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Telescope Peak, the highest peak on the Panamint Range overlooking Death Valley from the west, was christened in the late 18th Century by an explorer who thought the view from the top was so far-reaching it was as if he were looking through a telescope. On the clearest days, it's easy to confirm that impression. The otherworldly view includes the glaring salt pan of Death Valley, only 10 miles away but 11,000 feet lower, and the serrated ridgeline of the Sierra Nevada, up to 100 miles away and as much as 3000 feet higher. On both of my treks to Telescope Peak, I've seen the distant blue silhouette of the San Bernardino Mountains, 150 miles away.

The easiest way to bag Telescope Peak is by way of the trail rising from Mahogany Flat, a small and remote (no reservations and free of charge) camping area near the western boundary of Death Valley National Park. The five-hour driving approach from San Diego to the campground is by way of Interstate 15, Highway 395, thence the lonely road past Searles Dry Lake and through the forlorn mining-company town of Trona. On the final approach to Mahogany Flat, the road becomes unpaved and possibly rough, depending on the incidence of gully-washing storms and the recency of grading.

The Telescope Peak Trail consists of a two-part, stairstep climb of about 3000 feet in all, with a long, nearly flat segment in between the climbs. The trail measures seven miles one way, definitely a full-day's worth of hiking for the round trip. The flat portion of trail at the top of the first long ascent traverses spacious Arcane Meadows, which is coated with a low growth of sagebrush and small shrubs, not grass. You get a spacious view of the Sierra crest to the west, and later on (looking east) you're treated to a jaw-dropping panorama of the lowest and hottest part of Death Valley. Last Memorial Day weekend, when temperatures were reaching 120 degrees in Death Valley itself, we hikers were basking in 75-degree air on the trail and even cooler air at the summit.

The second and final big ascent takes you on switchbacks through a thin band of coniferous trees, just high enough in elevation to snag enough moisture from passing storms, and just low enough to survive bitter winter temperatures. Some of these conifers are bristlecone pines, noted for their hardiness and longevity. In the White Mountains to the north, one living bristlecone pine has been age-dated (by counting tree rings) at 4766 years.

Bring all the water you'll need for the long hike and also for your stay at Mahogany Flat. By December, perhaps, winter snows will block road access into the area -- so either go soon, or wait until May, after the spring thaw.

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