. Along the way, commune with ancient bristle cone pines. Return on the ridgeline, cresting Bennett Peak and Rogers Peak. Ridge-enabled views to the east and west go on for miles. Ridge aficionados will cherish this route. 

Morning sun overpowers a twilight cloud to alight Telescope Peak as seen from the Texas Creek Campground. 

Travel: The hike begins on the west side of the Panamint Range. From Stovepipe Wells, drive west on CA 190 for 9.3 miles. Zero-out your trip meter at Emigrant Canyon Road and turn left. Drive southeast on this paved, narrow road. It crests Emigrant Pass at 13.7 miles. The roller coaster ride on the downward side has two sets of twists, steep embankments, and plunges through a constriction. Wildrose Campground is at 21.3 miles, the last opportunity for water. Pavement ends at 26.5 miles. Pass the Charcoal Kilns at 28.6. The road steepens; 4WD with moderate clearance recommended. Thorndike campground is at 29.5 miles. The grade pitches. Park in a piñon-juniper forest at Mahogany Flat campground at 30.3 miles. Allow an hour from CA 190.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.8 miles; 3,950' feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Telescope Peak, CA 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated #221, Death Valley National Park
Reference: For information on the Charcoal Kilns, Wildrose Peak hike, an alternate route up Telescope, natural history, and geology of this region, consult: Hiking Death Valley: A guide to its natural wonders and mining past, Michel Digonnet, 2007.
Date Hiked: March 28, 2015
Quote: Telescope Peak is the roof of Death Valley...From the rocky summit it is more than two miles down to the eerie swirls of Death Valley's salt pan--to get higher above ground in the lower 48 states, you'll have to fly. Michel Digonnet
Route: The trail skirts Rogers Peak on the east and Bennett Peak on the west. It climbs Telescope's north ridge, favoring the east side. On the return, stay on the altogether friendly divide, climbing two neighboring peaks as you go.

From Mahogany Flat TH 8,133', the trail points south, staying on the east side of Rogers' northeast ridge. Views down into Death Valley are immediate and pleasing. The excellent track makes a gradual, consistent rising traverse. Round a corner at one mile to see Telescope's summit ridge.

Arcane Meadows marks the saddle at 9,650 feet between Rogers and Bennett. Experience ridgecrest euphoria while looking at Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 and Badwater Basin, the lowest, from one sweeping vantage point.

Lose 35 feet and then contour along the west side of Bennett. Enter a bristle cone pine forest, one of the finest features of this hike. These ancient ones accompany us for most of the day. I felt rattled at my heart's response to these creatures, the oldest having been rooted in our planet for nearly 5,000 years. Their trunks are gold and they feel that precious.

On the southwest flank of Bennett, we walked through fields of gold, spent sage and rabbit brush blossoms. Euphedra darkened and strengthened the color pallet.

At 3.8 miles return once again to the divide at the shared saddle between Bennett and Telescope. All too soon, the trail darts off to the east side of the ridge and remains there for most of the summit journey. In the image below, bristle cones cling to slopes above two trenches that comprise a portion of the extensive Hanaupah Canyon complex that terminates in Death Valley.

Typically, this hike would be unwise in March. The peak holds ice and snow into late spring. However, the winter of 2015 has been a dreadfully paltry snow year. At 4.7 miles, we avoided snowdrifts by opting for a strong social trail that is true to the ridgetop.

Upon encountering a lingering cornice, we complied with the established trail to the summit.

View of the actual summit eludes to within 0.2 mile of the top. Telescope is not a hike for those craving solitude. There is plenty of that elsewhere in this vast park.

Reach the summit at 6.4 miles. Locate the peak register. The unobstructed panorama is full-circle. One spin and everything glimpsed partially before now culminates at this supreme zenith. Panamint Valley and Dunes are low in the west. Mount Whitney holds down the Sierra Crest authoritatively.

To the east, relief is epic with 11,330 feet of nothingness between Badwater and Telescope. Charleston Peak, 11,919 feet, tops the horizon east of Pahrump, NV.

While we wanted to stay on the ridge for our entire descent, snow discouraged. So we followed the trail until we were off the upper mountain.

At 10,200 feet the trail rejoins the ridge. It was delightful and remarkably easy to remain on the spine all the way to the trailhead. This image looks north to Bennett and Rogers.

