Upper Big Fall Canyon is a very long hike deep into the Cottonwood Mountains to a seldom-visited canyon which contains the most beautiful blue narrows in the park and a majestic 125-foot dry fall known as Big Fall. Difficulties encountered on the hike include advanced route finding to use either 5-Mile Rock Canyon or Gateway Canyon to get to Upper Big Fall Canyon and staying a safe distance back from the edge of Big Fall at the end of the hike. Topographical maps of the hiking route can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the parking area are 36.642044, -117.291284. GPS coordinates for 5-Mile Rock are 36.682983, -117.336628. GPS coordinates for Upper Big Fall Canyon are 36.707727, -117.353167.
On March 16, 2009, my appreciation for Death Valley was increased for all time when I walked into Lower Big Fall Canyon for the first time. My wife and I had embarked on a long 10 mile one-way journey to get there. And although I was only privileged to walk through a short stretch of narrows in the lower canyon before being stopped by a 15-foot dry fall, I realized that Big Fall Canyon was an incredible place. Fast forward two years later and Upper Big Fall Canyon was planned as the centerpiece of my Spring 2011 trip. The reason I delayed visiting the upper canyon for so long was due to the great distance and effort it would take to reach it, and also not knowing if there was anything worth seeing other than Big Fall (the dry fall which the canyon was informally named after). Setting aside the uncertainty, on March 4, 2011, two friends and I hiked the 20 miles round-trip and fully explored Upper Big Fall Canyon. Our hike began by passing through what I call 5-Mile Rock Canyon. Keep in mind that there are two standard ways to get to Upper Big Fall Canyon -- using 5-Mile Rock Canyon or using Gateway Canyon. Gateway Canyon takes a more circular route but has easier terrain. As of the time of the latest update to this report (in April of 2017), I have still never hiked Gateway Canyon. 5-Mile Rock Canyon is the most direct route and that is what we used for this hike. Once we arrived on the ridge separating 5-Mile Rock Canyon with Big Fall Canyon, I could see that we were in for something special. From the top of the ridge, as I looked down toward the beginning of the upper canyon, my mind had a flashback to Bighorn Gorge. From a long distance and great elevation away, when you are hiking toward Bighorn Gorge, you can see how all of the washes converge in one place and flow into the narrow canyon with high walls on each side. That was exactly what the view of Big Fall Canyon looked like from a distance. When we first entered Upper Big Fall Canyon, the striped rocks on the canyon walls and the golden glow of the cliffs above caught our attention and really impressed us. It was the same golden glow which I had seen and been mesmerized by in the lower canyon two years earlier. As if that weren't enough, we were absolutely stunned a short time later to walk through two sets of brilliant, out-of-this-world narrows. The narrows had a turquoise glow which was very similar in color to Caribbean water. It was the prettiest shade of blue that I have ever seen within a canyon. And then, to top everything off on what had become one of the best days I have ever had in Death Valley, the 2nd Narrows ended on the edge of Big Fall, which stands 125 feet high. As we stood on the rim of Big Fall and looked out, we could clearly see what appeared to be more fantastic narrows. But they were just out of our reach. We could only imagine what it would feel like to rappel down to the base of Big Fall and then walk through narrows with walls on each side towering 500 feet or higher.
According to information provided to me from two canyoneering groups, there are five dry falls in total in Big Fall Canyon -- 125 ft Big Fall (confirmed height by the canyoneers), 15 ft, 30 ft, 25 ft, and 15 ft lower fall. The anchors you will see in my photos located at the rim of Big Fall were placed by the person who discovered and named the canyon in the Spring of 2007. At that time, a group of professional climbers from REI joined him for the hike, placed the bolts (which is no longer allowed in most cases), and the entire small group achieved the first complete descent of the canyon. From all appearances during our visit, nobody had visited the upper canyon in the past four years since that was accomplished. The beauty, length, color of the narrows, scenic walls and high cliffs, and the gorgeous dry falls all combine to make Upper Big Fall Canyon one of the best canyons that I have personally seen. Perhaps a great backpacking loop would be to do both Gateway Canyon and 5-Mile Rock Canyon with a side trip into Upper Big Fall Canyon. 5-Mile Rock Canyon is named for a large rock outcropping in the middle of the wash which is located nearly 5 miles from the starting point of the hike and is a good marker for the halfway point of the hike. The hike from the parking area along Cottonwood Canyon Road to the rim of Big Fall in Upper Big Fall Canyon and back is 20 miles round-trip with a cumulative elevation gain of 3,700 feet (2,300 feet going there and 1,400 feet coming back). Before I close these comments, I should share an obvious word of caution. If you make it out to the top of Big Fall, please stay a safe distance back from the edge of the major dry fall.
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
TRIP REPORT FORMAT