The Panamint Range of Death Valley: A Rattlesnake, Flowers, and Very Large Kilns… The Desert Series


Panamint Rattlesnake in Death Valley.

We found this rather handsome fellow on our way up to Wildrose in Death Valley. Check out the shadow! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I crossed over the Panamint Range once on a bicycle. It wasn’t fun. Or let me put it this way, the nine-mile climb up out of Panamint Valley wasn’t fun. It was at the beginning of my 10,000-mile solo trip around the US. I only had seven days of cycling behind me so I was still getting in shape (massive understatement).  Adding to the challenge, I was carrying over 50 pounds of gear, everything I needed to survive six months on the open road.

Standing out of the saddle in my lowest gear, and exerting every bit of muscle power I could, I averaged two miles an hour. And yes, it would have been much easier to get off my bike and push. But I am a stubborn when it comes to things physical. The ride down, on the other hand, was lovely and about 20 times as fast.

Our Toyota Tacoma thought nothing of the climb out of Death Valley to the Emigrant Canyon Road and on to Wildrose Canyon. In fact the pickup loves a challenge and likes to be on the road as much as Peggy and I do. Or maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit too much here. (And don’t you just love that word, all 18 letters of it.)

We were lollygagging along on the Wildrose road and stopping often to photograph flowers when we passed the rattlesnake. Peggy was driving. “Stop, back up,” I urged. Laughing, Peggy complied. She’s used to my fascination with rattlesnakes. I’ve had dozens of encounters over the years. One of my favorite tricks is to get down on my belly in front of them to take photos as they crawl toward me. Unfortunately, my headshots are usually blurry. Could it be that I am backing up too fast?

Panamint Rattlesnake in the Panamint Mountains, Death valley.

Having determined that we weren’t edible, the large snake went on his way. Isn’t the head magnificent? It shouts pit viper.(Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This guy was a beauty, a Panamint rattler (Crotalus stephensi), and I would guess almost record size. He was on the driver’s side of the truck so I handed Peggy her camera and she snapped three shots. And then, before I could get out to the truck for some close-ups, she stepped on the gas and we were out of there. Can you imagine that? I whined for an hour.

The flowers soon assuaged my disappointment, however. At our elevation of around 5,000-7,000 feet, they were everywhere. While we were too late to catch flowers blooming in the valley, our trips up to Dante’s View and Wildrose more than made up for it.

Desert flowers in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

I was taken by this old desert road that cut off the main road and was covered with flowers as far as the eye could see.

Hill covered with flowers in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

And how about this hillside?

Prickly poppies growing in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

These prickly poppies were attractive. Petals were tissue paper thin. The red beetle was quite busy.

Death Valley flower.

I don’t know what this striking yellow beauty was. Maybe one of my readers can identify it. (Finally found it in one of my field guides. It’s called Desert Plume and is a member of the mustard family.)

Lupine growing in the Panamint Range of Death Valley.

This lupine, however, is an old friend. It is common throughout the west. Peggy is even growing some. What was amazing about this plant was its size. I would say around four feet tall.

Beyond the rattlesnake and the flowers, the highlight of the tour was the ten charcoal kilns built in by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company in 1877 to prepare charcoal to be used in smelters at its lead-silver mine about 25 miles away. Local pinion pines and junipers were cut down and hauled to the kilns. It took approximately four cords of wood to fill one kiln. After 6-8 days for burning and another 5 days for cooling the charcoal was then transported by an army of jackasses.

Charcoal kilns located in Death Valley.

The kilns, which were used for about three years, have sat quietly for over a century. Navajo Indian stonemasons from Arizona restored the kilns in 1971. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

An interesting aside is that George Hearst was the principal investor in the mining company. His son, William Randolph Hearst, would go on to found the Hearst media empire. And it was his great grand-daughter, Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s. Where this is going is that I met Patty and her abductors in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I was up with some friends scouting out streams for trout fishing when a van roared around us and got stuck in a snow bank, which we found rather amusing. A group of folks came tumbled out of the van including a young woman who came over to talk with us while her companions tried to dig out of the snow.

“Do you have any guns in your car?” she asked. “My friends have been teaching me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area and we are up here for practice today.” That’s when the alarm bells started going off for me. We were talking to Patty Hearst and her ‘friends’ were SLA members. When Patty wandered off to check on the van’s progress, I whispered my concerns to my friends and suggested we help get the van on its way, which is what we did.

But so much for the detour (grin). I was either going to tell you stories about rattlesnakes today or the Patty Hearst. Patty won. Back to the kilns.

Charcoal kiln in Panamint Mountains in Death Valley.

Peggy provides perspective on the size of the kilns that are 25 feet tall.

Back view of charcoal kilns in Death Valley.

Back view of kilns showing window where smoke escaped. You can still smell the smoke inside.

View looking out from inside a charcoal kiln in Death Valley.

View from inside the kiln looking out at the pines.

A final view from Wildrose. What appears to be puffy white clouds on the horizons are the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A final view from Wildrose. What appears to be puffy white clouds on the horizons are the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

NEXT BLOG: What’s a desert without a ghost town, or two. We head off to the old mining town of Rhyolite sitting on the edge of  Death Valley.

