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Fri, Nov. 22

Johnson: Taking a stroll through Death Valley
Column: Hiking Arizona

The Southwest has its share of strangely amazing hikes like the Wonderland of Rocks and the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert. Also, it has places notable for their sheer immensity like the Grand Canyon.

Death Valley is a combination of weird and vast. Here you will find rocks weighing hundreds of pounds magically sliding across the ground seemingly under their own power. Here you can tee up on the Devil’s Golf Course and harvest grain from the Devil’s Corn Patch.

The Artist’s Drive, a kaleidoscope of colors, rivals any other artist’s palette. This is where you’ll find the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (300 feet below sea level) only 15 air miles from Telescope Peak, rising to over 11,000 feet above sea level. That’s more than two Grand Canyons in elevation change. That sounds like my kind of challenge.


I traversed the salt flats west of Bad Water Basin and found some parts to be lumpy, others smooth. Sometimes I sank, other times I was on solid ground. My chosen route from salt flats to snow-capped peaks was through Hanaupah Canyon where I set up a base camp for three days. Fortunately, runoff from the snows above provided plentiful water.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

I sought advice from the Park Service as to the best approach to the highest elevation via Hanaupah Canyon. I was told to use the south side of the Canyon where an old mining road goes much of the way. Bad advice. I was stopped by steep, ice-covered cliffs. Retreat. The next day on the north side, I made it to snow covered slopes, more than two Grand Canyons in elevation above Bad Water Basin. I couldn’t believe I was sliding down snow-covered slopes at a high rate of speed in Death Valley. I had to see more.


The road to the Park’s highest peaks is probably the narrowest, windiest road in the Southwest. Unfortunately, many people are not familiar with driving under such conditions and there are few opportunities to pass and when they could pull off the road to let you by, they don’t. Finally, next to the trailhead for Wild Rose Peak, just north of Telescope Peak, lies a series of charcoal kilns. They stick out like a sore thumb, a curiosity which attracts quite a crowd. Hiking to either or both of these high summits allows you to see the Sierra Nevada to the west and Mt. Charleston to the east, with the hottest, most barren desert in North America in between. Contrast after contrast. Looking in any direction reveals one surprise after the other. It just doesn’t stop. Hiking to either summit is via an exposed alpine ridge. Beautiful. Refreshing. Exhilarating.


The exposure high up contrasts with the slot canyons back down below. Fall Canyon and Natural Bridge Canyon offer the hiker a more secure experience where towering rock walls embrace you. One side of either canyon has horizontal layers of rock while the opposite side has layers that are twisted and contorted in all sorts of directions. A geologist’s dream or nightmare, I couldn’t say. What you’ll find around the next bend, is, well, no telling. Each experience is not like the previous and won’t be like the next. Time is running out to check it out, unless you want to get cooked in the process.

Next: Hiking the Urban – Wildland Interface via the Iron King Trail.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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