Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park sees more than 1.6 million visitors each year

Death Valley National Park is the hottest, lowest, and driest place in the United States, with daytime temperatures that have exceeded 130 °F (54 °C). The park protects Badwater Basin and its vast salt flats located at the lowest elevation in North America, −282 ft (−86 m). The park also protects canyons, badlands, sand dunes, mountain ranges, historic mines, springs, and more than 1000 species of plants which grow in this geologic graben.


Death Valley is a geologist’s paradise

The geologic history of Death Valley is complex: it involves not only fault activity at various times, but also crustal sinking, volcanic activity and erosion. In literal geological terms, Death Valley is a graben; that is, a rift valley formed by the sinking of the bedrock lying between parallel, uplifted, tilt-block mountain ranges. In this case, the two mountain ranges are the Amargosa to the east and the Panamints to the west.

How Death Valley Formed
Death Valley’s current landscape is the result of slow, massive changes over many centuries. The earliest rocks, dating from the Precambrian Era, are visible today in sections of the Black and Panamint mountains. During the Paleozoic Era (300 to 500 million years ago), seas covered the region, leaving layers of marine sediment and the fossils of many types of marine animals. The present landscape was shaped between 5 million and 35 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era.

After faults formed in the earth’s crust, exceptional folding and volcanic action uplifted the mountain ranges and lowered the valley floor, creating a graben. The present floor is dropping on one side and is actually 8,000 to 10,000 feet above its bedrock base. Intervening space is filled by the massive amount of debris eroded from the surrounding mountains over time.

During Ice Ages, Death Valley was periodically filled by large lakes. Their waves carved terraces on the bordering rocks, and their evaporation left alternating layers of mud salt deposits that now cover the basin’s floor.

The process of geologic change continues today. The mountains are constantly eroding; their remains spill out into the valley in the enormous alluvial fans which spread like aprons at the mouth of every canyon. Rainfall sends torrents of water down to cut paths through the rocks, subtly altering the schemes of form and color along Artist’s Drive, at Zabriskie Point and within Golden, Mosaic, Grotto, Marble and Titus canyons.

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Native American History

Home of the Timbisha Shoshone

Death Valley. The name evokes a bleached and desiccated ox skull on a vast alkali flat, a desert night snake hiding in the cool shade of its cranial vault. The name whispers of parched Gold Rushers killing their pack animals for food, of ferocious winds and murderous heat.

Death Valley, a place of cursed extremes.

Before Death Valley was given its grim moniker, however, it was the home to the Timbisha Shoshone, ancestors of the Uto-Aztecans, who moved into the region more than 1,000 years ago. For them, this was no Death Valley, but rather a challenging but manageable sliver of land in a larger, 11-million acre grocery store with everything they needed to survive, so long as they worked hard, and were smart.

It is, however—and was—the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. If you were to measure the vertical drop from the highest mountain in Death Valley, the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, to Badwater Basin 282 feet below sea level, you’d find that it’s twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. This is a place that has had 154 straight days of temperatures at or above 100 degrees (summer of 2001) and 40 consecutive days above 120 (1996). On July 15, 1972, the temperature at Furnace Creek, a tiny oasis village located in the valley, was 201 degrees.

Why is it so dry and so hot? The dearth of moisture can be blamed on the four major mountain ranges that lie between the valley and the Pacific Ocean. These natural barriers are moisture-robbers, sucking the passing clouds dry so by the time they arrive in the valley, they’re often nothing more than dry “rainshadows.” The intense heat is due to the valley’s depth and shape. At 282 feet below sea level, walled in by high, steep mountains, the heat flourishes in the clear and dry air, with little plant cover to offer cooling shadows. Heat bakes the desert surface, and radiates back up from the soil and rocks, and gets trapped in the valley. Summer nights are a cool 90 degrees, so as the heat rises, it gets trapped by the mountain walls, and gets cooled and recycled back down to the valley floor in pockets of descending air. These pockets are compressed and reheated by the pressure of the low elevation, becoming superhot masses of moving air that sweep through the valley, creating those extreme temperatures.

So when—and how—did the Timbisha Shoshone not only live here, but thrive? Linguistic evidence indicates that they moved to what is now called Death Valley in 900 A.D. They survived by coaxing the specific bounty that existed in and around the valley and by being ruthlessly logical: When it got too hot, they moved to cooler country. They had to plan seasons ahead, managing a terrain the gold seekers and borax miners of the mid-19th century found so deadly they changed its name to its current dark moniker from Tümpisa, which means “rock paint,” referring to the clay in the valley they made into red ochre paint.

