Mount Palmer is the second most challenging peak hike in Death Valley as it contains continuous elevation change and is located high in the Grapevine Mountains with outstanding views of all major Grapevine peaks, the Cottonwood Mountains, and the Panamint Mountains. Difficulties encountered on the hike include having the proper 4WD vehicle to reach the ideal starting point at the top of Phinney Canyon Rd., exceptional route finding abilities to carry out the hike, and minor climbing skills or advanced bypass skills to get past the major obstacle just before the summit. Google Earth maps of the hiking route (with the first map turned to the northwest and second map turned to the southwest for better viewing) can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the ideal parking area are 36° 57.248'N, 117° 7.344'W. GPS coordinates for the beginning of the challenging crossing section are 36° 56.155'N, 117° 8.449'W. GPS coordinates for the beginning of the challenging climbing section are 36° 54.548'N, 117° 8.137'W.
Mount Palmer rose to prominence on my Death Valley hiking schedule due to the fact that for many years I kept seeing various unique views of it from canyons below. Some of my canyon hikes which featured outstanding views of Mount Palmer included the Upper Titus-Upper Fall crossover hike, Fall 1st Side Canyon ridgeline, Palmer Canyon, Little Arches Canyon ridgeline, and Red Wall Canyon. The summit was also visible when I hiked back out washes from many of the eastern canyons of the Cottonwoods. Another aspect of the Mount Palmer hike which intrigued me was that I had heard it described as the 2nd most challenging peak hike in Death Valley, behind only Dry Mountain. Some of the aspects which make Mount Palmer more difficult than the average peak hike include (1) getting to the ideal starting point for the hike, (2) an exceptionally difficult route which requires planning and good navigation, (3) having to deal with continuous drops and gains in elevation throughout both directions of the hike, and (4) both a challenging crossing in the middle and climbing spot just before the actual summit. Let me discuss these four aspects in a little bit more detail. First, in order to reach the ideal starting point for the hike at the top of Phinney Canyon Road, a 4WD is necessary and a Jeep is preferable. There are some very steep stretches of road leading up to the saddle between Phinney and Moonlight. Those without the proper vehicle will have to park around 750 feet in elevation lower down the road. And the hike is already difficult enough without adding extra mileage and elevation into the mix. In fact, I would say that parking at the bottom of the steep hill climb turns this hike from the 2nd most difficult peak hike into the most difficult (meaning it becomes even more difficult than Dry Mountain). Second, the route from the parking area at the saddle to the summit is not straightforward and all in one direction. The hike seems to cross at least three major ridgelines -- two forks of the Wahguyhe ridgeline and the main Palmer ridgeline. Advance planning is definitely necessary to know where you are going and a GPS is somewhat essential. As you will note when reading the account of our hike in the next paragraph, trying to hike back out in the dark without a GPS is virtually impossible. Third, the cumulative elevation gain during the hike is deceptively difficult. With the starting point being at 7,525 feet and the summit being at 7,958 feet, it doesn't sound all that bad. But there are at least 10 bumps (some minor and some major) which are hiked to along the way in each direction. As labeled on our maps, the three major bumps along the middle of the hike can be grueling, especially on the hike back when you are already tired out. The cumulative elevation gain (including both ways) for the hike is nearly 4,000 feet if you park at the saddle. The final three bumps on the hike back will be 500 feet, 170 feet, and 550 feet in quick succession. Finally, there are two somewhat difficult sections during the hike. The first section is when you want to cross from the Wahguyhe western ridgeline over to the Palmer northern ridgeline. Doing this requires side-hilling over rough terrain as one skirts by the head of Fall Canyon and head of Red Wall Canyon. The second section is well known to those who have studied the Mount Palmer route. This is the part where you have to climb through some steep cliffs just before reaching the summit. In my research, I noticed that other hikers have broken the challenging cliffs section into three options -- doing a climb, going up a gully, or using a loose scree bypass. As I do not do risky climbing, that left me with the latter two options. You will be able to read about how I handled the cliffs obstacle as the account continues below.
