Upper Moonlight Canyon is an extremely isolated hike deep in the Grapevine Mountains through thick brush and challenging dry fall bypasses which leads into some of the most beautiful canyon narrows in Death Valley. Difficulties encountered on the hike include having the proper 4WD vehicle to reach the ideal starting point at the top of Phinney Canyon Rd., exceptional route finding abilities to carry out the hike, and advanced bypass skills to work your way around the 6th and 5th major dry falls (at the same time). Google Earth maps of the hiking route can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the ideal parking area are 36° 57.248'N, 117° 7.344'W. GPS coordinates for the end of the old road (adjacent to Throne Rock) are 36° 56.955'N, 117° 8.092'W. GPS coordinates for the top of the 6th major dry fall are 36° 56.584'N, 117° 10.127'W. GPS coordinates for the end of the hike at the top of the 3rd major dry fall are 36° 56.504'N, 117° 10.855'W.
Upper Moonlight Canyon is an extremely challenging hike which ultimately ends up in some of Death Valley's best and most scenic narrows -- if you can somehow get there. My quest to reach Upper Moonlight Canyon began in the Fall of 2010. During my visit to Death Valley at that time, I hiked up into Lower Moonlight Canyon with some family and friends by starting at Scotty's Castle Road. We were able to hike the full 7 miles which are required to reach the base of Moonlight Canyon's 1st dry fall, which is the gateway for climbers and canyoneers to get into the Moonlight Canyon slot narrows. The 1st major dry fall has long been established as the official turnaround point for hikers heading up the lower canyon. As noted in our report for Lower Moonlight Canyon, with the guidance of Patrick (a professional climber), we were able to reach the base of the 3rd major dry fall. Over one year later, in December of 2011, I finally had a chance to return to Moonlight Canyon in an attempt to see the upper half of the canyon. But instead of hiking back up from the bottom, this time my friend Tobin and I hiked in from the top. Being that there were absolutely no pictures of the Moonlight Canyon narrows online (except for my own), I had no idea what to expect out of the upper canyon. Some of my questions were -- Would we be able to find a way to reach the top of the 3rd major dry fall? Would we be able to find a way around the 6th, 5th, and 4th major dry falls, which were known to be in the upper canyon? And would there be any beautiful sections of narrows to see? Or had we already seen most of the canyon beauty from our hike through the lower canyon? These were a lot of important questions that needed answers, and the only way to get answers would to be step up and complete the difficult hike. So that's what we did.
We began by waking up one morning at 6:30am at our campground in Stovepipe Wells and driving to Beatty, Nevada. From there we continued north until we turned off onto Phinney Canyon Road. I was a bit apprehensive about driving this road, but unnecessarily so. The road was in great condition until it dropped into the Phinney Canyon wash and started climbing fast in elevation. Soon, patches of snow started appearing on the dirt road. Then we spotted wild horses, which was one of the trip highlights. When we had reached about 6,600 feet in elevation, we realized that we wouldn't be able to drive much farther. So we found a good parking spot and hiked up the rest of the road to the pass about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Once on the pass, we followed the closed portion of the road down the other side into Moonlight Canyon. It circled around a bit and dropped gradually, allowing us to make good progress. The only issues with the old road were the fallen trees which have dropped across it and the sections of snow. The old road finally came to an end at about 6,800 feet and we were left to fend for ourselves cross-country. This is where the hike started to get really difficult. The brush and tree growth were so extensive for the next couple of miles that it made our lives miserable. We had to walk in a constant zigzag pattern, trying to find a pathway through as we ducked under, pushed our way through, and went around endless amounts of tree branches and brush. A short distance after the old road ended, we looked to our left and saw a rock feature that looked like a giant's chair. We decided to name it Throne Rock, because it would be a marker for us on the way back. We realized that coming back up canyon it would be easy to get lost, since there were many side canyons all converging with Moonlight Canyon on a regular basis. So on the way back, we would need to stay to the left of Throne Rock. Click on the first Google Earth map included to see an enlarged map of our route up to this point. A while later we were able to walk up on the hillside to the right, which gave us some nice flat ground as an easier path. We then dropped into the wash where the main side canyon joined Moonlight Canyon. From there, we hiked through the wash until we came to what I call the Preview Narrows, a short section of narrows with 2 small dry falls which both can be easily bypassed. About 3/4 of a mile later, we walked up to the edge of the intimidating 6th major dry fall of Moonlight Canyon, or the 1st dry fall from our hiking perspective. To bypass the 6th dry fall, we had to go up and around the hillside to our right to attain a minor ridge. However, instead of quickly dropping back into the wash, we continued over to and around the second minor ridge. This is because if you drop back into the wash too quickly, you will get stranded in between the 6th and 5th dry falls and end up having to hike back up a steep slope. Once we were safely around the second ridge, we very cautiously and slowly made our way down one of the gullies until we could find a safe way to drop back into the canyon. The bypass for Upper Moonlight Canyon is not easy. It kind of reminded me of the bottom half of the bypass for Dry Bone Canyon. The key is to choose the best gully to go down, which we found to be the second one (not the first one) once you have gone over the distant second minor ridge you can originally see from the top of the 6th dry fall. Once we dropped back into the wash, we hiked over and checked out the base of the 5th dry fall, which was very pretty. Then we continued down canyon and eventually walked into some of the most outstanding and spectacular narrows we have ever seen. The Upper Moonlight Canyon narrows in between the 5th and 3rd dry falls are absolutely breathtaking to behold in person. Seeing these narrows firsthand instantly bumped Moonlight Canyon into a position of being one of my all-time favorite canyons in Death Valley. An interesting aspect of the Upper Moonlight Canyon narrows is the 4th dry fall, which has the potential to stop hikers about 2/3 of the way down the narrows. The 4th dry fall isn't terribly difficult to get down, but it might give some hikers a bit of trouble getting back up it. It's kind of like a slippery chute at the bottom, and you either need a friend to give you a boost or you need to friction climb it to get back up. It's probably the only dry fall in Moonlight Canyon that a hiker can actually handle climbing with minimal skills safely. Once we slid down the 4th dry fall and continued farther down the narrows, we ended up at the top of the 3rd dry fall. We had finally made it! Thus, we had accomplished something once thought to be impossible -- seeing most of Moonlight Canyon's beautiful narrows firsthand as a mere hiker, without any climbing. Our group became the first documented group of hikers to have seen the entire canyon without any climbing. There appears to be no bypass of the 3rd major dry fall of Moonlight Canyon. Also, note that an incredible 2/3 of the Moonlight Canyon narrows are located in the upper canyon, above the 3rd dry fall. If you decide to attempt this route as a hiker, be extremely careful. I'm serious when I say that the bypass is very challenging. The hike is about 6 miles each way with a total cumulative elevation gain of about 3,500 feet. Click on the second Google Earth map to see an enlarged map of the second half of our route. Our hike took place on December 5, 2011.
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