Death Valley, Pt 5: Cactus Assassin

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Good lord, it’s cold at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.

Fleece gloves and two layers of puffy jackets and still I make emphatic jazz hands to keep the circulation moving in my fingers. The temperature hovers around freezing and my body is exasperated at the differential between the last two days. Yesterday was pushing 100 degrees at -282 feet below sea level and now we’ve dropped nearly 70 degrees up at 6,800 feet; it’s a lot for a body to process.

Robin and I set up on a sunny knoll behind the kilns to make breakfast: oatmeal, coconut cream powder, and freeze dried strawberries. While we eat, the roasty scent of old smoke blows up from the kilns on the frigid morning breeze. The canyon around us is perfectly still and quiet, our only immediate company save for a couple other tourists are the ten kilns themselves, enormous sentries so much bigger in person than I always imagined them. The current silence belies the area’s colorful history*; I close my eyes and try to imagine the place in its heyday. The clop of mules’ hooves, the roaring crackle of the fires, the heavy smell of pine smoke. Axes thwacking into tree trunks. The shouts of men leaving for Wildrose, a settlement that is known to have existed nearby though no one is certain where.

The kilns were built in 1877 to provide charcoal fuel for the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company’s lead-silver smelters, an investment opportunity funded by George Hearst. The mining operation’s appetite for charcoal was insatiable and Hearst quickly ran through the immediate area’s sparse timber within the mine’s first year of operation. Enter the Wildrose kilns, 25 foot high beehive-shaped limestone ovens that spanned 30 feet in diameter and held 42 cords of wood fully-loaded. A forty man crew stayed busy lopping down all the pinyon pine trees for two miles around to keep the kilns burning night and day. Each batch took a week to smolder down to 2,000 bushels of charcoal.

As with many business ventures in the Panamints, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns experienced a hasty boom/bust lifespan and were decommissioned two years later in 1879, practically brand new. The Wildrose camp town in turn dissolved and was quickly reclaimed by the arid desert mountains.


Breakfast and coffee consumed, Robin and I set off up the Wildrose Peak Trail which begins where the kilns end. It is lovely from the first steps as the packed clay trail leads through scrubby second growth juniper and pinyon pine. Moments after beginning, a furry, speckled, tawny posterior with a nub of a tail slips through the bushes ahead of us: bobcat!

Wildrose Peak is the second highest point in Death Valley and the trail wastes no time ascending–quickly. The first two miles are a steep march upward without much view of what we know waits at the saddle. Silvery trunks from the original mining clearcut stud the hills and it’s clear how much recovery has happened in the last 150 years.

After two miles of steady uphill following an old dirt road track, the terrain levels out as we reach the first saddle. The views of the other side are breathtaking, with Death Valley stretching far into every direction. Despite having traveled extensively enough within the park to think of things an hour away as a “short drive,” regarding the park from above truly reveals its enormous scale.

The trail resumes its upward trend until a second saddle, which reveals both incredible views and a glimpse of where the trail is headed, which is toward a tight coil of switchbacks zigzagging right up the side of the final slope leading to Wildrose Peak’s “summit.”

The trees grow shorter with each switchback as a new form of vegetation begins to dominate: the grizzly bear pricklypear cactus, knee-high clusters of paddle-shaped foliage with 2-3″ needle halos. Robin manages to impale himself on one of them and we pull aside to yank it from the pad of his foot. He swears the cactus jumped out at him, and I concur. Obviously there are assassin attack cactus on the loose, and a person can’t be too careful with those fiends about.

The top of Wildrose Peak is unexpected, more of a broad plateau than anything resembling a mountaintop. All of Death Valley spreads out below with the salt flats shimmering bright white and Furnace Creek an unlikely green tuft. The view that stops my heart, though, is to the northwest were the snowy Sierras stand in a jagged row. We haven’t seen them since finishing the John Muir Trail in 2015, and it’s impossible to explain the level of emotional attachment to anyone who hasn’t experienced it (but if you have, reader, you understand perfectly what the sight of these mountains can do to a person). It is surreal to see the whole stretch of them from afar and think that we walked all along that distant spine, one foot in front of the other.

This is apparently what mountaintops look like here. Cactus everywhere!
Sierras, I see you!

We make a lunch of Alpine Taco Bell (freeze dried bean flakes and hot taco seasoning) and lounge around the top, then head back to the kilns. Halfway down the switchbacks, we run into a small group of late teens sweating and dragging one foot in front of the other.

“Please tell us we’re close.” We promise they are, and it’s so worth it.

“I don’t know, but it’s about the journey, right?” Perhaps the most optimistic expression of surrender I’ve ever heard.

They resume their upward slog, but we expect to turn around and see them behind us any moment.


We return to the car and decide to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the northern stretch of the park. Scotty’s Castle is closed for several more years due to a devastating flood that swept past it back in October so we miss out on that, but end up at Ubehebe Crater, the end of the paved road.

The crater is the result of a very recent volcanic steam explosion as little as 300 years ago, a large blast resulting in a 600-foot deep hole that is a half mile across. Bright orange rock strata streak through the crater’s depths, turning more golden as the evening sun creeps closer to the horizon.

A trail circles the entire rim, but the wind is so loud we can’t even hear each other shouting so we pantomime going back to the car and finding a place to fix dinner.

The sun dips below the valley wall as we speed south. I catch a flash of magenta in the rearview mirror and yell “PULL OVER!”

Robin swerves our little car into a flat spot in the ditch and we turn around. The formerly average sunset has transformed into neon magenta and tangerine. We settle into the playa ditch and make a macaroni and cheese dinner on our camp stove, taking in the rest of the light show as we eat. When the last of the pinks and melons darken into plums and navies, it time for us, too, to retire for the evening.

* Bonus, hilarious story about the town of Wildrose, as recounted by Richard E. Lingenfelter’s wonderful Death Valley & The Amargosa: A Land of Illusion:

During the Panamint boom, Wildrose was also a hangout of a pair of incompetent stage robbers–John Small, a short, red-faced blowhard, and his taller, quiet partner, J. McDonald. They came to the Panamints in August 187 after a spate of abortive holdups of the Austin and Eureka stages. They had consistently picked the coaches with empty treasure boxes, and got only $18 in cash out of three robberies. But they made such nuisances of themselves that Wells, Fargo and Company posted a reward of $500 each for their capture, and thereby drove them out of Nevada. In the Panamint Range they found refuge among kindred spirits and such casual law enforcement that they could walk into the express office and tear their wanted poster off the wall without fear of arrest, or even protest. They camped just out of Wildrose Spring, and busies themselves posting location notices, apparently more for past and future alibis than for any actual mineral discovery. Then, in early December 1874, they quietly revisited Eureka to try once more to pull off a successful holdup. Wells Fargo detective James Hume got wind of the impending robbery and put a guard, Jim Miller, on the coach. Small and McDonald stopped the stage 8 miles out of Eureka. When they started to open the box, Miller drew a shotgun on them, and after exchanging a few shots, the bumbling bandits fled for Wildrose, leaving the unopened treasure box behind. Although they had failed again, Wells Fargo raised the prices on their heads to $2,000 apiece. This finally brought letters from some of Panamint’s more enterprising citizens, revealing the fugitives’ whereabouts, and in May 1875 the Eureka sheriff came to Panamint to get them. But when he confronted Small and McDonald, they produced location notices to show that they were at Wildrose on the dates of their robberies, and Dave Neagle and a few of Panamint’s other solid citizens swore to their claims. The sheriff left in disgust, and Small and McDonald returned to their Wildrose “mines,” at least for a while.

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