For our hike, my friend Charlie (from San Rafael) and I rented a Jeep at Farabee's and drove out Phinney Canyon Road. When we reached the steep grade near the end, we put it into 4-Low and made it up the rest of the way to the saddle in between Phinney Canyon and Moonlight Canyon. Due to sleeping issues the night before (my 2 1/2 year old was in the room), we were getting a late start for this hike at 10:15am. Parking here, we headed to the south up a minor fork of the Wahguyhe ridgeline. (Heading to the north would have put us onto the Grapevine Peak ridgeline.) We quickly climbed up nearly 500 feet in elevation until we reached the route highpoint at 7,990 feet. This was Charlie's stopping point for the day. As he no longer does long hikes, Charlie decided to come along until he could find a nice shady spot under some trees with a clear view of the Palmer ridgeline where he could relax for the day. He found the perfect spot and then I continued on, dropping 800 feet in elevation (or 1,300 feet in cumulative) over a series of major bumps down the western Wahguyhe ridgeline. This included some of the steepest portions of the entire hike with sweeping views down into Upper Moonlight Canyon and across to Grapevine Peak. The western Wahguyhe ridgeline follows along the rim of the Fall Canyon head, where several forks of Upper Fall Canyon come to an end. In order to crossover onto the Palmer ridgeline, a challenging cross-country portion of the hike must now be done. At the bottom of the 3rd major bump (as marked on my map), it is necessary to turn left and make your way along the base of some rocky cliffs through the forest. It takes some time and patience to cautiously get through this area, but it's not overly difficult. The final portion crosses over the rim of the Red Wall Canyon head. This was interesting because by looking in both directions, I could clearly see and now understand the route which connects Fall Canyon to Red Wall Canyon. That is an advanced backpacking route which has been carried out by some hikers to Death Valley on occasion. This spot where you are standing in between Fall and Red Wall is essentially the halfway point of the hike. Up ahead lies the intimidating Palmer ridgeline. The nice thing is that a fairly obvious use trail starts up around this area and continues most of the way to the summit. It does disappear in some places but is almost always obvious in essential areas. The use trail helps you avoid the first major bump along the Palmer ridgeline by cutting to the left just before gaining extra elevation which would have to be dropped later. There are a few more minor bumps and then the major obstacle of the hike shows up. As you approach it, it almost feels like there will be no way to safely climb this small headwall or cliffs area. At home, I had already ruled out climbing directly up it. So after climbing uphill a short distance on the use trail, I turned right and worked my way around the side of the cliffs (all the while staying on a semi-visible trail). Eventually, I arrived at the bottom of a gully which turned sharply to the left. I decided to take this gully up because it looked climbable despite being steep and having loose rocks everywhere. On the internet, this gully is called a "nasty rib" by some hikers. Basically, I just planned out each step and took my time being very careful. The steepest part is at the very end but I made it up. With that, I had gotten past the major obstacle and was only about 15 minutes away from the summit. It was definitely a thrilling moment to finally reach the Mount Palmer summit. I think my favorite view was to the southeast of Thimble Peak and Corkscrew Peak side-by-side. Mount Palmer seems to have the perfect angle for viewing these two majestic peaks. If you draw a line on Google Earth from Mount Palmer to Corkscrew Peak, you will see why this is the case, as the line appears to go directly through Thimble Peak. In fact, I looked back at my Corkscrew Peak pictures and could see the flip of this, with Mount Palmer appearing directly behind Thimble Peak, slightly to the left. Colorful Wahguyhe Peak is another highlight as seen from Mount Palmer. There were also some towering rock crags to the left of Wahguyhe a little ways down the mountain which looked very impressive. These crags would almost be worth checking out as their own hiking destination. As our hike took place during May, there was heat in the valley and thus a fair amount of haze in the air. Because of this, I did not have great views of areas far away, such as Telescope Peak. But the views from the top were still incredible, especially when thinking about how much exploring I have done in the Grapevine Mountains. I didn't head down from the summit until 4:10pm and by the time I got back to Charlie, it was after dark. We hiked back to the Jeep by following my GPS. Without the GPS, we surely would have gotten lost as it was quite dark and we were hiking through forest. Even with the GPS, we got slightly lost twice when I stopped monitoring it every single minute. But we made it back to the Jeep at 10:15pm. That was 12 hours of intense hiking. This hike can certainly be done faster, but I was not feeling well at all during the day and I spent time doing photography and enjoying the hike rather than just trying to rush through it as some people do. Mount Palmer truly ended up being one of my personal favorite peak hikes that I have ever done in Death Valley. If you have a few minutes, read up on Theodore Sherman Palmer. Mount Palmer and Palmer Canyon are named after him and his life story is interesting. Our hike took place on May 10, 2015.
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