Friday, March 10, 2017

Hiking Trails: Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park

This hike in Death Valley National Park offers the adventurous an opportunity to venture inside the labyrinth of badlands viewed from Zabriskie Point.  The badlands are composed of clay and ancient lake bed sediments; don't expect to find this part of the park blooming with wildflowers, as almost nothing is able to grow in the badlands.  If you're interested in fascinating geology, however, this hike is for you!

The trail into the Badlands, seen from the Zabriskie Point trailhead.

The trail can be accessed from Zabriskie Point above, or Golden Canyon along Badwater Road below.  Both trailhead parking areas have restrooms, but no drinking water.  Be sure to carry water with you on this hike, and drink it, even if it doesn't feel too hot.  It's a good idea to keep a couple of extra gallon-sized jugs full of water in your car when traveling in Death Valley, or any part of the desert.

Red Cathedral, beyond Golden Canyon

Last spring, Eric and I did the popular Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch hike, starting from the trailhead at Golden Canyon.  This hike is a 4.5 mile loop that climbs steeply up to the base of iconic Manly Beacon before dropping into the badlands.  The trail emerges along the Badwater Road through a steep gulch formed by erosion. 

View toward Manly Beacon - our trail will skirt the bottom of the formation.

The trail along the base of Manly Beacon (pictured below) looks more like a Bighorn Sheep path than a trail for hikers!  It is exposed and steep, not for the faint of heart!

Trail along the base of Manly Beacon.

But the trail affords stunning views of the maze of colorful badlands you are about to drop into.  The badlands topography seen here is part of the Furnace Creek formation, layers of ancient lake sediments, alluvial fans and volcanic ash deposits that have been uplifted, tilted and exposed to erosion.  (For those interested, I wrote more about the geology of Death Valley in another post.)


West of the Badlands, you will emerge into Gower Gulch, a gulch made artificially large through the diversion of water from Furnace Creek; the diversion caused an unnatural amount of erosion to take place.

Gower Gulch

After a bit of a scramble, it's an easy walk from Gower Gulch back to your car at the Golden Canyon trailhead.

Scrambling down a dry waterfall in Gower Gulch

A shorter option is the walk into Golden Canyon from the trailhead parking lot.  Hiking one mile into the canyon will give you a view of Red Cathedral, which can be reached via a 0.5 mile spur trail.

The complete 7.8 mile circuit can be completed by starting from Golden Canyon, hiking up to Red Cathedral, past Manly Beacon and through the badlands up to Zabriskie Point.  Pause here to take in the view before following the trail mostly downhill through Gower Gulch and back to the Golden Canyon trailhead parking area.

Badlands in the Golden Canyon / Gower Gulch vicinity

A word of caution: DO  NOT undertake this hike during the heat of summer!!  This area of the park is popular with tourists and has become a search and rescue hotspot (not a good thing to be known for).  Carry and drink more water than you think you need, and always wear sun protection (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen).  Know your limits: this hike involves elevation changes and climbing uphill can be challenging for some, especially in the heat.  Carry a map and compass with you, and know how to use them.  There are signs to follow along this trail, but don't depend on them!

Accessed from

Happy hiking!

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