The Timbisha spent the months preceding winter gathering non-perishables such as pine nuts, mesquite beans and seeds. Winter in the valley is relatively mild, which allowed them to live in modest conical brush houses, allowing breezes to move through the arrow weed walls. They usually built these homes near mesquite groves, which were natural habitats for small game animals and birds that they hunted to round out their diet. The mesquite trees were crucial to the Timbisha; they harvested the tree’s beans in winter. These forbidding environs made them fairly safe from Mojaves, known to attack the Arizona and Southern California tribes during the winter months.

In the summer, when the heat was untenable for humans, the Timbisha moved to cooler elevations—the Grapevine Mountains to the northeast or the Panamint Range in the west. They foraged for berries, roots, seeds and pine nuts. They hunted mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot, bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbit, chuckwalla and other small game. They stayed in the mountains until the first snowfall, then returned to their winter homes in the valley.

Like other Great Basin tribes, they knew they had to set fire to scrub vegetation in order to clean riparian areas of unwanted plants and stimulate the growth of others, like tobacco, and to increase seed production. They pruned the low branches of the vital mesquite and pinion pine trees so their beans would be easier to harvest. The pruning also protected the mesquite grove from the constant blowing sand, which would collect around low-hanging limbs and form dunes that killed the beans. They pinched the new growth at the tips of each pinion pine branch to stimulate more cone production.

In short, the Timbisha Shoshone found the valley to be anything but a death-sentence. They managed to flourish there for a millennium. The valley was a sacred place for them, and they believed they had been placed in the region by the creator, Appü. They integrated their subsistence hunting and gathering with spiritual practices that honored the mesquite groves and mountains, meadows and springs. They believed they were living in a magical valley, a place of abundance.

Then came the gold seekers of 1849, blundering through the valley on their way to northern California. They killed most of their oxen to keep from starving to death. As the story goes, a group of pioneers got lost in the valley in the winter of 1849, and one of their group died. They all assumed the valley would be their mass grave. Then came two young scouts, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers. They led the party out of the desert and over the Panamint Range, when one of the men turned and looked back, and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

The Timbisha didn’t have long to wait until more outsiders came into their homeland, now bearing its new, terrible name. The promise of silver and borax brought prospectors and miners. Panamint City was built in the 1870s, filled with the Chinese and the Basques who had come to work in the borax mines. Borax also brought the famous Twenty Mule Teams that pulled the massive wagons of the mineral, which is used in detergent, cosmetics, fire retardants, insecticides and fiberglass from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead stationed near Mojave. This operation lasted six years, from 1883 to 1889, yet became a fixed symbol of the Old West. This 165-mile, 10-day trip was later capitalized upon by some of America’s first radio advertising campaigns that promoted the 20 Mule Team Borax Soap on theDeath Valley Days serial.

The Timbisha’s way of life was altered completely. The mining companies obtained legal rights to vital water sources they had used for centuries. Frank M. “Borax” Smith bought Harmony Borax Works in 1890, and changed the name to become the Pacific Coast Borax Company with the 20 Mule Team Borax brand. The Timbisha were relocated several times, but they never left their homeland.

In 1933, Death Valley became a national monument, adding more challenges for the Timbisha. The National Park Service appeared to the Timbisha no different than the indifferent, if not outright hostile, mining operations. Federal policies regarding the park and the Timbisha changed from decade to decade, until finally the Timbisha resettled back in Furnace Creek in 1936. The tribe remained in their village despite the legal ambiguities of their situation, and Pauline Esteves, a Timbisha elder, with the help of the California Indian Legal Services, began petitioning the government for a formal reservation in the 1960s.

In 1983, the Panamint Shoshone finally became a federally recognized tribe, naming themselves the Timbisha Shoshone, making them one of the first tribes to secure tribal status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs federal acknowledgement process, but few of the benefits of being federally recognized were realized.

By 1990 their reservation was a patch of lakeside real estate and their population was down to 200. The National Park Service maintains a study on the site that showcases the daunting federal hurdles the Timbisha continued to face for the next decade: On Halloween of 1994, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the California Desert Protection Act, which designated Death Valley a National Park and enlarged the protected area. Section 705(b) mandated a study be done of the Timbisha Shoshone “land situation.”