Bennett Peak, 9,980 feet, rises 468 feet from its south saddle. Walking is simple with great footing, the grade gentle. We reached the crest at 9.7 miles. Don't even consider going around these mountains! Below, Rogers Peak is adjacent to the north and 14 feet taller.

Drop off Bennett and return to Arcane Meadows any way that strikes your fancy. Make zigzags around the grizzly bear prickly pear cactus. (THW, photo)

Surprisingly, there is no social trail, just fragments of game trails. Climb 344 feet to summit Rogers at 10.9 miles. Its top is cluttered with solar panels and towers: microwave, radio, and TV. This image looks back on Bennett and Telescope.

A service road switches gently down to the trailhead, a traveling option. However, the ridge is pure pleasure. Chunks of Johnnie Formation slate in beautiful colors are scattered about. Low sun backlights grasses in wide-awake golden hues. It is impossible on this broad ridge to get lost. Keep the service road to your left/west and the trail to your right/east.

A few bristle cone pines hang on. Half a mile from the trailhead enter a mature forest with oversized mahogany and piñon. The trees obscure; just stay on the cusp of the soft ridge and you will encounter the trailhead precisely. Our route, the service road, and the trail all converge at the parking area, shown.

If you have time to spare, visit the Charcoal Kilns on your way down Wildrose Canyon.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Death Valley: Thimble Peak, 6,381' and Titus Canyon 4WD Road

Essence: Two great pleasures, one adventure. Titus Canyon Road penetrates the greater Amargosa Range, crests the Grapevine Mountains, slices through a narrow, water-scoured gash, and terminates on the floor of Death Valley. Mid-way along the road, stop to climb Thimble Peak. A neglected treasure, it is a half-day hike with a fun scramble up the summit block and sterling views over the distance. Pyramidal and chaotic, the peak is less daunting than it appears from afar.

Thimble Peak is a compelling prominence in the Grapevine Mountains. It is far left in this image shot from the campground at Stovepipe Wells.

Travel: Titus Canyon Road is 27 miles, one-way east to west. It goes over Red Pass in the Grapevine Mountains and plunges to the Death Valley flats through the Titus Canyon narrows. Driving directions for the 4WD adventure and Thimble Peak trailhead follow. Inquire about varying road conditions at the visitor center. While 4WD with high clearance is recommended, the road is often graded so well 2WD vehicles with moderate clearance and sturdy tires plow through without trouble. Climbing Thimble commits you to the entire stretch.
Thimble Peak Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.5 miles; 1,750 feet of climbing
Hiking Time: 2:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Well-established social trail; navigation easy; One Class 3 scramble with moderate exposure; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Thimble Peak, CA-NV 7.5 Quad, or Trails Illustrated #221, Death Valley National Park
Reference: For a definitive discussion of historic mining operations in the ghost town of Leadfield and geology along the Titus Canyon Road, consult: Hiking Death Valley: A guide to its natural wonders and mining past, Michel Digonnet, 2007.
Date Hiked: March 27, 2015
Quote: The limitless and uncrowded spaces, the vibrant blue light of spring mornings, the austere beauty of the desert ranges, the ancient rocks distorted behind shimmering heat waves, all conspire to form a primordial, irresistible landscape. I, like many others before me, fell in love with it. Michel Digonnet

Titus Canyon Road is noted with a blue line. The black-line route is the hike to Thimble Peak. From Red Pass TH 5,280', hike south to Point 6,120'. Descend southwest and upon reaching the saddle between the two peaks, mount the northeast ridge of Thimble. Return as you came.

Titus Canyon Road to Thimble Peak Trailhead: From Hells Gate at the junction of Daylight Pass Road and Beatty Cut-Off Road, drive northeast toward Beatty, Nevada on State Route 374. Crest Daylight Pass at 6.2 miles. Turn left onto Titus Canyon Road at 13.3 miles. Zero-out your trip meter and drive west across the flat Amargosa Desert on mild washboard.

At 1.9 miles cross the park boundary. The road transitions to one-way and takes direct aim at the Amargosa Range. In spring, flowers confine the narrow road. Roughly 1,000 plant species live in the park in fantastically diverse biozones. Climbing gradually, the track dodges a principle rock outcrop on its left, shown, and penetrates the east side of the mountains.

At 9.7 miles, crown the first of two passes. Thimble Peak presents itself, left in this image.

