I found the trail two years ago, back in 2018 when I first visited Death Valley National Park. It wasn’t a planned hike. I didn’t even know there was a trail there, didn’t even know what it was called. As soon as I saw it though, I knew I was meant to take it.
I’d followed a long, winding, bumpy, gravel and pit-ridden road for 26 miles to get there, to get to the Racetrack. It’s this far-flung and magical place in Death Valley. It’s a place where stones float themselves across the floor of the desert, gouging a path as they go. It’s a place where you can be totally alone in a vast and incredible desert.
With little idea of where I was going that first visit, I followed the trail until I lost it, until I wasn’t sure where or even if it kept going. Then, I sat down, opened a beer and a snack pack of Pringles and feasted. The view from up there was incredible, a panorama of desert valleys and mountain ranges. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Later, I’d learn I was most of the way up Ubehebe Peak, that I’d missed the summit by about a half mile or so.
I wasn’t bothered by missing the summit, not really. But, in planning my return trip to Death Valley, I knew climbing to the top of the peak would be on my scamper to-do list. What better way to kick off a week in my favorite place, I thought, than hiking my favorite trail?
I’d spent two years thinking about how that place made me feel, about how happy I was sitting up there eating my Pringles and drinking my beer. It’s the place I think about when I’m sad or lonely. I think about it when I can’t sleep, trying to color in the details, reimagine the exact feel of the breeze on my skin, the color of the mountains, the feel of a rock beneath my butt. The happiness I experienced up there, alone, was unlike any sort of joy I’d ever felt before. And I wanted it back.
So, naturally, I went back to the Racetrack my very first morning in the park. I rose with the sun and my East Coast internal clock, quickly made coffee, scarfed down some breakfast, threw my gear in the back of my rental and hit the road.
Roughly two hours later, I arrived, parked next to the Racetrack, loaded my pack with supplies, located the trail and headed up. Armed with past experience and detailed GPS-based trail information, I knew exactly what I was in for.
The trail to Ubehebe Peak is hard. It’s an out-and-back trail, on the shorter side, at about 4.5 miles. But, with an elevation gain of around 2,000′, a string of scrambles toward the top of the trail, a need for at least marginal desert navigation skills and the heat of the desert, it packs a punch.
Technically, Ubehebe includes two peaks, with a well-defined trail until you reach the saddle between the two. That’s where I stopped the first time, where I ran out of trail. It’s a perfect place to stop for those not interested in desert navigation or scrambling because after the saddle, things get interesting.
I lost the trail a half dozen times and while my GPS did keep me going in roughly the right direction, I found standing on rocks and turning in small circles while trying to spot cairns and ill-defined bits of trail the most effective course of action until finally, at last, I reached the top.
The trail tops out at 5,678 feet. For reference, that’s just 100 feet below the tallest mountain in Virginia. At the summit, there’s a logbook and a U.S. Geological Survey marker. I climbed Ubehebe on Oct. 12, 2020, and was the first person to sign the book since March. For the duration of my climb up, mine was the only car in the lot. I had the place to myself for full hours of the day.
That’s the thing about Death Valley that I love. It offers an abundance of remote adventure opportunities, of which the climb to the top of Ubehebe Peak is just one. It is not hard to escape a crowd in Death Valley, not difficult to find yourself alone inside of a canyon, on top of a mountain, standing alongside a creek bed. It is not impossible to be the only human inhabitant within a 10-mile radius.
This year has been such a challenge, such a weird, frustrating experience. There was so much time spent alone and still, I went to the desert seeking solitude. It’s different there though, different from the solitude of stay-at-home orders spent in my living room and on my back deck. At Death Valley, the solitude felt like safety. It felt like a homecoming.
Maybe it’s the space. There is so much of it there, so much more than I am used to at home. When I’m there, the solitude takes the pressure off, it lifts the weight. There’s nothing I have to do for anyone else except myself. I don’t have to hold doors for strangers, make small talk, behave in any sort of civilized manner. At Death Valley, I can exist in any and all ways I want because there, there is space. So much incredible space.