Distance (round-trip)

6 mi

Time

4.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

875 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

A six mile loop through some of the most stunning badlands in Death Valley National Park. This route features tons of geologic and human history – you’ll pass through layers of strata defining the different ages of Death Valley’s past, see canyons painted in dozens of different colors, and pass old mining shafts and claims from the area’s industrial heyday. This is an incredible hike through varied Death Valley terrain and is highly recommended.

The Golden Canyon Trailhead can get a little crowded sometimes – the first part of this loop is an easy, interesting nature trail that’s only 2 and a half miles from the (relative) bustle of Furnace Creek Ranch. But even if you have to wait for parking to get onto this trail – do it. It’s 110% worth the effort.

Note: Do not attempt this trail on hot summer days. There is no shade and no water. Additionally, both Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch are extremely prone to flash floods, so be sure to check the forecast before you set out.

Golden Canyon takes you through layers of geologic history, but if you’re not a geologist then it’s good to have a guide. If they’re stocked, you can pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents at the trailhead just before you enter the canyon itself. There are 10 marked items along the first mile of the ‘nature walk’ portion of the trail, and the pamphlet will teach you about many of the geologic features you see all over Death Valley National Park. It’s worth the price, even though some of the numbered markers in the canyon are missing or very tough to see.

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Either way, head on into Golden Canyon.

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Somehow, unbelievably, there used to be a paved road through this canyon. Almost all of the road was washed away in a flash flood in 1976, but in several places you can still see bits of asphalt poking through the ground.

As you make your way into the canyon, pay close attention to the rock walls surrounding you – you can see them change as you hike, from water-polished volcanic rock to the twisted and folded sedimentary rocks left over from the ancient bed of Lake Manly.

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In many ways, hiking these two canyons is like hiking a dozen different canyons at once – while trekking through the area, my hiking companions and I would often remark at how incredibly different the landscape looked every time we rounded another corner.

At about the 0.3 mile mark, you’ll start to notice some short but steep slot canyons cutting through the side walls of Golden Canyon. None of these will take you particularly far off the beaten path, but they are great little add-ons if you want to get your hands dirty or just do some basic scrambling.

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Climbing in the Canyon

When you’re hiking, be sure to occasionally look back toward the mouth of the canyon – you’ll really be able to see some clear evidence of geologic uplift on the canyon’s southern wall … as well as some really nice views of Death Valley off in the distance:

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Look to your south, and you’ll see the seemingly painted rocks of the Amargosa Range, tinted with a variety of mineral deposits, and to the east further up the canyon, you’ll see the massive, hardened formation known as the Red Cathedral.

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The nature walk section of this hike ends at the one mile mark near Marker 10. From here you can turn around and head back to the trailhead or follow the old paved path to a parking area beneath the Red Cathedral formation. But if you really want to get some amazing views of the badlands and turn this into an epic journey, keep heading into Golden Canyon until around the 1.2 mile mark. Here, the canyon narrows before opening up to a section of worn-down, golden badlands.

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You’ll see a signpost directing you to the Red Cathedral or to Zabriskie Point. You’ll be taking the trail up to Zabriskie, but for a great view of the surrounding landscape first, look for a prominent bump to the south of the trail. There are several steep use-trails that head to the top – so take your pick and head up for a great panorama of the Red Cathedral and the sharp fin-like formation of Manly Beacon.

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After you’ve had your fill of the view, scramble back down to the trail and get ready for a bit of an ascent – about 325 feet in a quarter-mile. It’s not that bad, but since most of what you’ve been hiking on so far has been at a very slight incline, you’ll definitely notice this one. You’ll also notice some amazing views as the trail skirts the western edge of Manly Beacon, providing breathtaking glimpses at the surrounding badlands – which one of my companions described as looking like melted ice cream.

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At about the 1.6 mile mark, you’ll pass beneath Manly Beacon. There’s an optional unmaintained use-trail that follows the ridge parallel to Golden Canyon’s southern rim, but ignore this and instead make the quick descent into the badlands.