In late May 1995, a joint meeting of the appointed officials to initiate the study was held at Death Valley. They had four meetings over the course of the summer, and by November they submitted their first report to Congress. In December, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Ada Deer hosted a meeting between Interior officials and a tribal delegation at the Main Interior Building. Then the United States government was shut down for three weeks thanks to a showdown between President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress over Medicare, education, environment and public health funding. By the time the government was back up and running, federal negotiators met in Washington without tribal participation, followed by the Timbisha breaking off talks after a meeting at Cow Creek in Death Valley.

For the next four years, the Timbisha battled the U.S. government for proper land rights, aligned with Greenpeace, wrote President Clinton directly, collaborated with the Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks, and held high-level negotiations with Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Donald Barry. In February 1999, the Timbisha got creative, and submitted The Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Homeland – A Draft Secretarial Report to Congress to Establish a Permanent Tribal Land Base and Related Cooperative Activities to Congress and to the public. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, then requested that the Department of the Interior draft a bill for Congress pursuant to the secretarial report. In March 2000 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, and on July 19, the Senate passed the bill. Three months later, on Oct. 17, the House passed the bill.

On Nov. 1, 2000, President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act into law; and 7,500 acres of their ancestral homeland was returned. Their numbers have doubled in recent years, and as they remain in and around their sacred home, the Timbisha Shoshone are alive in a valley they would never call “Death.”

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Park History

How Death Valley became a National Park

As extreme as Death Valley’s temperatures can get, and as desolate as its landscape appears, it has had residents for thousands of years, stretching back to the ancestors of the Timbisha Shoshone.

According to Park Service historians, these Native Americans “hunted and followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans with their families. To them, the land provided everything they needed and many areas were, and are, considered to be sacred places.”

Today you can where these peoples traveled in the valley, as they left behind petroglyphs and artifacts. A Timbisha village remains at Furnace Creek, the only visible tribal community found in the park. But the tribal homeland is considered to encompass not just the valley floor, but also the surrounding mountains.

More recently, Death Valley’s cultural history is well-known. At least from 1849 on. That was when a group of emigrants en route to California’s gold fields encountered the worst of the valley that they attached the “death” name to.

They had set out from Salt Lake City, determined to cross the Great Basin and reach California before winter’s snows made the Sierra Nevada impassable. Leaving Salt Lake in October of 1849, they decided to skirt the Sierra Nevada to the south and avoid the snows. Unfortunately, this route took them through today’s Death Valley.

Let’s pick up the rest of the story from the Park Service:

They entered the valley by way of present day Death Valley Junction and along the same route followed by Highway 190. On Christmas Eve of 1849, some of them arrived at Travertine Springs, the source of Furnace Creek.

The lost ’49ers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail. Their oxen were weak from lack of forage and their wagons were battered and in poor shape. They too were weary and discouraged but their worst problem was not the valley that lay before them. It was the towering Panamint Mountains that stood like an impenetrable wall as far as could be seen.

From Furnace Creek, the routes of the two groups diverged. The Jayhawkers (including the Brier family) went north toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where they decided they would have to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk. They slaughtered several oxen and used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky. After crossing the Panamint Mountains via Towne Pass and dropping down into Panamint Valley, most of them turned south, making their way into Indian Wells Valley near the present day city of Ridgecrest. There they follow a prominent indian trail heading south to civilization.

Meanwhile, the Bennett-Arcan party struggled across the salt flats and attempted to pass over the Panamint Range via Warm Springs Canyon, but were unable to do so. They retreated to the valley floor and sent two young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, ‘over the mountain’ to get supplies. Thinking the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada, some expected a speedy return. Instead, nearly a month went by as the men walked more than 300 miles to Mission San Fernando, got supplies at a ranch and trecked back with three horses and a one-eyed mule. Along the way, one of the horses was ridden to death and the other two had to be abandoned. When Manly and Rogers finally arrived to the camp of the Bennett-Arcan party they found many of the group had left to find their own way out of the valley. Two families with children had patiently remained, trusting the men to save them. Only one man had perished during their long wait, but as they made their way west over the mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving the valley its morbid name.

They may have escaped the Death Valley, but it took another 23 days to cross the Mojave Desert and reach the safety of Ranch San Francisco in Santa Clarita Valley. The so called “short cut” that had lured the Lost ’49ers away from Captian Hunt’s wagon train had proved to take four months and cost the lives of many men through the entire ordeal.

