Originally Published: July 8, 2012 3:12 p.m.
Within 25 air miles of Bad Water Basin (lowest point just mentioned), lies Telescope Peak at more than 11,000 feet above sea level. That's like stacking two Grand Canyon hikes, one on top of the other. Fortunately, the trailhead for hiking Telescope Peak is above 8,000 feet. So, in spite of the heat on the salt flats below, including the Devil's Golf Course, you can enjoy a pleasant day hike (7 miles one way) along a ridge with amazing views of the Sierra Nevada to the west in the middle of a Park with some of the most fascinating history, both human and natural, that you'll find anywhere on the planet. While in the neighborhood, consider hiking Wild Rose Peak, a little lower and to the north of the Kilns. These Kilns bear silent testimony to the manufacture of charcoal by Asian immigrants as they fanned the flames of mineral exploration while Powell was floating through the Grand Canyon.
Of course, you'll have to drive to the trailhead through the hot valleys, so make sure your vehicle is up to it. The Telescope Peak trailhead is at Mahogany Flat Camp (8133 feet), some 0.7 miles past Thorndike Camp. The trailhead is 1.5 miles past the Kilns and 3.7 miles from where the dirt road begins. It is 30.1 miles from CA HWY 190 running through the Park. The final section of dirt road is a bit steep and rocky. NPS recommends high clearance but my light duty, small pickup did fine and there was a passenger car at the trailhead when I arrived. There is no surface water along the trail but you may find snow, which I did at the end of May along with a hungry bull snake. Be prepared.
While the weather, animals, and hikers may include some surprises in Death Valley, you can be sure of seeing some fascinating plants. I've included one parasite, a sagebrush, a grass, and a fern. You'll have to look under the sagebrush to find the parasite. Sagebrush is a plain looking but important member of the Sunflower Family. Squirreltail is a member of the most important family of plants the world over, the grasses. The economic and ecological value of grasses is beyond measure. They are often neglected in field guides though, being easily overlooked since they blend in to the background so well with their "sameness" against the general landscape. Finally, I've included a fern. Ferns are vascular plants like trees and flowers but do not produce seeds, bearing spores instead. They are often sought out in more mesic places like the fern grottos mentioned by John Wesley Powell as he floated down the Colorado River over 150 years ago. But ferns occur in drier places too, like Telescope Peak in Death Valley NP, just another pleasant surprise in this amazing land we call the Southwest.
Clustered Broomrape, Orobanche fasciculata (Orobanche Family)
Parasites are mysterious when you consider all the modifications necessary for them to exist. These plants shed their chlorophyll long ago, deriving their nutrition from others, at the expense of their host. Could the host not develop a defense against this intrusion? Is there any benefit to the host? This approach to living then (parasitism), is secondary to how things began. It came later and must have, at some point, been easier to live off other plants than the sun. Interesting. Orobanche fasiculata is found all over western North America from Texas to the Arctic Circle. On Telescope Peak it parasitizes sagebrush in the vicinity of Arcane Meadows, north of the summit. The flowers are purplish and tubular. The stems are only a few centimeters tall and yellowish. It stands out like a sore thumb, though you may need to poke around at the base of some shrubbery to find them. Upon close inspection, they are quite beautiful.
Black Sagebrush, Artemisia nova (Sunflower Family)
Is there any more plant that characterizes the Intermountain West than sagebrush? With some 50 species found across the Southwest, this is one shrub that you will run into over and over, though you probably would not recognize it as a member of the largest plant family the world over, at least in temperate habitats like the Southwest. That's because the flowers are much reduced and there are no ray flowers in this group, only disc flowers. Disc flowers are smaller, hence less noticeable than ray flowers. The flowers of Black Sagebrush are yellow and crowded at the ends of its short stems, usually below knee level. This particular species of sagebrush is one of the most common shrubs in the western United States, though it hybridizes with two other species of Artemisia, Big Sagebrush and Little Sagebrush. Black Sagebrush complicates the matter by appearing in two forms, one black the other gray-green. Regardless of the overall form, the aromatic leaves are narrow, short, and often toothed at the tips. Look for it on the northeast ridge of Telescope Peak as you approach the summit.
Squirreltail, Elymus elymoides (Grass Family)
Grasses are challenging to learn as there are so many species that look alike. The flowering and vegetative parts are much reduced, involving specialized terminology. Never the less, they are good to get to know, at least at the superficial level. Squirreltail occurs over two-thirds of the United States from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and from Texas to northern Canada. It stands about half a meter tall in looses bunches. The flowers (florets) grow in dense, bushy spikes about 10 cm long at the end of its stems. As summer progresses and the plants dry out, these spikes fragment and spread all over the landscape, thanks to the awns that are nearly 9 cm long. Naturally, the seeds are being dispersed as the spikes are blown about. Grass species are often grouped by their growth habit, bunch grasses or sod forming grasses. The flowering portions too are used to make distinctions, some being tightly clustered, others loosely arranged in open patterns. Whether or not you get to know them by name, I suspect you'll appreciate them at mealtime since all grains (wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, etc.) are grasses and feed more people and animals than any other single plant family. They are invaluable when it comes to stabilizing the soil, finding recreational use on ball fields of all sorts around the world. In the tropics, grasses have been used in construction for thousands of years. No matter how you slice it, grasses are good, though not without malady, causing a variety of allergic and respiratory problems in susceptible individuals.
Brewer's Cliffbrake, Pellaea breweri (Maidenhair Fern Family)
Most of the time, ferns are readily recognizable from flowering plants. There are of course, no flowers or fruits. But looking for what is not there is less effective than knowing what to look for that is there and that is the placement of the spores. In the case of Brewer's Cliffbrake, the spores are located at the edges of the leaves or fronds. The edges are rolled under to shield the spores from the atmosphere until they are ready to be dispersed. Spores form throughout the summer and into the fall. This particular species of fern is found among cliffs, granitic or limestone in origin. Like most ferns today in temperate places like the Southwest, they are not large plants, this species being less than knee high. They take advantage of the rocky habitats, where water is collected and they find protection from predators or trampling. Ferns give me hope, that even in places that are not generally considered very hospitable, organisms that are seen as delicate and fragile, can take hold and enjoy success.
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