The desert was cold when I woke up and emerged from my tent into the pre-dawn glow at the edges of the Panamint Valley. It was just after 6am on Saturday, February 25, and the temperature must have been in the low forties at least.
Andrew was also awake, and we noted the crust of frost on our gear.
As the light slowly, but steadily increased, the beautiful austerity of the northern end of the Panamint Valley came into view. The name Panamint derived from the Paiute word Panümünt, which means “water person.”
Our campsite was closer to the Cottonwood Mountains side of the valley. The Cottonwoods are part of the Panamint Range, stretching 100 miles north-south and separating Death Valley and Panamint Valley. We were in the shadow of Panamint Butte, colorfully striped and imposing in this part of the range.
South of us, rising from the valley floor, was Lake Hill, which would have been an island when the valley was filled with an ancient lake. Across the valley was the northern edge of the Argus Range and the Darwin Mountains, the site of our waterfall visit the previous afternoon.
At not quite 6:30, dawn’s glow appeared on the tops of the Cottonwoods.
And also on Maturango Peak, the highest point in the Argus Range.
Beneath the Argus Range, we could discern the tiny old-timey resort of Panamint Springs.
The sun rose quickly, spreading light from west to east across the valley floor.
And then, a little after seven, the sunlight reached us.
Andrew and I were on a second round of coffee before Sean emerged from the tent. Once he did, we started breakfast while the sun quickly warmed us.
After breakfast, we were ready for adventure in the form of a hike to the Panamint Dunes.
The small parking area and trailhead for Panamint Dunes was about a quarter mile up the road from our camp. From there, the dunes were four miles away across open desert, although they appeared to be much closer.
There isn’t actually a trail to the Panamint Dunes. From the trailhead, you simply head out cross-country to the dunes. The earliest part of the route is a little broken up as it crosses some washes coming down into the valley from the Cottonwoods, but shortly it becomes hard desert pavement, easy to walk on.
Once we reached the desert pavement, we began to notice tracks, lots of tracks, from the goings on of last night.
We also saw burrows and holes, which may or may not have been occupied that morning.
We had set out at about a quarter after nine. Turning around over an hour later, we could see how far we’d traveled and how there was a clear, though very gradual, elevation gain, although it had been largely imperceptible to us while we were walking.
We had reached the edge of the dune field, although the dunes themselves were still a mile and a half or so away.
Someone had left or lost their top.
Dune grass appeared at intervals between the creosote.
Now we were more steadily gaining elevation, and the desert pavement had given way to soft dune sand.
Four miles, two hours, and 1,000 feet later, we reached the bottom of the high dunes. Although it was farther than it looked to reach from camp, it didn’t at the time feel like two hours.
We had the dunes, some cresting 300-feet high, to ourselves. Entirely and completely.
They were ours to explore, and explore we did, following ridges, dipping into depressions.
The dunes were formed from northerly winds blowing sand from the southern reaches of Panamint Valley to here, the northern end, hemmed in by the Argus Range and the Cottonwood Mountains.
Andrew, far and away the most fit of the three of us, was far more aggressive in his exploring than Sean and I were.
The Panamint Dunes are only one of the multiple dune fields in Death Valley National Park. They are not the largest, but they require the longest hike of the major dune fields, making them among the most isolated.
We climbed the highest ridge to the highpoint of the dunes.
The ridge dropped off dramatically to a view of the northern end of the dune field and the Cottonwood Mountains beyond.
The steepness of the north side of the ridge (a crest really in a wave of wind-shaped sand) was slightly vertigo inducing. Andrew traversed it, but I needed to circle back, and Sean and I took a different route to loop around and meet him.
The view back down the valley was like a dream of the desert.
After exploring for a while, we sat down and had our lunch there on the dunes, admiring the views and the solitude.
After lunch, we shouldered our packs and started the return hike.
The walk to the dunes was easily guided by the dunes themselves: just walk toward them. But we had to be a bit more careful on the way back since for the vast majority of the hike we couldn’t actually see our tents or the Jeep. We didn’t want to overshoot.
As we walked, we talked of previous hiking adventures with Andrew’s story of hiking up Mount Fuji as the centerpiece of our conversation.
We tended to trend somewhat west of the main route, and we noticed a couple groups of hikers, far off to our left, making their way to the dunes.
By 1:30, we spotted our campsite. And fifteen minutes after that we were back.
We made short work of striking camp, and soon we were headed down Lake Hill Road toward Highway 190, which would take us over the Panamints and into Death Valley proper.