Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Middleground Between the Highest and the Lowest Places: Hiking to the Summit of Wild Rose Peak

Date: November 26, 2021
Place: Death Valley National Park, Lone Pine, California
Length: 8.5 miles in and out
Level: strenuous
By the end of our 2021 Thanksgiving break I got pretty restless. Having had mostly drives or short, easy hikes, I was yearning to do a more serious trail. I also knew where I wanted to do that hike and that was at the heights of Panamint Ridge, an area of Death Valley National Park that I haven't been to for about 20 years. Thankfully my family didn't object much and so on the last full day we had at the park we drove up to the mountains bordering Death Valley on the west.
The way up the mountain splits off hwy 190 and follows the ridge line. After the initial ascent the road goes through a few fairly level areas. We happened to see a feral donkey munching on vegetation by the road side and we stopped to take photos. The donkey appeared alone but we figured there might be more around because there were piles of donkey dung everywhere along the road.
Feral Burro 

The highest mountain of Panamint Ridge is Telescope Peak, at elevation of 11,043 ft. Going up there has been on my mind but it would have to be on another time. That day our destination would be Wildrose Peak, a trail fitting better our family's ability and the time we had. 
At the trailhead there was a line of seven old stone kilns that were used to make charcoal for the mining facilities in the area. My understanding is that the mountain was much more forested before the charcoal operation.
Wildrose Kilns

The Wildrose Peak trailhead is right behind the kilns. After a quick inspection of the structures, we headed up the trail.
Our hike as captured by my GPS

The initial ascent is about a mile of a mild grade slope. There were a few other hikers on that trail but not many, and the weather was just perfect.
Wildrose Peak Trail

I didn't expect to see any wildflowers on this trail so late in season, but the trees were definitely something to look at and write about. 
Utah Juniper, Juniperus osteosperma

The trail curved around the mountainside and the view to the west opened up. Just below us was the high plateau of the Panamint Range. Behind it way below, lay Panamint Valley, bordered on the west by the Inyo Range. The highest mountain range on the horizon was the mighty Sierra Nevada.  
View west from the trail 

An exposed rocky ledge jutted out of the mountain side. The trail stretched right above that ledge. So far the trail was fairly level and, knowing how high we needed to go still, I expected the rest of the trail to be considerably steeper. 

The rocky ledge provided some rally nice view points. The nicest of these view points was occupied by a couple who claimed it as their romantic spot. We didn't bother them, just kept on moving. 

The trail curved east and started following the creek uphill. To our north I could see our destination- Wildrose Peak. It didn't look very far or very challenging and I was eager to get up there. 
Wildrose Peak, zoomed in.

After curving east the trail got considerably steeper. It didn't take long for us to slow down as we toiled uphill. Occasionally Pappa Quail and the elder chika would stop and listen to the birds chirping in the trees but for the most part they didn't see the little feathered singers. 
Wildrose Peak Trail

The birds they did see didn't cooperate with the camera and would stay hidden behind the branches. After some patient stalking This jay was captured on camera.
Woodhouse Scrub Jay

One great thing about desert hiking is that the geology is exposed to the eyes and not covered with alluvial soil and vegetation. Sans wildflowers and sweeping views aside, the colorful rocks are the prettiest thing along the trail. Knowing their source and natural history is a different matter however. I admit my geology knowledge is very much lacking.  

My expectations of the ascend were correct - after the initial level walk around the mountain contour there was the steep grade slope up the creek, a good effort climb. At the top of the creek trail part, we started having views east, of Death valley far below. 
Death Valley view

The 'saddle' at the top of the creek ascent was a good place to stop for a break. There were very pretty rocks there as well. 

To the north stood Wildrose Peak. We were just under half way there and still had some uphill walk, although not as steep.
Wildrose Peak, broad view

There were lizards out and about but they too didn't cooperate with the cameras. They were cute to look at.

