If you’ve ever stood at 282 feet below sea level on the salt flats of Badwater Basin—the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere—and looked up at the crest of the mountains rising tall above you and thought, I want to stand up there, you’re in luck.
The “up there” in question is 11,049 foot Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley National Park, and its summit can be reached by a 14-mile round-trip trek on one of the few officially maintained trails in the area. The hike is not without its challenges, but the view from the top is well worth the effort as it offers sweeping views and legendary vertical relief (11,300 feet if you don’t feel like doing the math yourself). On a clear day, you can not only see the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, but Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
If you’re ready to conquer the crown jewel of the Panamint Range, here’s how to climb Telescope Peak:
Things to Know
While technically considered a year-round hike, Telescope Peak is best climbed in the summer. There’s nothing like sitting high atop the breezy summit of the mountain and looking down at the hottest place in the world. The spring and fall shoulder seasons are fine too as long as you keep an eye on lingering snow and potential road closures. If you attempt it in the winter, bring crampons, lots of warm layers and know the importance of turning back should you encounter deep snow, dangerous ice, or an unexpected storm. Whatever season you climb Telescope in, plan on having ample water as you won’t find any springs along the way. Other necessities include lots of food, sunscreen, a first aid kit, and of course a camera to capture the best view you’ll ever see of Death Valley.
Remember, Telescope Peak is in a remote part of a national park that’s already defined by its remoteness (95% of Death Valley is a designated wilderness area), so tell rangers your plans if you’re hiking alone, and definitely don’t expect cell phone service. Wondering how long the hike will take? Depending on your fitness level, your comfort with the altitude, and the number of times you stop to remind yourself that no, you’re not dreaming, Death Valley really is that gorgeous, it can take anywhere from six to eight hours.
Highway 190 is the main road—and one of the only paved roads—running through Death Valley. Whether you’re accessing the Telescope Peak Trailhead from the Los Angeles area to the west or the Las Vegas area to the east, you’ll have to get on 190 and take it to Emigrant Canyon Road. This winding, narrow road travels steadily uphill through expansive desert meadows (sounds like an oxymoron, but stick with us) where you can see wild burros grazing. Any car can make it as far as the Charcoal Kilns, but use caution going farther, as the final 1.5 miles are on a rough road that may require 4WD and almost definitely requires high clearance. Yes, you may see a Toyota Prius at the top that makes you regret leaving your sedan down below, but trust us, adding an extra few miles to your hike is better than getting a flat in such a remote area. Either way you travel to the trailhead, you’ll find it located directly next to Mahogany Flat Campground at an elevation of 8,133 feet.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the actual hike, let’s take a moment to talk about why it’s a great idea to camp near the trailhead the night before summiting Telescope Peak. If you’ve never experienced altitude sickness before, picture your worst hangover and then imagine hiking during it. Instead of cursing your headache while vomiting at the top of the mountain, take a night to get used to the elevation. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran of high altitude peak bagging, the drastic change from Death Valley’s lower elevations to 11,049 feet can hit you hard.
Mahogany Flat Campground is by far the best place to spend the night, and not just because it’s literally right next to the trailhead for Telescope Peak. In addition to the convenience factor, the campground has stunning views straight down into the valley floor below and is a spectacular place to watch the sunset. Best of all? It’s totally free. Get there early to snag one of just 10 sites. If you can’t make it to Mahogany Flat, you can camp at Thorndike Campground (six sites) or Wildrose Campground (23 sites). Both are also free and will put you in a great position to get used to the elevation and get an early start on Telescope Peak. Consider an 8.4 mile warm-up hike to the top of nearby Wildrose Peak the day before, but don’t push yourself if you’d rather hang out at your campsite and hydrate than summit a 9,064 foot mountain.
From the trailhead, the seven mile ascent up Telescope Peak starts gradually through pinyon pines, juniper, and mahogany. Keep an eye out for mule deer, who frequent the surprisingly lush slopes of the Panamint Range in order to graze. Once the forest parts, you’ll see incredible views into Hanaupah Canyon. The trail continues to climb steadily as it makes its way around the side of Rogers Peak, which is distinguished by the military radio tower on the summit.
Soon you’ll reach a saddle in between Rogers Peak and Bennett Peak, both of which can be climbed via a quick and obvious Class Two scramble if you’re up for it. From there, you’ll have your first view of Telescope Peak rising above the ridgeline in the distance. Pause at the saddle and take in the beauty of the alpine grasslands around you. If you’re lucky, you’ll see desert wildflowers and blooming cacti. This area, called the Arcane Meadows, is supposedly the site where the lost Arcane party of 1849 stood and looked back at the foreboding landscape that they had just crossed and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” thus giving the place its extremely awesome name.
From the Arcane Meadows, the trail meanders over to the western side of Bennett Peak, giving you a look into the Panamint Valley.
At this point, you’ll probably be chuckling over how easy this supposedly strenuous hike has turned out to be. And that’s when the switchbacks begin. The thirteen switchbacks are notoriously punishing for a lot of reasons, but in the interest of not spoiling the fun, we’ll just name a few.
For starters they’re steep. Telescope Peak is a cruel mistress who knows the pain of having the last 1.5 miles of your hike be the hardest. Because of the high elevation, the switchbacks will feel more grueling than logic dictates they should. You’ll likely experience shortness of breath and a weakening of your muscles. In addition to the steep incline, the altitude, and the sheer torture of the relentlessness of it all, the exposure won’t allow for much relief from the harsh sun. Don’t beat yourself up if you need to take frequent breaks on this section of trail. You’re almost there.
Once you’ve defeated the switchbacks, you’ll find yourself standing on an exceptionally beautiful ridgeline with the summit in sight. From there it’s only moments before you’re standing on top of Telescope Peak.
On the summit, you’ll learn firsthand why it’s called Telescope Peak. Take in 360 degree views of California and Nevada and gaze for hundreds of miles in any direction. To the east, you’ll see Badwater Basin below you along with 11,916 foot Charleston Peak which rises above Las Vegas. To the west, you’ll see the Panamint Valley and in the distance, the snow-capped Eastern Sierra.
Sign the summit register, rest, and congratulate yourself on climbing the tallest mountain in Death Valley. It’s all downhill from here.