The Southern Deserts: Highways 178 and 190
The far southern end of the Sierra Nevada runs into the great southern deserts, so we’ve included these hikes that we’ve taken off highway 178 and 190 in Death Valley and the vicinity. The hiking here is a little different. There is very little water, and most of the trails take you deeper into trouble. In Death Valley, there are very few marked trails at all, and yet use trails simply cover the hills. You can go pretty much anywhere you want...as long as you can get there, and then get back out again. But as they warn you in the Visitors Center, don't expect to get rescued.
What we have listed here are Day Hikes in this area...but we've also taken a couple of backpacking trips, and some of these day hikes would work just find for backpacking, if you were in the mood to carry two day's worth of water in your pack. That's what we do, and it's heavy. But don't be misled by the "springs" in Death Valley. We have yet to find one full of clean clear water--more like mud holes or wet sand that might be persuaded to provide some water if you were desperate enough to dig. We take three gallons of water for an overnight trip in the spring. We wouldn't try these overnights in the summer, and we expect that we'll be back at the car around mid-day. Three gallons is 24 pounds. On day hikes we usually take close to a gallon. Photo Log
And more Photos Here: Photos
Golden Canyon—through to Gower Gulch: maybe the best day hike loop in the Valley itself, this is a great adventure, climbing up from about sea level to Zabriskie Point, and then back down again, this time through Gower Gulch. It's a bit of a disappointment to get to the cars and parking lot at Zabriskie Point, but after a quick snack, we just headed back down the trail and left the rest of the tourists behind. We saw only two groups of people on the Gower Gulch section of the trail. Narrow canyons, beautiful eroded rock, wonderful vistas, and more geology than you can learn in a year, all in about six and a half miles. And Gower Gulch also has some abandoned mines, clearly marked as dangerous, along the trail. But do this one in the spring, when temperatures are pleasant. In the summer, the climb up Manly Beacon and beyond would drain you of every drop of sweat. The photo at left is from the upper reaches of Golden Canyon, looking out over Death Valley and towards the snowy peaks of the Panamint Range.
Mosaic Canyon—a great hike out of the Stovepipe Wells area, this one climbs up into a series of beautiful narrow canyons. We managed to negotiate around the first of the dry waterfalls, but the second one, a couple of miles in, was too high, steep and scary. So we turned around and clambered up a nearby side canyon that was also quite a delight. It seems that every canyon in Death Valley has some interesting sights!
Sidewinder Canyon--this one is a lovely hike, starting south of Badwater and heading up into the mountains to the east. Full of slot canyons and adventures in every nook and cranny. Take the handout from the Visitors Center, as it will keep you from heading up the wrong canyon, and missing most of the good stuff--like the photo at left. We loved this hike. And we loved exploring each of the side canyons--including those that were not marked on the handout. What fun!
Grotto Canyon—this one was highly recommended, but we had our reservations. We didn’t drive all the way to the trailhead—the last mile required a steep dip down into the wash of the canyon, and our two-wheel drive SUV was our only way back. So we parked it there and hiked in. Once inside the canyon we were stunned by the first grotto…and stymied too. It was just a bit more than we could manage to climb up, without feeling a bit unsafe. So we admired it and then turned around and climbed the side canyon next door. Also nice, but without grottoes. Oh well.
Natural Bridge--This is an easy hike in the spring...less than half a mile to the bridge itself, and the canyon ends in a series of dry marble falls just one mile in. Take the time and trouble to hike to the end. You'll leave 95% of the other hikers behind, and explore a serene narrow canyon that's both easy and beautiful. Look for the "waxy" rocks just as you pass the bridge, the dry waterfall on the right as you ascend the canyon, and the marble fall at the top of this flat section that is polished and lovely. In the summer, they close the 1.5 mile dirt road to car traffic, so you'd have to hike an additional 3 miles to see this. That doesn't seem like a lot, but those three miles are over bare dirt just four miles from Badwater. On a hot day, it must be miserable.
Fall Canyon--This one was a recommendation from one of the wilderness rangers. It leaves from a clear and easy trailhead at the mouth of Titus Canyon, and works its way up for a few miles of really lovely narrows. Hiking is easy, and the total is only about six miles if you stop at the first waterfall. There's a tricky way around that fall, but we didn't feel up to it when we were there. Beautiful scenery here, and we only saw about ten people on the whole hike. That's Fall Canyon in the photo to the right...
