Hiking Telescope Peak, Death Valley’s Highest Point

Telescope Peak presides over Death Valley’s vast salt flats, a rocky, snow-capped beacon for much of the year even while the desert below is scorching. From Badwater Basin, the lowest point in Death Valley at -282 feet below sea level to Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley at 11,049 feet, the elevation drop is sharper than the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s the highest mountain peak in Death Valley National Park and a dramatic demonstration of Death Valley’s sheer basin and range topography. It caps the Panamint Mountain Range, standing sentinel over the deep, well-watered canyons, cutting into the mountain flanks from the Death Valley floor. Seemingly everywhere you go in Death Valley, Telescope Peak is there, towering in the distance.

The dramatic salt-to-snow shift in elevation and landscape from Badwater Basin to Telescope Peak. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The dramatic salt-to-snow shift in elevation and landscape from Badwater Basin to Telescope Peak. Photo © Jenna Blough.

It’s best to undertake this hike in spring, summer, or fall. This trail offers unusual warm weather hiking opportunities in Death Valley when trails at lower elevations are generally too hot. In winter the trail is usually covered in snow and ice, and the access road may be closed. Check road and trail conditions before you go. This strenuous hike is a total of 13 miles round-trip and has an elevation gain of 2,929 feet so expect it to take anywhere from 7-9 hours to complete.

You’ll find the trailhead easily accessible at Mahogany Flat Campground. This campground, perched at the top of Wildrose Canyon and offers cool temperatures, sweeping views. It is only open March—November because of the likelihood of snow the rest of the year. The 10 sites are available on a first-come-first-serve basis and have picnic tables, fire pits and vault toilets. It does get some traffic because of its proximity to the popular Telescope Peak trail, but your chance of getting a spot is pretty good.

Looking west toward Telescope Peak from Hanaupah Canyon. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Looking west toward Telescope Peak from Hanaupah Canyon. Photo © Jenna Blough.

A true Death Valley classic, if you can only choose one hike in Death Valley, put Telescope Peak in the running (or more accurately, in the slow, grueling climb to the top). The sweeping 360° views make it worthwhile and give a sense of Death Valley’s vast scope. It’s also a great place to cap off travel in Death Valley. If you’ve been wandering down in the canyons and valley floors, this is your chance to have a personal travel retrospective.

The trail begins at the high elevation Mahogany Flat Campground (8,200 feet). It winds through a forest of pinyon, juniper, and mahogany to swing around Rogers Peak on the east side with eastward views down to the valley floor the whole way. At 2.4 miles into the hike, you’ll reach the flinty expanse of the Arcane Meadows. This cold and wind-scoured mountain pass is where you’ll catch the first glimpses west toward the Panamint Valley and the Argus Range.

The trail levels out at the windswept expanse of Arcane Meadows. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The trail levels out at the windswept expanse of Arcane Meadows. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The next two miles remain fairly level, giving you a break from the elevation gain as you walk a gently rising ridge. The highly visible trail ribbons ahead, licking up to the point of Telescope Peak in the distance. Enjoy the western views into Tuber and Jail Canyons—the rough canyons that nose in toward the Death Valley park boundary from the Panamint Valley below. To the east, marvel at Hanaupah Canyon’s three forks cutting deeply into the contoured flanks of the Panamint Mountains. Speaking of marvels, the snaking road up to Aguereberry Point, hand-built by old-time miner Pete Aguereberry to show his friends his favorite view, is visible to the north. At 6,433 feet, Aguereberry Point offers spectacular views of Death Valley. At this point you might be wishing you had chosen this option.

The distant goal of Telescope Peak is always in sight. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The distant goal of Telescope Peak is always in sight. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Around the 4-mile mark, the trail begins to climb again in earnest, and you’ll begin passing through ancient Bristlecone pine forest. These gnarled trees are some of the oldest species of plant life on the planet, with some individuals dating to thousands of years old. They like to grow in harsh and arid environments, which tells you a little about the territory you’ll be hiking through. The twisted trees dot the landscape, forming surreal shapes against the increasingly far-flung views—the Amargosa Range and Death Valley to the east, the Argus Range and Panamint Valley to the west.

Ancient pines gnarled by the wind dot the upper elevations. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Ancient pines gnarled by the wind dot the upper elevations. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The last mile to the peak climbs in a tight series of switchbacks. It’s not just the amazing views that will take your breath away. The thinner air and the tight coils of the rocky rise make for a strenuous final ascent, until finally, you poke your head above what appears to be the cloud line and Telescope Peak rolls in front of you in a glorious swoop. Gulp in air and views as you enjoy the wildness and solitude of the peak—from the luminous salt flats of the valley floor to the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The trail follows a ridge with stunning views of Death Valley to the west and Panamint Valley to the east. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The trail follows a ridge with stunning views of Death Valley to the west and Panamint Valley to the east. Photo © Jenna Blough.

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