The challenge is classic. The starting
point and finish are pure and uncontrived. And accomplishment
is a high on par with the alpine crags around you, soaring over
a furnace desert beyond.
several decades adventurous souls have sought the challenge of
traveling on foot from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere
to the highest place in the contiguous United States. Starting
at Badwater in Death Valley, California, at an elevation of 279
feet below sea level, they test their mettle on a scorching ribbon
of asphalt highway, over mountain passes and across sere basins,
and on into the shadow of Mount Whitney, 14,495-foot king of the
mighty Sierra Nevada range.
Road, near the start of the paved race route
come in summer, when valley air temperatures can exceed 125 degrees
Fahrenheit (52 Celsius), and attempt to run the 130+ mile distance,
either competitively - with outside support - or self-contained,
challenging only themselves. The approach differs with the individual,
but the route is almost always the same. Over the years, only
a handful have left the highway to travel their own way "from
the Lowest to the Highest..."
the Lowest-to-Highest Trail
Map - click to view full size
Trail (L2H) is a backcountry hiking route between
Badwater and Mt. Whitney. Unlike
the traditional "race route," the L2H avoids pavement
and vehicle traffic whenever possible, in favor of a scenic, silent
journey across the wilderness, as it seeks the soul of a rugged,
often harsh, and ultimately beautiful land. If the traditional
approach is to complete an extreme journey on foot, then the L2H
is about living a journey in a land of extremes completely. Indeed,
this off-highway journey encompasses even greater extremes of
geography, ecology and climate, and is intended to immerse the
traveler far more deeply within the environment.
In terms of
the route's layout, the Lowest-to-Highest Trail represents the
first genuinely "backpacker-oriented" way to get from
Badwater to Mt. Whitney. The L2H was designed to meet the expectations
of seasoned walkers looking for a challenging one or two week
trip through desert, mountain, and alpine terrain. To this end,
the route offers a number of advantages:
a sense of solitude and an opportunity for contemplation of
nature away from major roads, traffic, and other manmade intrusions.
across scenic, interesting and varied terrain, and over a wide
range of elevation and climate.
an efficient line of travel between its end points in order
to minimize overall mileage.
direct access to natural and developed water sources, as well
as cache locations, so as to reduce the sense of dependency
or discontinuity during the actual journey.
to civilization occasionally to facilitate resupply of food
and provisions, as well as for rest and recovery.
to the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail and nearby PCT,
offering options for extended travel into the High Sierra backcountry
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of the Route
Telescope Peak Trail
Trail is in fact a route - an informal, unsigned linkage of existing
trails, roads, and cross-country travel. Few established trails
exist in Death Valley National Park or elsewhere in the areas
immediately east of the High Sierras and Mt. Whitney. However,
the area is threaded by numerous old roads, many of them former
miners' routes, little more than rockbound tracks in some cases.
Cross-country travel is often well-facilitated by the expansive
desert landscapes here, which include everything from flat, featureless
salt playas, to the lightly-vegetated slopes of arid mountain
ranges, to vast alluvial fans at the mouths of canyons.
And yes, several
foot trails are found here as well - some of them well-traveled
and in excellent condition, in other cases just a rough path with
occasional rock cairns to guide the way. Each of these surfaces
and modes of travel come together to make the L2H the diverse,
challenging and rewarding experience it is.
Elevation & Terrain
from Badwater to Mt. Whitney is surprisingly similar between the
highway race route and L2H route. The L2H travels a distance of
about 130 miles from end to end, compared to the race route's
135 miles. In fact the race route ends at Whitney Portal, 8 miles
and several thousand feet below Mt. Whitney's summit, so the "peakbagging"
L2H - which goes straight to the top - is comparatively more efficient
overall, at least by the mileage figures. But the more distinguishing
difference between the two routes is elevational: By seeking out
an adventurous line of travel away from major roads the L2H features
a total elevation gain more than double that of the highway route.