Slit Canyon--You'll probably need at least a quick map to see where this hike goes. Once you pass through the Hole in the Wall (we drove through in a 2wd Ford Escape with no worries) you can park and head up the dry wash to the northeast. It makes sense to bear slightly east, and when you hit that cliff, turn left. At that point, you can't miss the entrance into the canyon. It's only a short hike until you hit the first dry fall, and you probably won't be able to climb it. There is a use trail on the south/east side of the canyon that will get you past that first fall...but be prepared for very steep terrain, slippery gravel, and some exposure. This is all normal for Death Valley, but it is no walk in the park. There is another hike into the Funerals from the end of this road...and it's on our list for our next visit.
Echo Canyon/Eye of the Needle--This one's a piece of cake. We parked at the mouth of the canyon, and then hiked in a little over a mile to get to the Eye of the Needle--a hole in the rock that shows blue sky on the other side. That's the eye at left. You can hike up this canyon quite a ways, and we were pretty sure we could have driven our 2wd SUV well beyond where we hiked. Take it slow, and enjoy the view...or hike up as far as you would like!
Jayhawker Canyon--You won't find this one listed among the more popular hikes, but we would do this one again sometime. It starts right at the 3,000 elevation sign on the highway into the park, above Wildrose Canyon. And while there is not supposed to be a trail, there is a clear trail here--marked with cairns, rows of rocks, and well-travelled paths. And what it leads to is a wonderful set of petroglyphs. Don't try this one in the summertime, as the hike across the desert would be pretty darned intolerable. But it isn't difficult hiking, and the rewards a quite wonderful. We really felt that this was something special. Obviously, treat these rare relics with great care and respect. They've been here for somewhere between 500 and 5,000 years, and they deserve to be protected at all costs.
Ubehebe Crater--The volcanic crater here is at the far northern end of the park, past Scotty's Castle. It's an impressive crater, and there is a 1.5 mile hike that takes you around the whole thing if you have an hour or so. Intrepid souls may also want to hike down into the bottom of the crater from the parking lot. Bear in mind that there is no easy way back out--you just have to climb it, step by step, back to the parking lot. We watched teenage boys do this in the middle of the day in February. It would not be fun in summer.
Upper Cottonwood Canyon--a backpacking trip . This one is a different kettle of fish. It's an 8 mile drive from Stovepipe Wells on a good (well, washboard) dirt road to the gap in the cliff at the mouth of this canyon. There is a parking areas for passenger cars here. From there you can hike up the Cottonwood Canyon through a series of quite spectacular narrows, and eventually, ten miles in, get to a spring with water. Another six miles past that gets you to Cottonwood Springs, with more water. We drove that second ten miles in our 2WD SUV, and it was an exciting if nerve-wracking ride in a 2WD. And that was the best part of the scenery--with dramatic cliffs, scenic narrows, and even a cave! The upper canyon is more open, with steep but unremarkable mountains around it. The springs themselves are home to a herd of wild horses, who also poop everywhere. For a more extensive adventure, you can extend this trip by continuing up over the ridge and then down Marble Canyon and back to the first trailhead...You won't see many people here...
Indian Pass Canyon--One of the hikes sometimes recommended as a backpacking destination, the hardest part of Indian Canyon is knowing where to start: about 6.5 miles north of Furnace Creek...and just head up across the miles and miles (four, actually) of gravel wash before you enter the canyon. From there you can hike for miles up past a dry waterfall, narrows, springs, and all sorts of nice places to see. We went there in March of 2016 and didn't see anyone for two days. The first waterfall has an easy by-pass on the north side, and from there the canyon just gets better. We were not impressed with the springs (wet sand at the bottom of a depression) but we loved the solitude, the wildness, and the rock of Indian Pass. Take along lots of water...and remember that while it may seem flat, the hike in is certainly uphill, and we were sweating in the mid-80 degree heat in spring. In the summer, this would be an oven. Photo Log
Check out our first trip blog: Death Valley--Mother Earth unveiled
And our 2015 blog post here: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/deathvalleyredux