Our long break was over and we started up the trail again. From the saddle the trail takes a small dip in the east side of the ridge line and from there the views into Death Valley and the near northeast part of the Panamint range was absolutely marvelous.
View northeast from Wildrose Peak Trail

The trail on the ridge leading north to Wildrose Peak was of a mild grade and we made good pace on it, not stopping much. Pappa Quail was keeping time and he kept reminding us that the day is short and that we needed to get off the mountain before darkness.
Wildrose Peak Trail

I tried to pause less but the views were just spectacular. The plants too, even without flowers, were pretty and fascinating. The presence of pinyon pines also had us look for pinyon jays. We didn't see any of those birds there, but it did keep my elder chika attentive and alert.
Oneneedle Pinyon Pine, Pinus monophylla

By the side of the trail I saw beavertail cactus covered with such dense thorns that it looked like fur. The cactus looked very shriveled and thirsty. As I write this post, almost a full year since this hike, Death Valley National Park is dealing with massive flash flood damage. I think of this cactus and the other plants - they got nearly an entire year's worth of water in a single event. That's the true desert - very unexpected.

The trail steepened again at last stretch leading to the summit. On the last bit what looked like the summit turned out to be false, and as far in the back as I was I could hear my chika's laud groan when she realized there was a bit more to go.

I was the last to reach the summit. Having done this hike about a month after a hard ankle sprain I was the slowest in the family and when I reached the summit everyone else had already taken the best seats and had all the snacks out of the backpack. A pile of rocks marked the summit, and a USGS marker was planted at the top.
Wildrose Peak Summit

Pappa Quail allocated 30 minutes for our summit break. I would have liked to stay more and explore the area a bit, but I knew he was right - it was a bit over 4 miles down to the trailhead, and although it would be faster going downhill, it would still take us to sunset time. While we were discussing these things, the elder chika made the best use of our break time. 

We had a great view to the east, into Death Valley and on the Amaragosa Range. On the day before we hiked at Shoshone, just behind that range. I pointed at the white flat at the bottom of Death Valley below and told Pappa Quail that I thought this was Badwater area.
Death Valley

Pappa Quail used his powerful birding zoom lens and took a closeup photo of the area I pointed at. Sure enough, that was Badwater, the lowest place in the western hemisphere.

I turned my gaze to the west. It was harder to tell details of the view because the sun was now at the west, but I did search the ridge line of the Sierra Nevada and I thought I identified what I was looking for. I tapped Pappa Quail's shoulder and asked for another zoomed photo.
The Sierra Nevada Range

Indeed it was - Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous USA was visible from where we stood (to the left of the photo below. I thought it was wild that from where we were at the summit of Wildrose Peak we could see both the lowest place in America and the highest place in the contiguous US.
Mount Whitney (left)

The wind had picked up and the air was chilling. It was time to begin our descend. Going down the peak and to the south we had Telescope Peak ahead. In the winter Telescope Peak can get snow-capped. I saw it more than once from below. I would love to hike up there and I will, one day.
Telescope Peak

The way down was fast. I could probably go even faster if not for the lingering pain of my recent injury. As with the way up, I was bringing up the rear.
Wildrose Peak Trail

I didn't take many photos on the way down. This was an in and out trail and most sights I'd already noted on our way up. Some sights however, look better in late afternoon lighting.

Once we dropped into the creek part of the trail our hike became a race with the sunset. Although facing west, the creek was deep enough to hide the sun and the trail became darker by the minute. On the other hand, the clouds became much prettier in that evening light.

We were blessed with one more patch of direct sunlight and an opportunity to see the sunset between the trees. The younger chika asked for a break, she was tired and her feet hurt. Pappa Quail wasn't happy but he too wanted a bit rest. The elder chika didn't want to stop so I gave her the car keys and she took off on her own down the trail while we rested a bit and watched the sunset.