The following elevation profiles offer a visual comparison of
the two routes. (Please note the difference in vertical exaggeration
between the two profiles.)
of Elevation and Length: L2H (at left) & Race Route
(vertical exaggeration differs)
John Canyon, Inyo Mountains
in total elevation gain between the routes is the result of topography
and the way each route confronts it. Much of this land is at the
western edge of the vast Basin and Range province, with fault-block
mountain ranges rising sharply out of deep, wide valleys. By adhering
to paved 2-lane highways that follow the path of least resistance,
the "race route" does not climb as high nor as often
as the L2H, which approaches the ranges directly, via more primitive
and steeply graded surfaces.
The L2H confronts
three major ranges - the Panamints, Inyo Mountains, and the eastern
edge of the Sierra Nevada massif at Mt. Whitney - and along the
way crosses Death Valley, Panamint Valley, and the valley of the
Owens River. Elevations on the crests range from 9000 feet above
sea level to nearly 14,500' at Mt. Whitney. Valley elevations
are much lower - so much lower in the case of Death Valley that
the climb into the Panamint Range (to Telescope Peak) represents
the fourth greatest elevation gain in the United States, just
behind Washington's Mt. Rainier. In addition, east of the Inyo
Mountains the L2H follows the rolling 5000' Darwin Plateau for
a number of miles, with easier hiking and more moderate temperatures.
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of the Adventure
is seemingly the only constant on the Lowest-to-Highest. Perhaps
nowhere else on earth can a person so quickly travel on foot between
markedly contrasting environments, between worlds so far apart
in character that it is hard to reconcile their physical proximity.
Such is certainly
the case in the journey's early miles. The route leaves Badwater
- an undrinkable saline pool - crosses the harsh, flat, and often
torrid salt playa of Badwater Basin - at 282 feet below seal level
the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere - then ascends over
10,000 vertical feet to the crest of the Panamints near Telescope
Peak, where thousand-year-old bristlecone pines thrive in the
short growing season between long, snowy winters.
imagine walking among desert canyons of bone-dry greasewood and
endless rock, only to turn a corner and discover the miracle of
Darwin Falls. Here, a series of 9 perennial cascades cavort among
shade trees and lush undergrowth. Bird song fills the air, punctuated
incongruously with the occasional "hee-haw" of a feral
burro hidden up-canyon, living testament to a bygone era when
miners and mule teams did heavy work here.
spikey forms dot the distant horizon ahead, looming taller as
the route approaches its first stand of joshua trees, great sentinels
of the Mojave desert. Their multi-armed masses form a veritable
army of green and gray across the expanse of Lee Flat, yet make
no sound to stir the utter silence of the land.
tailings and even a wooden ore tramway reveal the human history
of the rugged Inyo Mountains, where the past comes alive at the
ghost town of Cerro Gordo. The American Hotel is located here,
a real Old West saloon and guest house still serving travelers
today, "especially those romantics born a century too late,"
says the proprietor and sole resident here at 8000 feet.
courtesy David Hough
Crest and the eastern divide of the mighty Sierra Nevada, you
turn north to join the John Muir Trail and walk a narrow ridge
far above treeline. The sky, reflected flawlessly in alpine lakes
below, is blue and confident but the air is thin, forcing you
slowly, euphorically ahead. Ever higher you climb, past sun-cupped
snowfields, among pinnacles, to the very top of the world it seems.
The summit of Mount Whitney commands a view of peaks more numerous
than all the sands in the desert, you think to yourself. And there,
below and to the east, the route you've journeyed for more than
a week slips away toward the distant horizon, back to the sand,
salt and heat of Badwater in a universe all its own.
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Lowest-to-Highest Trail safely and successfully requires a familiarity
with both desert and alpine environments, their particular challenges
and demands, and the equipment and techniques for dealing with
them. By its very nature, the route is neither easy nor without
risk; indeed, this is a land of potential danger beyond the norm.
Furnace-dry heat, strong sun, an infrequency of natural water
sources, and rugged, steep, remote terrain are standard fare when
traveling in this harshest of desert lands, while snowpack,
cold and/or changeable weather, afternoon thunderstorms, and altitude
sickness can become concerns at higher elevations along the route.
The information presented here assumes an ability to accept and
respond to such potential hazards along the way, as well as a
proficiency with the particular requirements of long-distance
hiking that involves resupply and/or backcountry caching. Do not
approach the route unprepared.
Valley digits: "a little warm" for late June
to Whitney foot race occurs each year in July, typically the hottest
month in Death Valley, where the all-time high temperature record
stands at an otherwordly 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 Celsius).