While the 49ers might have named the valley, they weren’t the only ones to leave an imprint on it. Near the end of the 19th century the discovery of silver and borax (a laundry cleaning agent) brought industry to the valley.

One group of Chinese workers helped build Panamint City in the 1870s, when a silver rush brought in prospectors and speculators. Another group toiled in the successful mining operation at Harmony Borax Works, not far from Furnace Creek. According to historians, “They made a road 160 miles long through the salt pinnacles and raked the borax off the valley floor from 1883 until 1888 when the last 20 mule teams rolled out of the valley. Then, they, too, disappeared, leaving only bits of broken bottles, pottery shards and remnants of porcelain in their place.”

The valley also boasted a population of Basques at one point: “Dolph Nevares was employed by the Pacific Coast borax company as the Greenland ranch caretaker in 1900 and later, as a prospector for borax. He left the borax company and settled at Cow Creek where he grew fruits and vegetables. ‘One day I looked around wondering where time had gone–50 years of it.’ Eventually Dolph left Death Valley and moved to San Bernardino. Domingo Etcharren was known as the Basque butcher from Ballarat. He was also the prospecting partner of Jack Keane. In December 1903 they found gold. Domingo took his profits and bought land in Darwin, becoming a leading citizen of that town. He and Pete Aguereberry, another Basque, were good friends. Pete had come into Death Valley in the summer of 1905 to prospect. While traveling with Shorty Harris, he found gold. In the aftermath of that strike the town of Harrisburg came into being. Long after Harrisburg had boomed out, Pete continued to work in his Eureka mine until death stopped the old prospector and miner in 1945.”

One of the more impressive cultural imprints on this arid landscape is in upper Grapevine Valley where you’ll find Scotty’s Castle. Though it requires a 53-mile, one-way ride from the intersection of California 190 and California 374 near Stovepipe Wells to visit the “castle,” this is one stop you shouldn’t overlook if you make it all the way to Death Valley.

The story revolves around Walter Scott, a man with Kentucky roots who headed west to Nevada as a young boy to join his brother on a ranch. Not only was he good at “cowboying,” but he was good enough to ride with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show for a time, though that career ended in a disagreement with Bill. As that chapter of his life came to an end, he returned to the West where he became “Death Valley Scotty” — a raconteur to most, a rapscallion to others — and concocted a scheme to defraud investors by boasting of a gold mine in Death Valley. As the story goes, Scotty promised to split the gold he found with his investors, but they had to put up their money first to underwrite his prospecting.

One of those potential investors, though, called Scotty’s bluff and insisted on seeing the mine. Albert Johnson, a wealthy Chicagoan, came to Death Valley and Scotty took him out on horseback with hopes that after a few days the heat would get to Johnson and he’d head home. Instead, though, the heat and dry air proved good for Johnson’s health — (he had been injured earlier in life by a train accident) — and he decided to build a home and a friendship with Scotty.

That “home,” though, turned into a palatial estate of sorts in the upper reaches of Grapevine Valley. Not only is this Spanish-influenced mansion seemingly out of place in the high desert, but its design seemingly pushed the technological limits of the 1920s. Johnson saw that there was a solar heating system at work, and he also had a Pelton water wheel turbine installed to generate electricity for the place. Too, an evaporative cooling system employed indoor waterfalls and even wet burlap to keep things inside the castle relatively cool on those 100-degree summer days.

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The best things to do in Death Valley National Park

Things To Do In Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point in all of North America. …
Devils Golf Course. On the road from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin, there is a turn to the west that goes to Devils Golf Course. …
Salt Creek. …
Life. …
Dante’s View. …
Scotty’s Castle. …
Ubehebe Crater. …


Believe it or not, plants thrive in Death Valley

Despite its reputation as a lifeless wasteland, Death Valley National Park contains a great diversity of plants. The park covers over 3 million acres of Mojave and Great Basin desert terrain, with elevations ranging from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin to 11,049 feet on the summit of Telescope Peak. Annual precipitation varies from 1.9 inches on the valley floor to over 15 inches in the higher mountains.

Vegetation zones include creosote bush, desert holly, and mesquite at the lower elevations up through shadscale, blackbrush, Joshua tree, pinyon-juniper, to sub-alpine limber pine and bristlecone pine woodlands. The saltpan is devoid of vegetation, and the rest of the valley floor and lower slopes have sparse cover, yet where water is available, an abundance of vegetation is usually present.

