Thursday, October 25, 2018
Lowest to Highest: Planning Notes and Unsubstantiated Opinions
Welcome! If you're planning a Lowest to Highest (L2H) hike and made it this far down the Google search results, I'm going to assume you've already read the far more comprehensive Simblissity site, along with planning summaries from Swami, Buck-30, and others. What follows here is a potpourri of random topics, to address topics not already covered, or where I have a diverging opinion.
Season: The general recommendation is late September and early October. Nemo and I hiked it in mid-October, definitely on the later end of the standard window. We were extremely pleased with our decision. We experienced relatively cool, pleasant weather almost the entire time. Granted, much of the West was locked in an unseasonably cool period while we were hiking, but even still, we definitely realized the benefits of hiking in mid-late October when things weren't nearly as hot.
We didn't experience the 100+ heat that many others have while crossing Death Valley's playas. We didn't need to carry nearly as much water as we thought we would. Yes, we hit a little snow on Whitney, but it's a well-traveled trail, and microspikes were perfectly adequate to deal with the slippery spots. Remember, the route is 135 miles, and only 10 of those are in the alpine zone. Best to maximize comfort on the majority of the route and deal with a little ice and snow if needed.
Resupply: Nearly everyone will resupply in Lone Pine (Mile 110), as you walk right by a little market. In addition, though, I'd recommend stashing a bucket in the desert a half mile or so from Panamint Springs Resort (Mile 50). Smaller food carries are sure nice when you're constantly carrying a lot of water, and it's not a big deal to cache just a little away from the road. Carry the bucket the short distance to Panamint and trash it there.
Some people have had success asking Panamint to hold on to their resupply, but don't count on it. We got a very blank look from the lady working at the restuarant when we asked about the possibility, and she obviously wanted no part of whatever we were doing. Sounds like many others have had the same experience. Just stash it in the desert and disguise it well. It's not that big of a deal. Just don't put anything melty in your resupply!
Water: Water reports abound on the L2H Facebook group. These are a useful supplement to the excellent water information that Blisterfree already provides. Earlier in 2018, a hiker was rescued via helicopter after he ran out of water and found Tuber Spring dry. Despite the cool temperatures, I still drank plenty of water. The air in Death Valley is so arid that you can just about feel the moisture leaving your body as you hike. Don't mess around. Just carry enough.
West Side Road: closed; we did not cache here. It's unnecessary anyways, because Hanaupah Spring is reliable.
Hanaupah Spring: reliable and delicious. The NPS warns of potential contamination; apparently a pot-growing operation was recently busted here, and they have not tested for pesticide contamination. We drank it, as did all other L2H hikers this year. Nobody's reported ill effects yet, so ignore the bureaucrats and drink up!
Tuber Spring: There are three different water sources here, none of which are particularly reliable. Do not count on this source unless you have reliable and recent reports of water. We found a couple of dirty puddles, but nothing flowing.
Panamint Springs Resort: Reliable, and open from 7:00AM to 9:00PM.
Darwin Spring: Don't contaminate this source, as it's the water source for the resort! In addition to the reliable water at Darwin Spring itself, we found water leaking out of the pipe where the main route and the Darwin Canyon Alt diverge.
Saline Valley Road: Yes, you can cache right at Hwy 190. But you can also drive up Saline Valley Road for 10+ miles in a passenger car. I'd suggest caching both at the highway, and near where the Cerro Gordo Alt diverges from the main route. Enjoy not having to lug a whole bunch of water around!
Cerro Gordo: This place is awesome and has new ownership. Please be very respectful and get permission if you want to cache here. A great resource for hikers, and best not to screw things up for everyone else!
Long John Canyon: we found this to be dry.
Navigation: This is one of those routes where a GPS is occasionally quite helpful. Most of the navigation is quite straightforward, but it definitely helped to have a GPS track on the descent into Long John Canyon. It would have sucked infinitely more had we not been able to locate the decent use trail. Other than that spot, it's rather easy. The route is designed well and follows the land in a fairly logical way most of the time.
Parking: We got permission to park at both Badwater and Whitney Portal, with notes on the vehicles. Contact the Furnace Creek R.S and the Eastern Sierra Interagency, respectively, to secure permission.
Cell reception: Nemo had AT&T and I had Verizon. We both had cell service atop Telescope, and then again once we hit the crest of the Inyos. She also had AT&T from the top of Darwin Plateau onwards. Normally Verizon has the edge in the backcountry, but score one for AT&T in this case.
Pace: The first 2 days will be slow, as it's almost entirely off-trail and you're gaining/losing 10,000 vertical feet all at once. Take it slow and don't rush things. You'll have a great opportunity to "make up time" later in the hike. After you hit the Wildrose Road, things get dramatically easier. There's one short stretch of tedium going over Darwin Plateau, but other than that, it's smooth sailing for the most part. We averaged high teens for the first two days, and 22-25 mpd after that.
If you have trail legs: the above pace won't be a problem. It's October and the days are shorter, but the mileage is still pretty reasonable. I had some pretty bad ankle pain after re-aggravating a bad ankle but was able to hike through it. Were it not for that, I think it would have been pretty straightforward
If you don't have trail legs: the above pace is doable, but you're going to be hurting quite a bit. It's only a week, or a little more, so you may be able to push through it, but there's always that risk of injury if you push beyond what your body is used to. In general, for experienced thru-hiker types, 6-9 days is reasonable. Those with trail legs will probably do it in 7; those without trail legs will probably take 8.
Note: Caching (especially the drives out to Cerro Gordo and Wildrose Rd) will take you the better part of a day, most likely. Make sure to plan for this when scheduling your vacation!
LNT: We were rather dismayed at the amount of trash we found. Some of it, like a ballpoint pen, could have been from anyone. But we also found at least one water cache that looked abandoned, that no one had cleaned up after their hike. Because of the excellent information out there, it's easy to see the L2H as just another long-distance trail. But it really is unique and relatively untouched. Help keep it that way.
Regarding water jugs, we found it easy enough to flatten them or strap them to the top of our packs like hobos. And we didn't have to carry them far for the most part; a couple of cars stopped while we were on the roadwalk sections, asking what we were doing. After giving us the "I think you're crazy" speech, they asked if there was anything they could do for us. Being opportunists, we asked them if they'd kindly take the bulky jugs off our hands and throw them away. It was nice, but not necessary. If push came to shove it wouldn't have been a problem to carry them all the way to town.
The climbs: They're really, really long. You're gonna hurt.
And that's it! If you're interested in doing the L2H, feel free to drop me a line with any questions.