Spacious silence and cool, dry air. The sun is always warm in California, even in the dead of winter. Winter time is the off season here in Death Valley National Park, but I can’t imagine why. Boasting the hottest recorded temperature on Earth, it seems funny that most of the park’s visitors come in the summer. If you want to feel some serious, otherworldly heat, then pay us a visit in July! However, if you come to explore at any other time of the year, California’s mild and pleasant weather can be almost guaranteed.
Spring is especially nice in Death Valley, when the warm nights return, and the wildflowers occasionally bloom for miles. If you stop by in winter however, you will probably find ample solitude on the trails in the area. At higher elevations in winter, there will be snow and ice towards the top of the mountains, but usually not very much. Cold, crisp air awaits as you hike higher, complete silence, and most likely, isolation.
Starting from the charcoal kilns area, deep in the Panamint Mountains you will know when you’ve arrived, because these strange, stone, beehive-like structures will suddenly appear in the pinyon pine forest. They will certainly bring a moment of fascination. Most people don’t realize Death Valley has forests at the higher elevations. As the road winds higher into the mountain range, trees will suddenly appear. Any further up from here it becomes 4 wheel drive only. That road will lead to the trailhead for Telescope Peak, another great day hiking option.
The charcoal kilns are a very cool landmark to check out. In the 1800s they would burn the pinyon pine forest here to make coal, and send it for fuel to the nearby mining boom-towns. I used to live in Death Valley and I fell in love with the park. The Panamint Mountains were my great backyard. When I would get some time to myself I’d wander up into them and enjoy their majestic silence. The hike here took place in January, and the conditions were icy, but without too much snow. The hike didn’t require any special gear, or any special permits. Just drive up into this lonely land and see what’s out there. The Wildrose Trail will generally have less snow on it than the Telescope Trail, so can be a good option in winter.
I felt refreshed at the beginning of the hike as I left the charcoal kilns, taking my camera along and meandering around a few scenic corners, before heading straight up! This was the most challenging part of the day as I climbed through the forest, but was the perfect warm-up in the sharp, high desert air. The charcoal kilns are already at 6,800 feet of elevation. Coming from the bottom of Death Valley, I left the warm weather behind having driven literally from sea level, and would climb to over 9,000 feet high on this 4.2 mile, one way hike. It wasn’t too far before cresting the ridge, and I looked down to the first sweeping view of Badwater Basin in the valley. This, I could tell, is where the great scenery would begin. The rest of the hike was much easier than the first part of the ascent. Now I got to stroll along the ridgeline, taking in the view of Telescope Peak behind me. Telescope is Death Valley’s tallest mountain, and has an incredible ridgewalk as well. Trails in this area are great options for day hiking the Panamints.
After the mellow ridgewalk, I encountered one final push to get to the summit. This is where the snow and ice began, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I was actually wearing sandals as well! I wouldn’t completely recommend this, because my toes were getting cold, but I generally love sandals for desert hiking. Just don’t hit a cactus! Finally, the summit awaits.
I sat there and froze for a very long time, writing in my journal and wandering around that place which feels on top of the world. I took shelter in a pinyon pine tree to each some snacks, surveying the colorful, mirage-like desert all around. No matter the elevation, the sun always feels warm around here. Another great thing about Death Valley is you can hike in the bright moonlight, so I didn’t feel too rushed to get down knowing the moon would be showing up tonight. Still, it’s always a good idea to bring a flashlight or headlamp and the 10 essentials. Upon arriving back home in Death Valley later that evening, the warm air was a welcome greeting.
Information: There is a free campground at the beginning of Emigrant Canyon Road, and at the junction of Wildrose/ Emigrant Canyon Road. They are reserved on a first come basis, and are often crowded or full most times of the year (except winter). Free camping can be found on the BLM land at the bottom of Wildrose Road in Panamint Valley, on many dirt side roads, and roadside camping/sleeping is acceptable there as well. Backcountry permits, day hiking or camping, are voluntary in Death Valley, and can be filled out at the two visitors centers – one in Lone Pine, CA, and one in Furnace Creek, CA. Check with a ranger about snow condition before attempting a hike, and be prepared with all your own water. It’s up to you how much water to carry because it is heavy, but 2-4 liters should be sufficient for a colder, shorter day hike. Of course if you bring more, you can always drink more!
Books & Maps: Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past by Michel Digonnet. This book is more than just a hiking guide, the author knows Death Valley very well and explains its rich and colorful history along with the descriptions of the hike. He will also tell you the many unique plants and animals found in the region, as well as more obscure hikes off the beaten path. This guide includes hidden gold mines to explore and descriptions of how to find them. This guidebook is one to constantly return to whenever planning a hike in Death Valley.
Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys by Michel Digonnet. This book provides a closer look at the trails on the west side (the best side) of the park.
Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter. A fascinating read for anyone interested in Death Valley, or who is familiar with the park, this book will convey all of its history. There are many stories, some grim and some funny. From the lost Mormon wagon train that accidentally discovered Death Valley and gave it the name... to the many prospectors and con-men who called the place home. It’s a long and highly informative read, and an excellent series of stories about this haunting land.
Death Valley National Park Trails Illustrated Map, National Geographic. This is the only map I have ever needed when exploring Death Valley. It has clear topography lines and the beautiful coloring of the map makes it fun to look at and easy to read. It has info on the side about trail suggestions and concerns about hiking in the park.
Getting There: If traveling from the east, take CA hwy 190, the main road through the park. After passing Stovepipe Wells village, drive 10 miles further and you will find Emigrant Canyon Road on your left. Take that turn, and drive for about 25 miles straight to the Wildrose trailhead at the charcoal kilns. The road will turn to dirt 5 miles before the kilns. These same directions can be used if traveling from the West on CA hwy 190. After you pass Panamint Springs village your turnoff is 22 miles away on the right. If traveling from Los Angeles area however, you will be coming into the park from the south. In this case you can take the back route in... After leaving the town of Trona and cresting the Slate Range Pass, you will drop into Panamint Valley. Take the right turn for Wildrose Road, 15 miles after Slate Range Pass. This will connect you to Emigrant Canyon Road, take a right turn there, and drive just 8 miles to the charcoal kilns. When exploring the region, it is fun to take both roads, Emigrant Canyon and Wildrose Road, to make a driving loop out of it.
Best Time to Go: Hiking the Panamint Mountains can be done any time of the year. My favorite time is December, because the air is very clear that time of the year, but the temperatures can be quite cold. The only time the hike should be avoided is immediately after a high altitude snowstorm or during one. This information should be found out at the visitor center, or at least by gazing up at the snow level on the peaks. Springtime snow is very possible in Death Valley. The best time to do the hike is on a rare cloudy day…In the summer, this hike is an excellent escape from the hot weather, and temperatures will still be mildly warm at the summit. In the spring, vast meadows of wildflowers sometimes bloom in the Panamint Mountains.