Wednesday 8 February 2017

From Mountains to Desert: Yosemite Valley to Death Valley

Lone Pine Canyon & Mount Muir, High Sierra

Back in October I finished my long walk through the mountains and deserts of California, a glorious walk that ranks as one of the finest and most enjoyable I've undertaken. Whilst I posted here during the walk and afterwards I didn't write anything about the walk as a whole. So here is a feature that first appeared in the January issue of The Great Outdoors. I also wrote a piece about the gear I used which I'll post tomorrow.

Yosemite and Death Valley. Two iconic American national parks. One mountain, one desert. Both wild and glorious. They lie 170 miles apart in California, Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley in the Great Basin. The landscapes of the two valleys are completely different. Yosemite is a narrow forested valley hemmed in by huge pale cliffs with a lovely river running through it. Death Valley is wide and flat with little vegetation and sombre dark mountains rising either side.  Between the two lie the tangled mass of mountains making up the High Sierra and a series of desert valleys and mountain ranges. 

Desert mountains in the Darwin Falls Wilderness
The High Sierra rises to 14,495 foot (4,421 metre) Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States. Death Valley drops to the Badwater Basin, 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level. These two places are only 85 miles/137 kilometres apart so linking them in one trip is an obvious challenge. For some years there’s been an annual road race, though this only goes as far as the base of Mount Whitney. There’s also a backcountry route that runs some 130 miles/210 kilometres all the way to Whitney’s summit (see L2H ). As soon as I heard about the Lowest to Highest (L2H) route I knew I wanted to see what it was like. I’d been to the High Sierra several times and it had become a favourite area. I’d never been to Death Valley though and it had been on my list of places to visit for many years. If I was to travel that far I wanted to do a longer walk however and spend more time in the High Sierra (on the L2H I’d only be there for 2-3 days). Where to begin then? Yosemite Valley to Death Valley had a nice ring to it. It would also mean crossing the High Sierra from east to west, which was appealing.

A problem with the L2H route is that the best time for avoiding snow in the High Sierra is summer but then Death Valley is far too hot for walking with temperatures often over 49°C. Autumn and spring are cooler in the desert but can mean snow in the High Sierra. Studying the data I realised that autumn would be best as the date of the spring snowmelt varied far more than that of the first winter snowfall. To reduce the chance of heavy snow and increase the chance of cooler temperatures in the desert it made sense to start in Yosemite Valley and to reverse the L2H route. This plan was logical and gave me the best chance of success. I was almost caught out at the start though.

Liberty Dome & Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park
I left crowded Yosemite Valley on a hot morning, a very hot morning. The sun blazed down and the steep climb out of the valley was exhausting. The unfamiliar altitude had an effect (I was soon over 9,000 feet (2750 metres)) and maybe I wasn’t as fit as I could have been but it was the heat that really affected me. Plus the lack of water. Many creeks were dry. Once I realised this I carried more water than I’d expected to, adding to my load. Was it really exceptionally hot or was it just me? After six days I arrived at Reds Meadow Resort, my first resupply point. ‘I’ve never known it this hot’, one of the owners told me. 

From Yosemite Valley the John Muir Trail runs all the way to Mount Whitney. I didn’t want to follow this popular trail (and probably wouldn’t have got a permit anyway) – though in places it was unavoidable. I’d walked it previously and was more interested in visiting new areas and following less-used trails. I quickly found that away from the JMT there were few people and that some of the trails are fading back into the landscape. Yet the scenery is just as spectacular and the opportunities for wild camping away from others much greater.

En route to Reds Meadow I climbed the first two of the nine 10,000 foot+ (3,000 metres) passes I’d cross in the High Sierra. Red Peak Pass and Isberg Pass were both above timberline and gave wide-spreading and glorious views of the rocky peaks and the dark forested valleys dotted with lakes. This was the start of three weeks in the incomparable beauty of the High Sierra. Once I’d recovered from the tough start I revelled in the forests and lakes and peaks. I especially loved timberline, that junction between worlds where the trees fade away into rocks and roughness and little lakes reflect the summits and the woods.

Colby Lake, Kings Canyon National Park
From Reds Meadow I made my way to Vermilion Valley Resort and then King’s Canyon. This second week brought a change in the weather. Nights grew colder and the days cloudier and windier. As I climbed up the lovely Bear Creek valley snow began to fall and I crossed Selden Pass in a storm, glad that it was one of the less steep high passes but concerned that if this was the start of a big storm I might have to retreat to lower ground. That didn’t happen though and I had no more precipitation for the rest of the walk. And beyond Kings Canyon I had no more frosty nights either. Unexpectedly the hottest days, coldest nights and only stormy weather had come in the first half of the walk.

Two more passes led me to the base of Mount Whitney. Avalanche Pass was low enough to be in the trees and was just a broad saddle, belying its name. The trail to it switchbacked up some steep slabs with big drops on one side though. I guess this is where the avalanches occur. It was exciting enough on dry sunny day. I wouldn’t go up it in the snow. Colby Pass, at 12,000 feet (3,658 metres) gave the most splendid views so far with nothing but wilderness all around. Just forests and mountains without end.