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Animal Life

Animals really live in Death Valley?

Hear the words “Death Valley” and an image of an uninhabited landscape often comes to mind. Below-sea-level basins are ravaged by drought and heat, receiving less than two inches of rain per year. Temperatures soar above 100 degrees. While these conditions may seem harsh to humans, Death Valley is home to a great diversity of wildlife. Hard-learned, clever adaptations enable desert animals to thrive in this unlikely place.

Death Valley is one of the driest places on earth. Habitats with fresh water can be difficult to find, so some desert animals have evolved to simply drink less water. Roaming through mountains and canyons, bighorn sheep are able to go without water for several days and can lose up to a third of their body weight due to dehydration. When water becomes available again, the sheep can drink several gallons at a time and are able to fully recover.

Like bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats do not have to worry about dehydration. In fact, they are so perfectly adapted to arid environments, they do not need to drink water their entire lives! They can survive on water digested from their seedy, vegetarian diet. Kangaroo rats conserve their body’s precious water by releasing wastes in very concentrated urine and dry feces.

While finding enough water is a challenge, coping with the fierce summer heat is a constant concern for desert inhabitants. The desert tortoise is a champion of avoiding the heat. Unable to regulate its own temperature, the tortoise spends most of the year in its burrow. Underground, it is protected from extreme weather. During the hottest times, tortoises estivate, or enter a state of dormancy that allows them to conserve energy and save water. Additionally, desert tortoises survive frigid winter temperatures by hibernating. Depending on the weather, desert tortoises might be active above ground for only three months of the year!

Rather than “sleep” through most of the year, many animals rest during the hot summer days and are active at night. Nocturnal wildlife leaves behind clues on sand dunes. For example, you may find coyote tracks alongside those of a jackrabbit. The rabbit’s tracks zig and zag across the sand while the long strides of the coyote’s tracks portray a fast run. Hunting during the cool nights and early mornings allows the coyote to spend more energy catching prey. The cover of darkness also helps the jackrabbit hide from potential predators.

While there are advantages in being nocturnal in the desert, there are still creatures who brave the daytime heat. Commonly seen animals have specific physical adaptations which allow them to be out in the heat longer. Roadrunners, for instance, can operate in the heat of the day because their body temperatures are naturally high (104 degrees).

The jackrabbit, another common desert creature, stays cool by releasing heat from its over-sized ears. When the rabbit retreats into the shade, warm blood from its core circulates through blood vessels in its ears, where heat is lost to the surrounding air.

Desert living is no easy task, but all animals that make their home in Death Valley have found a way to survive and thrive. Their adaptations overcome the daily challenges of finding food, water, and staying cool. “Helping” an animal by giving it food or other interactions can disrupt its way of life and usually does more harm than good. Desert dwellers are perfectly designed to live in Death Valley National Park. It is important that humans, as visitors to these creatures’ home, respectfully observe and enjoy from a distance.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Death Valley

Traditional constructed tails are rare in Death Valley. Many trails lack trailhead markers and/or simply follow the natural terrain (Sidewinder Canyon, Desolation Canyon, Panamint Dunes just to name a few). For this reason, be sure to pick up a map of the trail you plan on hiking from the visitor center.
Visit the Death Valley hiking page for detailed descriptions and GPX files of some of the longer hikes.
The best time to hike the majority of the trails is between October and April. Trails at higher elevations (such as Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak) can be covered in snow during the winter.
Dogs are not allowed on any trails.
Always be prepared and pack The 10 Essentials for any hike.
For more information on visiting Death Valley, check out my post: What to do in Death Valley National Park.

Hiking Death Valley National ParkDeath Valley National Park Trails Illustrated Map
Trails Illustrated Death Valley National Park – This is a waterproof, tear-resistant map for all of Death Valley National Park. This is great if you like to have a durable physical map to use for the entire park.
Hiking Death Valley National Park: A guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures – This book has very detailed route descriptions for 57 day-hikes and backpacking trips in Death Valley.
I also use the website Caltopo to research locations, routes, and to print paper maps.


Badwater Basin Sunset Death Valley National Park Leavenotracy.comViewing the salt flats is a must-see on any trip to Death Valley. Badwater Salt Flat covers 200 square miles and is the lowest point in North America. Get up close to the salt flat by walking out towards the center to view large repeating geometric formations in the ground created by the expansion of salt crystals.

