Getting Low in Death Valley

by Charlie Winger

Having survived the Spirit Mountain adventure (see Desert Peak Bush-whacking), I decided that bushwhacking might not be my forte. It must be time for something a little tamer. Why not join my longtime climbing partner Gary Hoover and Highpointers Club editor John Mitchler for a stroll across the lowest point in Death Valley National Park?

Gary, John, and I left one vehicle on the west side of the Park in the parking area at Tule Spring, located below Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley National Park at 11,029. Tule Spring is located close to Hanaupah Canyon which is the standard access for hiking from near the low point in the Park to the summit of Telescope Peak, giving you the potential for an 11,000′ hiking day.

We took our second vehicle and drove around to Badwater parking area. This area is near 281 feet below sea level. We loaded up with three liters of water each, plenty of sunscreen, wide brimmed hats, and “throwaway” shoes for the hike across the salt flats to the lowest point in Death Valley and North America. Someone recently died attempting this hike. Apparently, he did not take enough fluids and did the hike when it was too hot. We took old shoes since we could be sinking into ankle-deep muck as we make the seven mile crossing to the other side.

Our hike started quite pleasantly as we joined a dozen or so tourists who were walking out about a quarter mile to explore the salt flats. Shortly, we found ourselves out away from anyone else negotiating the salt ridges, which resembled ice on a frozen lake.

The surface was quite solid and we barely left footprints on the ground. Some 3.5 miles from our starting point we vectored in on the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level Nothing to this “lowpointing.” No scree, no loose talus or bushwhacking — just funny looking polygon patterns on the valley floor.

We were standing there looking around unable to see our starting point or where our vehicles were parked at Tule Springs.  What we could see was a major dust storm heading our way. Good thing we all had GPS receivers as visibility could be a problem. But Mother Nature had one last surprise in store for us — rain. Believe it or not, it started to rain while we were at the low point. Hey, what’s a little rain you say? Well, add water to salt and what do you get? Muck! Oh boy, only 3.5 sloppy miles to go before we get to our vehicles. Are we having fun yet?

Thankfully, the rain was short-lived and we had only wind and dust to contend with, but as an intelligent person (do you know one?) would gather, when you hike toward a place which contains the name “springs” it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be just a wee bit damp. So, glog, glog, slip, curse and so on it went for the last mile or so of the hike. I don’t remember too much conversation taking place.

We arrived alive, hydrated, and happy at Tule Springs ready for a good meal at the cafe located at Furnace Creek.

Gary and I said goodbye to John and headed to Emigrant campground above Stovepipe Wells for a good night’s rest before taking off on our adventure the next day, a hike up Panamint Butte — an 8 hour, 5,000′ day on loose volcanic scree. Gee, I can hardly wait!

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