The last mile or so of the trail, the part that curves south along the slopes contour we hiked briskly in the fading post sunset light. The trail was clear and obvious and I wasn't worried about having to walk the last bit in the light of our phone's flashlight apps (Pappa Quail reminded me that we didn't take flashlights with us). As it was, we didn't need any artificial illumination. The remnants of daylight were enough to see us through the last part of the hike.
After Sunset

In fact, there was enough light still for my sensitive camera to capture one last image of the kilns at the trailhead. We joined the elder chika in the car and started back down to Death Valley.
Wildrose Kilns

The post sunset light disappears much faster in the short winter days. Almost as soon as we made it back to Wildrose Road it was already pitch black outside. There were no other cars around - we were the last humans to leave the trailhead parking area and none of the campgrounds were visible to us. Our attempt to speed up our descent from the mountain was cut short when we realized that there were feral burros by the road side, way too close for comfort. We had to drive very slow for fear we might hit one of the donkeys. It was still early though, only around 7 pm when we arrived at Stovepipe Wells. Not feeling like cooking at the camp site that night, we stopped to eat at the restaurant there, and even used their shower facility. Tired but fed and clean, we made it back to our campsite for one last nigh before heading back home. This was the final and best hike of a very satisfying Thanksgiving break.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Death Valley's Sweet and Easy Backyard Hike of Shoshone Nature Trail

Date: November 25, 2021
Place: Shoshone Nature Trail, Shoshone Village, California
Coordinates: 35.974878, -116.269928
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

The day after we moved in Death Valley National Park for the rest of our 2021 Thanksgiving vacation we decided to dedicate to birding east of the park's boundaries. The elder chika was still a bit down from her illness earlier that week and needed one more day of easy walks. We spent the morning wandering around Ash Meadows Preserve east of the park looking for birds there, but didn't see much. We also checked out a bit of Death Valley National Park that is a tiny island of parkland nestled inside the Ash Meadow Preserve area, called Devil's Hole. Devil's Hole is a huge underground cavern that is fully flooded and is home to endemic fish species. We could only look at the cave from outside the fence that surrounded the hole. 
After Ash Meadows we drove to Shoshone to hike a Shoshone Nature Trail that I read about in the local Audubon Society chapter's website. Before the hike we dropped into the local diner for lunch and while we were outside the diner we saw a cute roadrunner checking out the place's front yard.

The trailhead was right behind the diner so after our lunch all that we needed was to get our water bottles and cameras and head out toward the river.
Our hike as captured by my GPS

 Just like in Ash Meadows, it seemed right away that we were there at the wrong season for birding. Unlike Ash Meadows however, this place had other nice aspects that made our hike there a very nice one. One problem we had that hike though, was that the trail markers did not seem to fit the markings on the map I had of the trail, so the loop we ended up hiking didn't match the recommendation on either the Audubon Society page or the AllTrails entry. 
Shoshone Nature Trailhead

We started on a short bit of trail leading from the road to the Amaragosa River. I don't know the name of the mountain range east of Shoshone, but it was a very beautiful mountain range, with nice, even, and very colorful sedimentary rock layers that were very visible from afar.

Pappa Quail and the elder chika who were looking for birds all day found a couple of bluebirds on a tree branch a bit farther away and stopped to take photos. Bluebirds are always fun to see, even if they're common and can be seen also in the Bay Area.
Western Bluebird, male

My camera isn't suitable for far away birding so I enjoyed the bluebirds through my binoculars. I was also fascinated by the red balls of mistletoe that decorated just about every other tree in the area.

A bit further down the trail my family borders found a sparrow. They saw a few phainopepla too but these were too far away and wouldn't cooperate with the cameras.
Juvenile white-crowned sparrow

West of the Amaragosa River there are a couple of short loops in the trail and we veered off to one of them. i let my family go up ahead and I took the view of the area east of us. Most of the vegetation was yellowish-gray but there was a thin green line of lusher vegetation that marked where the river, the water lifeline of the area, was.

