Thu, Dec 6, 2007
Grapevine Peak is the highpoint of the Grapevine Range in the northeast portion of Death Valley National Park. It is the most rugged range in the park, in many ways resembling the steep folds and deep canyons of the Santa Lucia Range near Big Sur, minus the heavy coastal chaparral. The peak lies within Nevada's borders, very close to California. In his quest to climb all of the California range highpoints, this one presented somewhat of a dilemma to Evan, my companion on this weeklong trip to the desert. The Grapevines are one of only two or three ranges that straddle California's borders that also have their highest point outside of the state. Should these out-of-state peaks be climbed, or the highest point of the range still within California? Evan hoped to climb both, while I was less determined - mostly I wanted the two DPS peaks in this area, Grapevine Peak and Mt. Palmer. The CA highpoint was about three miles northwest of Grapevine Peak, but the route between them looked torturous on the map with a good deal of elevation change. The route from the west would be more straightforward, but still involve 18 miles and almost 7,000ft of gain. In the end Evan decided to stick with Grapevine Peak - the other would remain as a possible future trip.
Our DPS guidebook led us to believe that the road coming in from US95 to the east was "good dirt", but we found something more difficult, probably more like what the guide classifies as "fair dirt." Evan made a valiant attempt to negotiate the road with his camper attached, but with still about 5 miles to negotiate, it grew too rough as the camper was bounced around in a worrisome manner. So we found a turnoff where we unhooked the camper and left it for the day, propped up on its stilts in the desert flats. A short ways further on we noticed the extra batteries strapped in the truck bed looked like they might bounce out of their harness, so we stopped again and unloaded the 150-lb batteries onto the side of the road. Even with two of us, the batteries were quite a struggle. We eventually got up to the 2WD parking area noted in the guide not long after 7:30a, left the truck, and started up.
It took less than half an hour to make it up to the saddle on the spine of the range itself following the old mining road that went up and over the crest. It was pretty obvious why this eastern approach was the most popular with its relatively quick access. Grapevine Peak was visible a few miles to the northwest. Turning north, we followed pieces of a use trail that we found, though it soon became clear that there were numerous paths, none of them continuous or obvious. There were good-sized trees to be found in this range (for a desert range, anyway), all crowded around the higher elevations over 7,000ft, as well as other vegetation that gave it greener appearance not found in most of the other ranges in Death Valley. Up and over a number of intervening bumps we went as we followed the crest on its way to Grapevine Peak. It took an hour and a half to go two miles. Not a swift pace, but it was better than the bushwhack we might have found instead.
At the summit we found a very large ammo box to house the registers, though the contents inside could have fit into a much smaller space. The peak is fairly popular despite its great distance from a paved road, probably due to its prominence as a range highpoint. Though hazy, the views were as fine as one might imagine, with an eagle's view to much of northern Death Valley NP. The lower CA highpoint was fairly obvious to the northwest, actually looking more impressive than the rounded knob we were standing atop. Neither Even nor I were any more inclined to give the peak a try despite this. I pointed out Mt. Palmer far to the southeast. The haze made it look a good deal further than it was, though it was still a long hump to get to it. Evan wanted no part of this second peak, content to climb Grapevine and call it a day. He was willing to wait back at the car while I did the second peak, but it was a cruel image of him sitting in the truck for the four hours it would take. I suggested he should take the truck back to the camper and wait for me there. That would give him lots of stuff to do in the afternoon, including lugging those batteries back in the truck and hooking up the camper before relaxing with a shower, reading, and probably a nap. For my part it would mean an additional 5 miles or so back to the car (we weren't terribly sure just how far it was), but I was happy to do it if I could reach Mt. Palmer and not inconvenience Evan too much.
To help speed things up a tad, I left Evan as we retreated off Grapevine Peak, making good time back to the saddle and the road. Things slowed down at that point as I initially found very little in the way of trails on my way out to Palmer. This second peak was a good deal less popular, I came to find. Intending to follow the DPS route that generally follows the zig-zagging ridgeline, I started off by skirting the west side of the ridge immediately after leaving the saddle to avoid brush over the first bump. I wandered across Pk. 7,980ft (a rounded bump, no views), then turned southwest before dropping some 500ft. Up and over the next two bumps brought me to the east side of Pk. 7,710ft. It had taken me an hour to go less than two miles from the saddle, and I was beginning to think my four hour estimate was a tad optimistic.
Fortunately, things improved as I turned south, where I continued to follow the ridgeline and soon picked up a decent use trail. With a mile to go, the ridge turns to the southeast, and the trail helps make quick time of it. Near the end, there is one last 200-foot climb up a steep section with a short bit of class 3 work before topping out. The register box contained an old register dating to the 1970s. The first two pages had the transcriptions of earlier parties, the first recorded one from 1962 along with a Smatko ascent in 1969. There were dozens of pages from DPS parties making the faithful pilgrimage to the peak, but few other groups. A second register had been started with a few entries, but since there was still room at the back of the older one, I left my signature there.
Returning via the same route, I got back to the road at the saddle before 4p, making a few improvements on the way back to speed things up. I found an abandoned mine in the first mile heading down that I hadn't seen on the way up, and stopped to check it out. At the entrance a wire mesh covered a pit whose bottom was black and depth could only be guessed at. It didn't appear that much useful ore was ever extracted from it. For the last hour and a half down Phinney Canyon, I alternately jogged and hiked. It seemed much longer than it had when we'd driven it! The sun had set before 5p and it was nearly pitch dark before I stumbled back to the camper at 5:30p. Another five minutes and I'd have had to dig my headlamp out of my pack.
We drove back out to US95 and then on to Beatty where we had dinner at the casino, much as we had the previous night. Evan started for home afterwards while I found a place off to the side of the highway just inside the CA border to spend the night in the van. I still had a day or two left before heading home, and planned to make the most of them...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Grapevine Peak - Mt. Palmer
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