30 thoughts on “The Panamint Range of Death Valley: A Rattlesnake, Flowers, and Very Large Kilns… The Desert Series

  1. Thank you Curt and Peggy (camera person) for sharing your adventure.This post, for me, is even greater than the rest of your journeys. We will have to compare snake encounters some time. Your chance meeting with Patty Hurst is fascinating. Do you think if your reply to her about guns in the car would have been “yes”, you would have been relieved of the guns for the “cause”? Asking me for the name of a flower is always a mistake but I do know a few, dandelions, roses,,, well, two.

    • Hi Bill… Actually we had a twenty-two rifle and told Patty before I made the connection. She immediately wanted to have us pull it out for a few practice rounds. 🙂

      I bet we could spend a whole evening swapping snake stories. Did you ever have to remove one in the line of duty. I mean, I know you were expected to take a bullet, but a snake bite???

      So I take it that you are not going to name the flower for me. In the days when I was leading hundred mile backpack trips, we had an elderly man (70-85) who went with us for 15 years and knew all of the flowers. The first Trek, I came across a yellow flower I didn’t know and asked Orvis the name. Oh, that’s a DYC he told me. So I confidently told other participants the name when they asked me. The next year I was out with Orvis and came across another yellow flower I didn’t know and asked Orvis again. Oh, that’s a DYC he told me. “How can it be Orvis” I asked, my faith shattered. “You told me another flower was a DYC last year.” He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Damn yellow composite.”


      • That’s really funny. Steve Schwartzman, who stops by my blog and whose “Portraits of Wildflowers” blog I follow, told me about DYCs a few months ago. It’s apparent a well-used category among botanists.

  2. I couldn’t even look at the snake photo for too long. That’s the effect they have on me. I’d rather bike up hill nine miles than spot one! But unlike you, I might break down and push the bike a bit. 😉

  3. We got a picture of a rattler in Wyoming as it drew up as if to strike the tire of our truck. We didn’t wait around after the shot either, to see what it would do next. But is was a classic picture. Yours is simply lovely. What a snake, and what a day.

    • I could have spent an hour hanging out with the snake. It wasn’t to be, sigh. But it was a great day. I’ve never seen one coiled up to strike a tire, but I have seen them coiled up with striking me in mind. No problem as long as you stay outside of their reach. Thanks for your story. I can see you zipping off down the road. LOL–Curt

  4. Great tales all around Curt. I suspect that Terri will tell you that I’m not always the most sensible person either, but I have to say, I’m with Peggy on this one. She did the right thing when she floored it. Tell her I said great pix as well. Meeting Patty Hearst – pretty cool, but a bit risky. Has that tale gotten you a few free beers? And I’ve never seen anything like the charcoal kilns. When we lived in Khartoum, there was an old guy who rode through the neighborhood on his donkey with huge saddlebags loaded with charcoal. I loved it because it was in the shape of the real tree limbs (as opposed to those convenient little briquettes). This was the first real charcoal that I’d ever seen. ~James

    • Thanks James. Peggy can be a little cautious. 🙂 I know– that isn’t what you said. (grin) The Patty Hearst thing was a bit on the strange side, but all’s well that ends well. Right. And it was definitely worth the story. The Kilns are something else. And they were only in operation for three years. Their remoteness has helped preserve them. –Curt

  5. Stunning!!! Your pictures remind me of driving through the desert and turning off the a/c so the car wouldn’t overheat 😛 Miss it all!!!!!!

  6. Curt, Curt….you did not mention that you wanted me to get closer to the snake, ahem. Then when you threatened to get out of the car for your famous close ups, I noticed that the snake was not a happy camper…, yes, I floored it…grin. All for love…..Peggy

    • Unhappy? He would have been wound up in a tight coil, rattling his tail, and striking out at us. Talk about a photo op! 🙂 I am sure I could have persuaded him to assume the position. LOL. Love back. C

  7. The row of kilns are particularly pleasing. There is a naturalness in their similarity with tiny variations. Love that sharp black shadow under the rattlesnake. You’ve done some scary stuff in your life (Patty AND rattlesnakes).

  8. Your photos are outstanding. I know that the subjects are very photogenic. Still. What I pay more attention to, now that I’m used to your good eye (and your wife, too) is your writing and the stories you are telling us. Your encounter with Patty Hearst and her kidnappers is quite incredible. The snakes too, but I’ve seen a fair amount of snakes in the Sierra foothills, so I was more into Patty. Thank you.

    • The time I met up with Patty Hearst was definitely one of those experiences that lodge in your brain.

      I grew up in the Sierra foothills so that’s where I was introduced to rattlesnakes as well. 🙂

      And you are right about the photogenic quality of desert. It certainly helps. LOL –Curt

  9. I’m not sure what the mysterious flower/plant is, but it certainly looks like a Dale Chiluly piece. As for the snake’s shadow — I’ve been doing woodwork for too long. That shadow looks to me like an old-fashioned brace and bit. My favorite photo’s the one taken from inside the kiln. That’s really special.

    Patty Hearst, huh? Well, desert hideouts are a long-standing American tradition, so why not? I think I’d rather take on the rattlesnake!

    • Found the flower finally in one of my flower guides. It’s called a Desert Plume and is a member of the mustard family. I need to go back and add it to the blog.

      No doubt the rattlesnake was a much more reasonable character than the SLA.:) –Curt

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