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The trail rises and falls over a few ridges until it enters a broad wash. Just before the 2 mile mark, you’ll come to a junction in the wash. Keep your eye peeled for a downed wooden sign somewhere in the wash to let you know you’re at the right place. From here, you can keep heading south to get to Gower Gulch, or you can turn left to head east to Zabriskie Point. Head east and go over a few more bumps. Be sure to look back at Manly Beacon for a very different view, and keep an eye out for the gray-silted wash of Gower Gulch as you head toward Zabriskie, visible on the left in the second photo:

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We all wondered why this section of Gower Gulch looks so remarkably different from the surrounding landscape – and later on I learned that it’s the result of human activities – the gulch was breached on its eastern reaches to divert the flow of Furnace Creek away from the Inn during flash floods. So, as a result, the upper reaches of Gower Gulch are now far more eroded than they should be – and they have those foreign rocks lining the wash instead of pieces of the surrounding badlands.

At 2.5 miles, the trail drops down into that rocky gray wash and you’ll see a few faint use trails ascending east toward Zabriskie Point. Take your choice of paths – they all meet up just over the first ridge – and follow the route for the final 0.3 miles to Zabriskie Point for some stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

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Zabriskie Point is reachable via car and a very short hike up a paved path, so you will have the Mount Wilson Effect here – you’ll probably emerge sweaty and tired, to collapse on the ground, take off your boots and devour some trail snacks … just as some tourists stroll up in their finest driving clothes to take a quick snapshot of the view. You’re probably going to get some odd looks from them. Don’t worry – you earned this view.

When you’re done resting up, backtrack down to Gower Gulch and keep your eye out for this sign near the trail you came in on from Golden Canyon.

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From here, you can either completely retrace your steps back through Golden Canyon. But for more fun – and a variety of scenery – veer left and head into Gower Gulch.

This route is very different from the hard, well-worn ground you hiked in on through Golden Canyon. Gower Gulch – especially in these upper reaches – is heavily eroded and gravel-lined, so walking is going to take a tad more effort here.

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On this stretch of trail, you’re pretty much following the wash all the way down. There are lots of side branches, but as long as you’re hiking in the direction the water would flow in, you’ll be just fine.

There are, however, several old mining areas very close to the wash – in some cases, there’s even old mining equipment, too. This was a very active mining area during Death Valley’s heyday, and there are all sorts of signs posted warning you about all the different ways you could die if you explored any of that old infrastructure.

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If you do decide to poke around, you’re doing so at your own considerable risk.

As you hike further down Gower Gulch, the canyon walls rise up and eventually become painted with splotches of mineral deposits – many of them quite vibrant shades of green, red, gold, and white. And yes, you’ll see more mine shafts, too.

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At the 4.9 mile mark, the canyon narrows significantly. From here, it no longer feels like the broad wash you hiked into, but it starts to feel a bit more like a slot canyon instead. There are a few fun little scrambles along the way, but nothing that should give you any pause.

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It’s during this stretch that you’ll dip back down below Sea Level, and at 5.2 miles you’ll reach what looks to be a dead-end: a 30-foot tall dry waterfall, polished smooth from years of erosion.

Fortunately, there is a very visible use-trail on the right hand side of the dry fall. Stick to the wall, and be sure to look back to see just how much the water has eroded the land below the falls during wet weather. It’s not difficult to imagine a gushing river pouring through that narrow canyon …

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From here, the trail makes a sharp turn north and hugs the edge of the Amargosa Range as it heads back toward the Golden Canyon Trailhead. Enjoy the breathtaking views of Death Valley and the memories of your epic badlands journey on the last 0.8 miles.

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Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





Trail Map

1 Comment

Matt Brunelle Nov 30, 2015 06:11

Hiked it on 11/26/15 there was no sign for Red Cathedral or Zabriskie point just a sign post. Look for marker 10 and head right along the narrow trail.

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