On the nature loop we took the trail plunged into a thicket of small mesquite trees and large holly bushes. It was nice to have some shade on the trail because even the November sun is intense in that region, and it was good to have some respite from the wind that had picked up in the afternoon. In some places we had to stoop down to go under the boughs that hanged over the trail.

When we got clear of the vegetation we had a nice view of the Amaragosa Range to the west. A large DV letters were chalk-painted on the mountain side. I assume it stands for Death Valley. Only yesterday we hiked at the 'Hole in the Wall' on the other side f those peaks.  

Large holly bushes flanked our trail and every now and then I picked myself a leaf and munched on it. These plants do well on saline soils because they have a mechanism to secrete the salt out of the leaves. The leaves therefore, taste salty. They are also bitter, so I only chewed one at the time. 

My young chika waited for me to catch up with her and pointed at the ground where there were a few active anthills. Small wildlife is still wildlife, and ants are fascinating. 

We completed the loop and resumed our walk to the river, then turned to follow it north. All that time we didn't see any birds other than bluebirds and sparrows, and an occasional phainopepla. The view was nice, though. I imagine that in spring the wildflowers are pretty there. 

It wasn't very late in the afternoon but it was the short-days time of the year and the shadows were getting long already. My shadow stretched long to the northeast over the river side grasses. 

The grasses were very pretty, even when completely dry. I don'y know to identify grasses very well and I didn't try to identify these. I don't even know if they are native or exotic to the area. I did like the fluffy look they gave the river bank.  

Amaragosa River has some water holes that had water in them still, but for the most part it looked dry. It might also have been so because of the drought. California fan palms indicated the presence of fresh water. The vegetation was too thick to see any there. At some point we crossed the river and continued north along the eastern bank. 
Amaragosa River

The map I had with me marked a return trail that loops back along the road. When we reached the road again about a mile and some north of where we started, we saw no trail going back. After some looking around behind a resort where said trail was supposed to be, and not finding anything, we backtracked our steps to the river trail. 

We thought to go back on the same trail we came on, but Pappa Quail found another trail that loops back further east of the river, so we took that trail. We had to go a bit further north before the trail curved south, and I got to see the other side of that pretty fan palm we saw earlier on the hike. 

The mountains to the northeast were significantly smaller than the Amaragosa mountains, but they looked very pretty and inviting. We didn't have the time to explore them that day but I did look at them wistfully and hoped I could go back there one day. 

The trail finally curved south and we plunged into tall vegetation again. Among the river bank plants there I recognized the common reed, a highly invasive species I'm all too familiar with from the Middle East. 

I saw a lush and healthy young fan palm nestled among the mesquite. I guess that one too indicates the presence of fresh water close to the ground. 

California Fan Palm

Nearing the end of November, I didn't expect to see any wildflowers on this hike. I was surprised therefore, to see a rabbitbrush blooming. But if there was anything that would be blooming there in this time of year, of course it would be of the aster family. 

The trail separated from the river and led us closer to the low hills on the east of the preserve. Not meandering through vegetation anymore, we picked our pace and were getting near the southern crossing of the river again. 

On our way back we crossed the river at a different point. The crossing was right over one of the water holes, and it was in fact, the only tie I saw the river's water on this hike. I figure it flows really nice after a good, rainy season. Certainly well enough to support all the vegetation we saw there. 
Water Hole at the Amaragosa River
The way back was a quick one. We took the south arm of the second trail loop, where we came upon a few more bluebirds and sparrows. When we finished the hike there was enough daylight to get back to our campground, but our dinner we cooked under lantern light already. At the end of the evening Pappa Quail and the chikas entered the tent right away but I stayed outside. The wind was too strong to have a campfire so we didn't have one. I walked around the campground that was slowly quieting down, and looked up at the magnificent night skies, enjoying once again the brilliant stars and the stunning Milky Way that we're part of, but don't get to see anymore in the urban area where we live.