Meanwhile, snow can fall in the high country beginning in mid-autumn,
with remnant snowpack sometimes blocking trails on Telescope Peak
into the following June, and on Whitney into July.
of these limiting factors is a narrow seasonal window in which
to travel the Lowest-to-Highest Trail without undue hardship.
In essence, the L2H is open to thru-hiking only during the months
of September and October, after the desert heat lessens and before
the early snows arrive. In most years, a start date at Badwater
during the first week of October should allow enough time to reach
Mt. Whitney before ice or snow make conditions hazardous there.
Make no mistake though - the lowest terrain of the route may still
be quite warm to downright scorching, even well into October.
Other times, the weather can be chilly and inclement, including
at the bottom of Death Valley.
Maps and Guidebook
L2H is an unmarked, unsigned route, detailed topographic maps
are essential for navigation as well as an understanding of the
terrain through which the route travels. At the present time,
such maps are the only method of efficient navigation, as a guidebook
for the route is not yet available. For now, those with National
Geographic TOPO! mapping software, California state series, can
download the following .tpo file, and use it to print custom USGS
7.5' (1:24,000 scale) maps that show the route of the L2H. This
file attempts to work like a "mini guidebook," with
data and comments included that pertain to navigation as well
as specific terrain features, travel concerns, and points of interest
along the way.
the .tpo file, right-click on the following link and save it to
your computer. Then simply open it within the TOPO! software.
used to describe the route "on the maps" should become
clear after a brief examination of the file. Those with lingering
questions are encouraged to purchase the Grand
Enchantment Trail Topo Map Set CD, which features a similar
nomenclature, fully explained in relation to the G.E.T. maps contained
on that disc.
The L2H file
for TOPO! also includes numerous GPS waypoints for the route.
Be sure to set waypoint display (in Preferences and Settings)
to 'Show waypoints' in order to view them. Uploaded to a GPS or
carried as a printed list in the field, these waypoints can greatly
facilitate navigation along the route, especially at junctions
or wherever the itinerary calls for cross-country travel. Likewise,
reliable navigation also dictates carrying a compass and knowing
how to use it. An altimeter can also be useful, both for gauging
progress on steep slopes and for confirming your approximate location
on the maps.
overview maps are also helpful in finding your way. The DeLorme
California Atlas & Gazetteer offers a broad perspective of
the terrain, including roads leading away from the route toward
developed areas where assistance would be available if needed.
Trails Illustrated produces a folded, waterproof map of Death
Valley National Park, with numerous secondary and primitive roads
and even some trails and x-c routes depicted. Additionally, the
entire L2H route is covered (without actual route depiction) in
1:100,000 scale detail on four maps produced by the BLM. Visit
the Public Lands
Information Center website to order the BLM's Death Valley
Junction, Darwin Hills, Saline Valley, and Mount Whitney surface
With an average
annual rainfall of less than 2 inches, coupled with high temperatures
and low dew points, Death Valley defines aridity in sharper terms
than almost anyplace on earth. Yet the ranges that rise so prominently
above Death Valley and surrounding basins do capture precious
moisture from occasional weather systems, draining it into the
basins to evaporate in salt pans or well up in unusual, unpotable
ways as at Badwater. These ranges also retain some of their moisture,
as evidenced by their more abundant flora and fauna. And in a
few places this vital water runs at the surface, clear and drinkable.
A lack of
abundant natural water sources is a fact of life on the Lowest-to-Highest
Trail, at least before reaching the Owens Valley at the edge of
the well-watered Sierra Nevada. In its desert reaches, hikers
will at times need to carry a considerable amount of the wet stuff
- perhaps several gallons - and walk with a purpose from one known
source to the next.
The L2H route
has been carefully laid out to make the water situation as manageable
as possible for experienced desert travelers. Several natural sources
are encountered along the way, of which a few are fairly dependable.
Developed water is also reached at intervals throughout the route,
and can generally be counted on during the normal hiking season.