Distance: Roughly 1 mile out and back to the edge of the salt flat and 5 miles each way to travel across to the west side.
Vertical Ascent: 0 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 30 minutes to travel out and back to the edge of the salt flat
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles and then turn right onto Badwater Road. From here, travel 16.5 miles on Badwater Road to the paved parking lot for Badwater Salt Flat.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyMesquite Flat Sand Dunes are also a must-see attraction. You can set out on foot and explore in any direction until you have your fill. Walking up the dunes in deep sand is tough work, allow plenty of time if you plan to trek out to the tallest dune.

Distance: 2 miles to the highest dune, although most just explore the dunes in any direction.
Vertical Ascent: Varies
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: As short or as long as you like (plan on 1.5 hours round-trip to get to the highest dune)
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn left onto CA-190 W. Travel 22.4 miles to the paved parking lot for Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Photo Tip: To capture dramatic photos, plan to visit the sand dunes just before sunset or just after sunrise. The sun will be low on the horizon and the shadows create contrast that makes the shape of the dunes distinct.

Natural Bridge Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyHike along a sandy canyon to a large natural bridge. While this bridge is interesting, it is not as impressive as other natural bridges like those in Arches National Park. If you are short on time, I prefer the first ½ mile section of the Mosaic Canyon hike or the Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral hike.

Distance: 1 mile
Vertical Ascent: 180 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 45 minutes
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles then turn right onto Badwater Road. Go 13 miles and turn left onto Natural Bridge Road. From here, travel 1.5 miles along a gravel road (passable by sedan) to the gravel parking lot.

Salt Creek Death Valley National Park
Photo Credit: Milan Sommer/

Walk this ADA accessible wooden boardwalk along a salt marsh that is home to local birds and the Salt Creek Pupfish. Water flows along the boardwalk between November and May. Between February and April, the Salt Creek Pupfish spawn.

Distance: 0.5 miles
Vertical Ascent: 0 feet
Route type: Loop
Time to hike: 15 minutes
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn left onto CA-190 W and travel 13.1 miles. Following signs for Salt Creek, turn and travel 1.2 miles down a gravel road (passable by sedan) to a gravel parking lot.

20 Mule Team Wagon Harmony Borax Works Death Valley National Park Leavenotracy
Walk this paved ADA accessible loop to view what is left of the Harmony borax mining site. Along the way view an intact wagon that was once used by the famous 20 mule teams, the hauled refined borax 165 miles across the desert to the railway.

Distance: 0.4 miles
Vertical Ascent: 50 feet
Route type: Loop
Time to hike: 15 minutes
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn left onto CA-190 W. Travel 1.4 miles and then turn left onto Borax Mill Road. Travel 0.2 miles to the paved parking lot.

Note: #1 is broken into 4 sections as they are individual trails that combine to create the complete Golden Canyon/badlands/Gower Gulch circuit. The complete circuit is my favorite trail in the park. If you are short on time the best part is the the Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral section.

Zabriskie Point Death Valley LeavenotracyThe full circuit leaves nothing out. Enjoy views of the Red Cathedral Cliffs, explore Manly Beacon, soak in the entire vista from the Zabriskie Viewpoint, and wind through the badlands. If I could only choose one long hike to do while in the park this would be it.

Distance: 7.5 miles
Vertical Ascent: 837 feet
Route type: Loop
Time to hike: 3-4 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles and turn right onto Badwater Road. Go 2 miles and then turn left on Golden Canyon Road to find the paved parking lot.
Tip: This loop can be started at Zabriskie Point or Golden Canyon, but I prefer to start at Golden Canon for a better approaching view of Red Cathedral and to end the hike going downhill.

Red Cathedral Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis route travels gradually uphill through a gold-colored canyon and then along tan mudstone hills. After about ¾ of a mile the towering cliff walls of the Red Cathedral come into view. In the last section the trail takes you scrambling right up to close to the rock face.

Distance: 3 miles
Vertical Ascent: 577 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 1.5 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles and turn right onto Badwater Road. From here, travel 2 miles and turn left on Golden Canyon Road to find the paved parking lot.
Note: This trail is part of the larger Golden Canyon/Badlands /Gower Gulch Circuit listed above. While I highly recommend the complete circuit, if I could only do one section I would recommend this section to view the Red Cathedral and then drive to see Zabriskie Point to see the viewpoint.
Tip: This is a great hike to do near sunset. As the sun dips low on the horizon, the cliff face of Red Cathedral will take on a glowing red hue.

Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis loop starts by following the Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral. After exploring Red Cathedral, the trail climbs out of the canyon and travels right under Many Beacon (the distinct spire that you see from Zabriskie Point). From there the trail weaves through the tan mudstone hills of the badlands before returning to the parking area through Gower Gulch.

Distance: 4.3 miles
Vertical Ascent: 850 feet
Route type: Loop
Time to hike: 2 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles then turn right onto Badwater Road. From here, travel 2 miles and turn left on Golden Canyon Road to find the paved parking lot.
Tip: Want more? This trail can be extended to hike the complete circuit (Golden Canyon/Badlands /Gower Gulch) listed above.

Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis loop starts off from the beautiful Zabriskie point and takes you weaving through the badlands below.

Distance: 2.7 miles
Vertical Ascent: 535 feet
Route type: Loop
Time to hike: 1 hour
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190. Travel 4.8 miles and then turn right onto Zabriskie Point Road where you will see the paved parking area.
Tip: Want more? This trail can be extended to hike the complete circuit (Golden Canyon/Badlands/Gower Gulch) listed above.

Mosaic Canyon Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis is a very popular trail in the park and is definitely a must-see. The canyon gets its name from its breccia walls, formed from fragments of rock that are cemented together, which take on a “mosaic” pattern. Other sections of the canyon are formed by dolomite that has been transformed into marble by extreme heat and pressure. The mixing of these tan polished marble swirls and choppy mosaic sections create a natural art gallery as you climb through 3 narrow canyon sections.

Distance: 3.8 miles
Vertical Ascent: 934 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 1.5 to 2 hours
Location: Mosaic Canyon Road is located in Stovepipe Wells, across the street from the campgrounds. The 2.3-mile unpaved road is usually passable by sedan.
Tip: The lower 0.5 mile of this hike is the most visually interesting section, so if you are short on time turn around here. However, the full hike is worth it if you have time. Along the full hike there are several sections that require scrambling around boulders and climbing short (4-5 foot) slippery marble dryfalls.

Dantes View Death Valley National Park Leavenotracy
Photo Credit: Thomas Hugel

From the parking area for Dante’s View head north along the ridge. Along the way enjoy unobstructed 360-degree views. The route has no formal trail or signs. While I enjoyed this hike very much, you don’t really see anything that you cannot already see from the Dante’s Viewpoint. For this reason, I would only hike the full route if you have extra time.

Distance: 8 miles
Vertical Ascent: 1200 feet
Route type: out and back
Time to hike: 4 hours
Location: From Furnace Creek campground turn right onto CA-190 E and travel 12.4 miles. Turn right onto Furnace Creek Wash Road and travel 7.5 miles. Stay straight on Dante’s View Road for 5.5 miles until the road dead-ends at the parking lot for Dante’s view.
Tip: Dante’s viewpoint is at 5,476 feet and temperatures are much cooler than those on the valley floor so dress accordingly.

Sidewinder Canyon Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyLike taking the path less traveled and finding your own way? If so, this is the hike for you. As you make your way up sidewinder canyon there are 3 slot canyons to explore. Get ready to squeeze, climb, and crawl your way through each canyon as you create your own route.

Distance: 5 miles
Vertical Ascent: 1580 feet
Route type: out and back
Time to hike: 3 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles then turn right onto Badwater Road. Travel 31.5 miles until you get to an unmarked gravel road on the left. Follow the road until it dead ends at a gravel parking lot. The trail starts at the south end of the gravel lot. Do not go into the first obvious canyon! you need to travel southeast from the parking lot for roughly 1,000 feet to get to the entrance to Sidewinder Canyon.
Tip: There are no signs or trail markers for this route. It is easy to walk into the wrong canyon at the start and waste a ton of time. Be sure to grab a trail description and a map from the visitor center before heading out.

Ubehebe Crater Death Valley National Park Leavenotracy
Ubehebe crater can be fully viewed from the parking area. As you pull up the crater doesn’t come into view until you are right on top of it making its sudden appearance pretty impressive. Most choose to hike around the crater in a counter-clockwise direction. After 0.5 miles you will be able to see Little Ubehebe crater to the south, and this is a good place to turn around if you are short on time.

