Death Valley: Charcoal Kilns to Bennett Peak

Camping in the winter? Yes! Death Valley National Park is the hottest and driest place in North America, making winter an ideal time to visit. While Bennett Peak (9980′) can be hiked year round, it is especially impressive on a clear winter day when there is snow on the ground. From the top, one can see the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States.

Hike Basics
Distance: 9 miles
Elevation: 3200 ft
Red Tape: Death Valley has a $25 entrance fee, but we reached this location without passing a kiosk. (We paid later.) Wildrose Campground is free. Backcountry camping is an option here and permits are voluntary.
Other Notes: Bring plenty of water, especially in the summer. An ice axe and crampons may be needed in the winter. Be prepared: this trail is remote, normally very dry, and doesn’t see that many visitors.

Directions to Trailhead
Death Valley is vast and remote. Make sure your car is in good working order before visiting the park. From Highway 190, drive south on Emigrant Canyon Road for 21 miles. Turn left on Wood Canyon Road. Wildrose Campground is located less than a quarter mile up Wood Canyon Road. Continue for an additional 7 miles to reach the Charcoal Kilns. The last mile or so is unpaved but does not require a high clearance vehicle. Chains may be needed in the winter. Google Map link to trailhead.

Distance: 9 mi | Elevation: +3530 ft / -3600 ft | Download gpx

Hike Description
We’ve never camped on New Years Eve before, but there’s a first for everything! Some friends invited us to join them in Death Valley for the weekend, and we couldn’t pass it up. We decided to drive down a few days early to spend some extra time exploring the park. I started researching hikes around Death Valley and immediately set my sights on Telescope Peak- one of the most difficult day hikes in the park.

We set up our base camp at Wildrose, a free, first-come, dry campground with pit toilets. The trailhead for Telescope Peak is located at Mahogany Flat Campground but in the winter, the hike starts at the Charcoal Kilns. The kilns are worth visiting on their own, and they are only 1.6 miles down the road from Mahogany Flat. No problem, I thought. A mile or two of walking along a dirt road will be no big deal.

We drove the 7 miles from Wildrose to the Charcoal Kilns. We unexpectedly hit snow about a half mile before reaching the kilns. I was not anticipating snow at this elevation (below 7000′). We parked, packed up some food and started up the trail. The easy dirt road that I envisioned was instead a surprisingly steep, snow covered path, winding its way up 1300 feet through a frozen and shaded canyon.

The kilns were completed in 1877 and only used for a few years. They produced charcoal that was used as fuel for smelting at nearby mines.
The road leading to Mahogany Flat from the Charcoal Kilns.

It took about an hour to reach the trailhead at Mahogany Flat. At this point, we decided that we wouldn’t have enough daylight hours to climb Telescope Peak. Snow just slows us down too much. We opted for our Plan B: Bennett Peak.

We finally got some sun as we reached Mahogany Flat.

The route to Bennett Peak follows the Telescope Peak trail, contouring along the east side of the Pantamint Mountains. We signed the register and continued onward. The views opened up and we could see Badwater Basin and the Funeral Mountains to our east. There were a few dry patches of ground, but most of the trail remained snow covered.

Starting up the Telescope Peak trail.
Fresh snow above desert views.
Telescope Peak in the distance.

Eventually we reached a saddle between Rogers Peak and Bennett Peak. Here we left the trail and made our way to the summit of Bennett Peak. It took longer than we expected to break trail through the knee deep, fluffy snow.

On the way up Bennett Peak.
Postholing.
The Sierra.

From the top, we could see Mount Whitney and the surrounding Sierra Nevada. We also had a great view of Telescope Peak (11,043′), the highest point in Death Valley. It looked far. We would have been hiking in the dark if we had attempted it. It wasn’t too cold and there was barely a breeze, so we spent quite a bit of time at the summit.

At the summit.

After eating lunch and taking in the views, we retraced our steps back to the kilns and eventually back to Wildrose Campground for the night.

On the way down.

Heading back to Wildrose Campground.

More information:
Check the NPS website for Death Valley National Park for road closures and additional information before visiting the park.

Tom Harrison makes a Death Valley National Park map showing all the trails, roads, and points of interest. We got a lot of use out of this:

Any thoughts?