Further scouting of the route will be necessary for a definitive
assessment of natural water source reliability. Nevertheless, the
following table reflects current knowledge (as of summer '06) of
all water found on and near the L2H. It also lists potential on-route
cache locations, where one could leave a supply of water beforehand
to be picked up during the hike. (See the following discussion.)
desert surprise: goldfish in China Garden Spring
Side Highway @ Shorty's Well
Fork Hanaupah Canyon: 1-2 mi off-route
potential springs in Tuber Canyon
Campground: 4 mi off-route
Springs store & restaurant
Canyon: 1 mi off-route
190 @ Saline Valley Alternate Rd
Gordo ghost town
of the Inyo Mountains
of the Inyo Mountains
tiny pool 7/06
Pine Narrow Gauge Rd.
of Lone Pine
Portal National Rec. Trail
Portal campground & store
Mt. Whitney Trail
about current water availability in Death Valley National Park
(roughly Badwater to Panamint Springs Resort on the L2H), contact
the Furnace Creek visitor's center: (760) 786-3200.
At first glance,
the above water chart may seem to indicate that water caching
is unnecessary on a thru-hike of the L2H. And for experienced
desert hikers willing to pack heavy water loads, it may not be
necessary. But for safety's sake more than mere convenience, all
hikers, regardless of ability or inclination, should at least
consider caching some water along the route.
vertical feet of cross-country elevation gain
of the route in particular suggest the benefit of water caching:
the western and eastern base of Telescope Peak, and the long stretch
without surface water west of China Garden Spring. The climb of
Telescope Peak's ridge is steep, extremely long (10,000+ feet
of elevation gain), remote, and mostly cross-country. Although
Hanaupah Spring to the east and the springs in Tuber Canyon on
the west may be flowing, none are entirely dependable, and to
be caught on either side of the mountain with empty water bottles
could be disastrous. Water caches left at nearby road crossings
would provide a margin of safety, and make this challenging ascent
and descent much more manageable, especially as the caches would
permit a slower pace in difficult terrain. Water left near Shorty's
Well at the edge of Badwater Basin would also help to insure a
safer crossing of this lowest, hottest, driest region at the very
start of the route.
a water cache on the route about 7 miles west of China Garden
Spring would be fairly straightforward. Upon reaching the store
at Panamint Springs, one could purchase water in plastic jugs
and then hitchhike 12 miles west along the highway to its next
intersection with the L2H route. There, the hiker could hide the
water nearby in desert brush, then hitch back to Panamint Springs
and continue along the trail, retrieving the cache on foot in
a day or so. (And being sure to pack out all supplies from the
water caches would require more targeted vehicle assistance. For
those with no outside support, one confirmed solution would be
to rent a car in the town of Pahrump, Nevada, 1.5 hours east of
Death Valley. This would be done prior to arrival at Death Valley,
for example if flying into Las Vegas beforehand. Enterprise Car
Rental of Pahrump will allow a vehicle to travel to the Death
Valley area, to later be picked up by the company for an extra
charge. Meantime, one could place water caches at any or all of
the suggested locations, each of which should be accessible to
passenger cars with due care. As a bonus, hikers could then arrive
at Badwater under their own power and start the hike on a schedule
of their choosing.
to Panamint Springs Resort (just around the bend)
Trail offers two potential opportunities for resupply along the
way. Packages of food and supplies can be mailed to Panamint Springs
Resort and the town of Lone Pine prior to the hike, then picked
up along the way. The route heads directly through both localities.
really necessary on a hike of this length, (130 miles) resupplying
can be helpful nonetheless in terms of reducing overall packweight
throughout the trip. And by minimizing the weight of food supplies,
it becomes easier to carry the heavy loads of water which are
Resort has a campground, motel, restaurant, and small store with
snack items only. Maildrops may be held at the discretion of the
proprietor, and must be shipped via UPS only. Call to confirm
details: (775) 482-7680. Be sure to mention that you'll be hiking
through Death Valley and give an approximate date of arrival.
is a small, tourist-oriented town with most services available,
including a medium-sized grocery store. Sending a maildrop would
probably be unnecessary if heading west toward nearby Mt Whitney,
but might be helpful if intending to continue on the JMT beyond
Whitney or if hiking eastbound on the L2H toward Badwater. The
Lone Pine post office (zip code 93545) accepts packages addressed
for general delivery.