Colby Pass
Below Mount Whitney I had my highest and most spectacular High Sierra camp near Guitar Lake, well above the trees at 11,640 feet (3548 metres). Most nights I’d been in the forest where the camps were pleasant and peaceful and I saw deer and many birds but there wasn’t usually much in the way of views. At Guitar Lake the scenery was harsh and rocky and the vistas expansive. The terrain was beautiful but also challenging. I looked up at the long steep west face of Mount Whitney, a pinnacled ridge running up to the huge summit dome. Thirty-four years earlier I’d climbed a snow-covered Whitney on my Pacific Crest Trail walk. Staring at the rocks and scree I couldn’t imagine how I’d done it. 

Timberline Lake & Mount Whitney
Switchbacking up the steep rocks to the Mount Whitney Trail the next day I realised that under deep snow this slope had been less steep and much smoother. With crampons on it was probably easier in the snow than it was now. The Mount Whitney Trail, which runs up a long valley to the east and then follows the crest to the summit, is the most popular path in the High Sierra. As soon as I joined it I met many people. The walk along the narrow ridge, mostly below the crest, gave the first views down to Owens Valley, 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) below, and across to the Inyo Mountains, the first desert range I would cross. From the summit of Whitney I looked out over the vast expanse of the High Sierra but also to desert mountains stretching to the east. Somewhere over there was Death Valley.

The Mount Whitney Trail
Leaving the High Sierra I descended to little Lone Pine, the only town on my route. Here I sent my rented bear-resistant container back to Yosemite Valley, glad to be rid of its weight and awkward shape. I’d only seen bears once, on the very first day. I’d left the Yosemite Valley crowds behind and was alone when I noticed a bear watching me close to the trail ahead. Then came a scurry in the bushes and two cubs clambered up adjacent trees. A mother with young. I stopped. The bear hissed at me and ran forward a few steps. I backed off slowly until almost out of sight. The mother bear moved away from the trail and towards her cubs. I continued along the trail watching her watching me. As I passed she hissed again, warning me to leave her cubs alone. Soon she was out of sight in the trees and I could relax. I knew an actual attack was extremely unlikely but having a bear threaten me was still a little unnerving.

First view of the desert: Owens Valley & the Inyo Mountains from the Mount Whitney Trail

Although the bear-resistant canister was gone the weight of my pack went up on leaving Lone Pine as I was carrying eleven litres of water. The next guaranteed water source was 55 miles away. I was not in the High Sierra now. The maintained and signed trails vanished too. A mix of cross-country routes, indistinct trails, and dirt roads would take me to Death Valley. Trees were small and scattered where there were any at all. The mountains were coloured red and black, the volcanic rocks contorted as if just solidified. The pale granite of the High Sierra gives a light airy feel to the range. Here it was the opposite. Sombre and dark. Between the ranges are wide valleys, some almost bare of vegetation, others, like Lee Flats, dotted with the strange giant yuccas called Joshua Trees. 

Panamint Valley

After three and a half days I was looking down steep scree slopes to a slash of bright green. Darwin Canyon, in which I’d find water. I slithered down the loose terrain to reach what felt like a jungle after the sparseness of the desert landscape. A tiny creek ran through a dense tangle of willows, aspens, bushes and rushes. I followed it to pretty Darwin Falls, a delicate waterfall tumbling down a small cliff. Gulping down water I felt relieved. I’d carried enough but only just as I’d felt a little thirsty every day. I still had 65 miles to go but there were two reliable water sources along the way so I wouldn’t need to carry as much water again.

Darwin Falls
From Darwin Falls I crossed the huge Panamint Valley. Here I encountered salt flats for the first time. These are made from salt deposited from the shallow ephemeral lakes that form when there is any precipitation. Walking on this dried lake bed, cracked in the sun and laced with dried-up water channels I kept getting the feeling that water would start to sweep in at any minute. I was taken back to the sands at Formby where I was brought up, sands that stretched huge distances at low tide but where you had to be careful as channels could fill up and cut you off as the tide came in. In Panamint Valley I felt as though the tide come in at any minute even though the sea was hundreds of miles away.

The Panamint Mountains from Telescope Peak
A final mountain range lay between me and Death Valley itself. In the Panamint Mountains lies the highest summit in Death Valley National Park, 11,050 foot (3368 metre) Telescope Peak. I climbed this from my last high camp at around 9500 feet (2900 metres). The views from the summit were superb, desert and mountains stretching to the horizon on every side. Then I had a 9000 foot+ (2750 metre) cross-country descent down steep slopes to a final camp on the edge of Death Valley. 

Death Valley
The last day came. I was alone in the vastness of the desert. I crossed Death Valley on sticky salt pans and crusty solidified mud. Eventually I could see tiny figures in the distance. People at Badwater and a road. I was stared at, a freak appearing out of the desert. Have you walked across there, I was asked. Yes, and a little bit more. A lift was offered. The walk was over. Now it was just a wonderful memory, an adventure that would live on in my mind forever.

Looking back to the High Sierra from the Inyo Mountains


  1. Great hike and great report!

  2. Wow! I'm in awe of that undertaking. Those folks must've had a shock seeing you wander out of the desert!

  3. what a great adventure how you managed to carry as much weight is beyond me

  4. Did you publish a map of this route or a gpx file?

    1. I'm afraid not. I didn't record the route. The sections in the High Sierra followed trails from Yosemite Valley that are on the Tom Harrison topo maps. The section from Lone Pine to Death Valley is the off-road Low to High Route in reverse.