Distance: 1.5 miles (loop), 1 mile (round trip out and back to Little Ubehebe Crater)
Vertical Ascent: 500 feet
Route type: Loop for full crater or out and back to view Little Ubehebe Crater.
Time to hike: 1 hour to hike the loop, 30 minutes round-trip to Little Ubehebe.
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn left onto CA-190 W and travel 17.1 miles. Turn right onto Scotty’s Castle Road and travel 33.4 miles. Turn left onto Ubehebe Crater Road and travel 5.3 miles to the paved parking area.

Fall Canyon Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis route starts off with a 1-mile hike northwest from the parking area to the mouth of fall canyon. The trail then turns and enters the mouth of Fall Canyon. Wind through deep canyons walls for 2.5 miles before coming to a dead-end at a 25 foot dryfall.

Distance: 7 miles
Vertical Ascent: 1387 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 2.5-3 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn left onto CA-190 W. Travel 17.1 miles then turn Right onto Scotty’s Castle Road. Travel 15 miles and then turn right onto the unpaved Titus Canyon Road (usually passable to sedans). There is a gravel parking lot after 2.6 miles, just before the one-way section of Titus Canyon begins.

Desolation Canyon Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis route takes you along an unmarked canyon with sections of light green, yellow, and pink mineral deposits like those seen along Artists Drive. During the hike there are two dryfalls (8ft and 6ft) which require some easy climbing. The route ends by climbing out of the canyon to reveal a view of Death Valley from above.

Distance: 3.9 miles
Vertical Ascent: 775 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 2 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center, turn right onto CA-190 E. Travel 1.3 miles and turn right onto Badwater Road. Travel 3.7 miles then turn left onto Desolation Canyon Road (there is no road sign). Take the dirt road (passable to sedans) for 0.5 miles to get to the gravel parking area.
Tip: There are no signs or trail markers for this route. Be sure to grab a trail description and a map from the visitor center before heading out.

Darwin Falls Death Valley National Park LeavenotracyThis route transports you from a dry riverbed to a lush little pool at the base of the fall. The route requires some rock hoping and scrambling. Darwin falls is unique because it is in the middle of a desert, but the fall itself is not that impressive. I personally would not go out of my way to do this hike again.

Distance: 2 miles
Vertical Ascent: 450 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 60 minutes
Location: From the gas station in Panamint Springs Travel 1 mile west on CA-190 to Darwin Falls Road. Take the unpaved Darwin Falls Road for 2.5 miles to the trailhead. The park service recommends a high clearance vehicle for this road, however it is usually passable with a sedan.
Note: Swimming is not allowed

Panamint Dunes Death Valley National Park Leavenotracy

This is an unmarked cross-country route. From the parking area you can see the dunes. It’s a very gradual uphill hike across a sandy, wide open desert to the foot of the dunes.

Distance: 8 miles
Vertical Ascent: 1028 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 4 hours
Location: From the Panamint Springs gas station, head east on CA-190. After 4.5 miles look for an unnamed dirt road on the left. You should see a moderate sized isolated foothill several miles down the road in front of you. Travel along the dirt road for 5.8 miles until the road bends to the right. Here you will see a little dirt parking lot to the left. The dirt road is rough, but it is usually passable with a sedan.
Tip: I actually turned this hike into an overnight trip and enjoyed a night sleeping on the dunes under the stars! To do the same, grab a free back-country permit from either the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station. Check out my trip guide here.

Enjoy an invigorating trek to the to the highest peak in Death Valley at 11,049 feet. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to this hike yet due to the snow, but it looks awesome.

Distance: 14 miles
Vertical Ascent: 3000 feet
Route type: Out and back
Time to hike: 7 hours
Location: Mahogany Flat Campground
Tip: This trail may have snow in the winter and spring. If you do not have a high clearance vehicle, then you will need to park at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns and hike another 1.6 miles up the road to Mahogany Flat Campground.

Start at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns and travel upwards through Pinyon-Juniper woodlands until you summit Wildrose Peak at 9,064 feet. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to this hike yet due to the snow.

Distance: 8.4 miles
Vertical Ascent: 2200 feet
Route type: out and back
Time to hike: 5 hours
Location: From the Visitor Center turn left onto CA-190 W and travel 33.6 miles. Turn left onto Emigrant Canyon Road and travel 21.4 miles. After passing Wildrose Campground, travel straight for another 6.8 miles. The last 2 miles are a little rough (my car has 6 inches of ground clearance and it was sketchy at times).
Tip: This trail may have snow in the winter and spring.

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