A small store
is also located at Whitney Portal at the base of the Mt Whitney
trail. The store sells snack items and has a grill with limited
Portal National Recreation Trail, en route to Permit Country
In its final
8 miles the L2H ascends Mount Whitney via the main Mt. Whitney
Trail and John Muir Trail. Due to the extreme popularity of hiking
Mt Whitney, access to the summit is available by permit only.
A limited number of permits for entering the "Mt. Whitney
Zone" are available each day throughout the hiking season.
Permits are available by reservation - days or weeks in advance
of the hike - as well as on a walk-in basis the day of the climb.
peak hiking season in July and August permits to enter the Mt.
Whitney Zone from Whitney Portal are generally all reserved well
in advance. September and October pose less of a concern for the
hiker arriving without advance reservation, except on weekends.
Either way, L2H hikers may want to secure a permit in advance,
provided a climbing date can be specified accurately. (Permit
dates are non-adjustable.)
permits can be obtained at the Lone Pine InterAgency visitor center
1.5 miles south of Lone Pine. For more information, or to try
to reserve a permit online, visit the website
of the Inyo National Forest.
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Route In Abstract
(279 ft below sea level), the L2H heads west across Badwater Basin
to Hanaupah Canyon, where it follows 4WD road to Hanaupah
Springs at milepoint 15. [e.g., 1st camp] It
then proceeds cross-country to Telescope Peak's ridge (10,000
ft), northbound via the Telescope Peak Trail, then west x-c into
Tuber Canyon. An old track in Tuber Canyon passes a few springs
(MP 29), [2nd camp] and continues downhill to Wildrose
Road (2500 ft), where the L2H joins faint dirt tracks northwest
to sere Panamint Valley and the village of Panamint
Springs, with food and water available (MP 49, el.
2000'). [3rd camp: campground] Scenic, perrenial Darwin
Falls lies southwest of Panamint Springs, which the
L2H approaches before continuing via 4WD or x-c toward China
Garden Spring (MP 57, el. 3100'). [4th camp]
From here, the route proceeds cross-country on rocky, volcanic
slopes through untracked Darwin Falls Wilderness to a junction
with the Highway 190 "race route" (64, 4800'), then
north via dirt Saline Valley (alternate) Rd toward the Lee Flat
joshua tree forest (73, 5500'). From a road junction along the
historic White Mountain Talc Rd (84, 4900') [5th camp],
the L2H climbs westward to the living ghost town of Cerro Gordo
along the rugged Inyo Mountain crest, then turns north on 4WD
to Mexican Spring (93, 9200')
and Burgess Well. A vague, cairned trail here heads west downhill
in Long John Canyon, past a spring
(103, 5800') [6th camp], and into the Owens Valley via
Lone Pine Narrow Gauge Rd to US 395 and the town of Lone
Pine. (111, 3700') [7th camp: motel] Here the
L2H joins the Badwater-Whitney Portal roadwalk route up Whitney
Portal Rd, but leaves it at Lone Pine
Campground (114.4, 5900') to follow the Whitney Portal
National Recreation Trail. The route is concurrent with the Mt
Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal
(122, 8300') [8th camp: walk-in backpacker campsites] to
Trail Crest, then follows the John Muir Trail to its terminus
at Mt Whitney's summit. (MP 130)
Valley Weather Forecast
snowpack at 11,400' near Mt Whitney
for Google Earth
You can take
a virtual 3D tour of the proposed Lowest-to-Highest Trail with
Google Earth. All you'll need to begin your interactive journey
is Google Earth
on your desktop and the following .kml file. This data file illustrates
the route of the L2H (in red) as well as the roadwalk/race route
(in blue). Overlayed on Google Earth's seamless, high-detail satellite
imagery, it offers an astonishingly realistic and informative
look at the terrain through which the trail passes.
Click on the
following link to open the file in Google Earth, or right-click
on the link (select 'Save') to first download the file to your
computer. Once the file is open in Google Earth, the route should
appear on the globe within the viewer, and the file name will
be listed in the Temporary Places menu at left.
To make your
tour more informative, you may want to add various layers using
the program's Layers window. For example: Terrain, Roads, Borders,
and Geographic Features. The Google Earth Community layers may
also be useful here and there along the route.
Journal | Community
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