Mojave Desert Part III
On January 11th Apryle and I emerged from our warm hotel room and shuffled out into the cold parking lot in the pre dawn hours. We cleared the frost accumulation from the windshield and loaded the car with our hydration packs and food for a day in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park. Our intentions in the Panamints were dynamic, we initially thought a summit of Telescope Peak, the highest mountain in Death Valley seemed like an obvious choice, but because of the winter conditions and road closures we were unsure of that option. We had several other ideas for worthy adventures and kept our options open and tempered our expectations.
We retraced our route from the previous day into the National Park, and continued south on 190 to Emigrant Canyon Road. Emigrant Canyon Road was a narrow winding road that gradually ascended through the high desert. The barren desert basin gradually transitioned to an evenly dispersed patchwork of low growing shrubs. We squeezed through a narrow canyon, crept up a tight switchbacking path over the pass and emerged in a flat plain referred to as Harrisburg Flats. The lonely gray strip of asphalt continued east as far as our eyes could see until it was engulfed by vast arid landscape.
As we ascended the Charcoal Kiln Road, things really got interesting. The paved road switched to a rutted stone road and Apryle tested the limits of the vehicle. Eventually, the snow and ice accumulation along with the deep trenches in the road forced us to abandon the car and take to foot. Normally we love the extra mileage, but we knew that the further from the Telescope Peak trailhead we started, the less chance we would have of doing Telescope Peak. As we ran the last bit of the stone road, I was mesmerized by both the diversity of vegetation and quantity of snow in Death Valley National Park.
At our starting point of 6200 feet it was as if we had transported to another region all together. There were Pinyon Pine and Juniper reaching 12 to 15 feet with an understory of sagebrush and bitterbrush. Eventually we reached the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. This was an otherworldly sight – with a neat row of ten bee hive looking stone structures standing guard over snow dusted sage brush and juniper. The intense scent of charcoal remains upon entering the conical stone structure and takes you back to the 1870s when they were constructed. Even though I am not a fan of historical structures in national parks, I could not help but be impressed with the longevity of these stone huts.
After inspecting the kilns we continued past the locked gate up Mahogany Flat Road, which was anything but flat. Presumably the road was gravel, but because it was under about 6 to 8 inches of snow it was difficult to determine. I post holed through the snow in short steps so that Apryle could follow. The journey became arduous, but we had both trudged through much deeper snow for much longer periods of time under far colder conditions on significantly more technical terrain.
The trees grew taller and more impressive as we passed into the realm of the Limber and Bristlecone Pines. The accumulation of pines in this region resembled a proper forest and vegetation was so thick that you could actually get lost in the maze of greenery emerging from the blanket of snow. In addition to the conifers, Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany was neatly interspersed and its silvery bark nearly matched the icy veneer on its waxy green leaves. Fighting for access to the sun in the understory was mix of sagebrush and cacti. The spiny cactus needles poking through a thick layer of snow was something unique to witness.
We reached the Telescope Peak Junction at Mahogany Flats and decided to continue up the Rogers Peak Service Road instead of the Telescope Peak trail. Once we reached the service road the vegetation became very sparse again, consistent with any high elevation tree line. We were treated to sweeping views of the desert below us as we zigzagged up the switchbacks. The wind began sweeping across the road leaving behind a slick layer of ice. We managed to cross a few of the icy sections, but finally at 9000 feet we were denied any further progress. A mere two switchbacks from the visible summit of Rogers Peak and the ice became too dangerous for running shoes. The slope was far too steep and we could not get any purchase while trying to cross. We could not take the risk and ultimately bailed from our B goal of summiting Rogers Peak. A dead Mountain Chickadee lying on the trail reminded us of how fragile life is and how difficult survival is for animals that call Death Valley home.
We moved with greater speed on the descent and after reaching the car I continued running down hill because Apryle agreed to pick me up on her way out with the car so I could pick up some more miles. I bombed down the forest road and made it back onto the paved section in 5:40 mile pace before jumping back into the car. As we snaked back down Emigrant Canyon Road we saw and heard the first and only Burros of the trip. In fact they appeared to be the same Burros from the park newsletter – one black with a white nose and the other tan and white. Burros are an invasive species introduced by early prospectors. Although they are fun to see, they decimate the delicate ecosystem and outcompete native species such as Desert Bighorn. Fortunately, the park controls the Burro population by adopting them out to a non-profit no-kill sanitary.
After an anticlimactic end to our big adventure in the Panamints, we decided to explore Mosaic Canyon. This 4 mile out and back lived up to its name with a colorful geological mosaic. The tan Noonday Dolomite, embedded red-orange sand formations, cemented lime, and marble created a complex mural through the narrow channels. These narrow channels gave way to broader dry creek beds which transitioned back into narrow chutes in the bedrock. There was a fair amount of plant life in the canyon and we even saw a little Rock Wren flitting around a mud puddle. The turning point in the canyon was a 20 foot cliff with a small trickle of water barley dripping over the rock.
The final stop in Death Valley National Park was the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We had very little daylight left so our visit to the dunes was brief. Apryle and I knew that it would be tough to top our adventure in Great Sand Dunes National Park from 2013, so we mainly observed from afar. Despite being a desert, the right conditions to create dunes are unusual. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is the result of eroding mountains to the north and wind blocking mountains to the south. This allows a source of sand and means to contain the sand in one location. Unlike the contained sand, we made our way out of the park with the sun setting behind us. Even though we only spent two days in the park, we were saddened to be parting ways.