At the bottom of the smooth descent cross Titanothere Canyon. Revel in the remarkably engineered switchbacks to Red Pass, named for the mudstone exposed there. An unmistakable place at 12.6 miles, this is the trailhead for Thimble Peak. Park in a limited pull-out, a squeeze for three vehicles.

Thimble Peak Route: From Red Pass TH 5,280', shown, a well-established social trail goes directly up the ridge to the southwest. The initial pitch is abrupt but footing is good. (THW, photo)

A hiker is approaching a small saddle at 0.3 mile, 5,685 feet. To the west, the Mount Whitney group on the Sierra Crest will startle. Notice the trail weaving through scattered shrubs on its way to the next rise.

For the navigation wary, at 0.6 mile, Thimble Peak appears and remains in the view corridor. Below, the trail, crafted by a ridge purist, can be seen on its upward way to Pt. 6,120'.

At 1.1 miles, top Thimble's subsidiary peak, Pt. 6,120'. Titanothere Canyon is confined below its eastern flanks. Beguiling Corkscrew Peak rises higher, but not for long.

Locate the trail while it holds to a rounded southwest ridge, giving up over 300 feet on its way to Saddle 5,796' at 1.4 miles. The peak trail is a slithering snake whose serpentine form takes the edge off the steepness. Looking at the image below, taken from Pt. 6,120', the route skirts the cliff mass to its right while making for the northeast ridge at the horizon.

From a distance, the summit block looks almost vertical. The approach over, trust the mountain and go straight up the rock. The final punch is not as steep as it appears.

In the image below, my climbing companion is executing the low Class 3 move. The exposure is moderate but the holds are good and the limey rock is covered in sticky points. The exposure is mild from here to the crest.

Summit Thimble Peak at 1.75 miles. Before you get lost in reverie over the killer view, analyze your immediate surroundings. The surprisingly generous zenith has one utterly abrupt edge; tumbling 2,000 feet into Titanothere Canyon would be catastrophic. Locate a benchmark placed in 1949. It is impossible to gather in the wildness of this aerie--the prismatic color, the ragged and tortured rock, the silky smooth valley. Look down on nearby Corkscrew Peak with its namesake spiraling rock bands. Travel with your eyes across the immensity and ascend Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, elevation 11,084 feet. (THW, photo)

Soar as far as your eye can see out west to the tallest mountain in the lower 48, and then float down down down to the lowest valley 282 feet below sea level. (THW, photo)

Return as you came, revisiting humble Pt. 6,120'.

Titus Canyon Road to Scotty's Castle Road: Leaving Red Pass, the westward track switchbacks steeply around sharp corners on an excellent surface, dropping nearly 800 feet into an entrenched valley.

The ghost town of Leadfield is at 15.7 miles, marked by a cluster of buildings hurriedly erected in 1924. Alas, the gleaming promise of silver and the earthy riches of lead quickly faded; in 1927, the post office closed and the town folded.

Past Leadfield enter the first set of narrows scoured out by water gathered from Red Pass and the greater Grapevine Mountains. Titus Canyon proper joins forces from the right just past the squeeze.

The gulch widens to reveal Klare Spring at 18.4 miles. Acknowledging this life gift, a boulder just off the road is covered in petroglyphs: bighorn sheep, anthropomorphs, a sun image, linked circles, and geometrics.

Stoney chaos mesmerizes. Rock created in wildly different circumstances and epochs are smashed together in a brilliant tapestry. Layers tilt 70 degrees. High walls are infused with shining quartzite, saffron shale, and brooding, spent volcanics.

Titus is one of the rare canyons in Death Valley that bifurcates a mountain range successfully. While it seems incongruous in this driest of all deserts, the mightiest operational force is water. At 22.7 miles, enter sinuous limestone and dolomite smooth-walled narrows. It feels downright other-worldly to squeeze through the passageway not much wider than our vehicle.

Transit between polished mosaics. According to Digonnet, these are breccias composed of blocks of limestone cemented with white calcite.

At 24.2 miles, the canyon terminates at the base of the Grapevine Mountains, its job complete. There is a large parking lot at this opening. People who do not wish to drive the entire 4WD stretch can experience the best of the narrows by walking up-canyon from here.

Reach Scotty's Castle Road at 27 miles. Turn left to resupply fuel and water.