DEATH VALLEY HIKING OVERVIEW
Death Valley National Park literally has endless opportunities for hiking. There are not many maintained trails within the park, but you really don't need them. While park visitors and native wildlife maintain some of the trails, most of the hiking is cross-country. The hiking within Death Valley revolves mostly around open desert, beautiful canyons, mountain peaks, mining ruins, and interesting geological formations. And there are plenty of opportunities to explore places that nobody has ever seen before (or at least never reported on publicly). Here at Death Valley Adventures, we frequently receive e-mail letters asking for hiking recommendations within the park, being that this is the largest Death Valley hiking site on the internet. Over the years, I have realized that many times I am repeating answers to the same questions, such as revealing what I would recommend for hiking, backpacking, and adventure experiences. Thus, I went ahead and put together this page which will benefit all visitors who are interested in hiking in Death Valley. Keep in mind that the hikes and backpacking routes mentioned below are only a small sampling of what is available within the park. But if you want to know my recommendations, they will be shared below. This page will not focus on detailed information about the hikes or share extensive photographs. That type of information can be found on the specific trip pages which are linked to on the site's main page. But I will share one photograph of each place and then try to give some details that hikers will find beneficial. I hope you will find this information helpful as you plan out your hiking and backpacking trips. Before you hike, please also familiarize yourself with all of the current park rules and regulations. It has been said that I should be working in the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This hiking and backpacking section is the next best thing. I hope you all enjoy your hikes and trips to Death Valley.
HIKING DANGERS IN DEATH VALLEY
Before I share my hiking recommendations for Death Valley National Park, a word of caution is definitely in order. One e-mail which I received from a park visitor commented that Death Valley "can be the most dangerous place on earth for any hikers." And his words certainly hold a lot of truth. While it can be considered fairly safe to do basic family hikes to tourist destinations during cooler months, other places hold a lot of risk for the inexperienced. Allow me to recap a few of the risks for the benefit of those considering hiking in Death Valley.
HEAT / WEATHER -- Death Valley has deadly heat during summer months. At all times of year, carry and drink an abundance of water, apply sunscreen, wear layers of clothing, monitor the forecast, and stay out of canyons during rain due to danger from flash floods.
ROUTE FINDING -- Getting lost in Death Valley is very easy for inexperienced hikers. Trails are mostly non-existent. Good map reading skills, GPS hiking units, satellite phones, personal locator beacons, hiking in groups, and leaving an itinerary with park rangers and family members can all be helpful.
MINES / CABINS -- Stay out of old mining tunnels. Potential dangers inside abandoned mines include unseen vertical mine openings, deadly gases, oxygen deficiency, cave-ins, unsafe structures, unstable explosives, and other assorted risks. Hantavirus is also a risk inside mining ruins and cabins.
WILDLIFE THREATS -- Death Valley has mountain lions, snakes, and scorpions and you should be prepared to deal with encounters. Carrying a snake bite kit is an option (which some sources say doesn't work well) and solo hikers might bring bear repellant pepper spray to potentially scare off mountain lions in case of an extremely rare sighting.
TERRAIN OBSTACLES -- Death Valley has an abundance of narrow canyons which can be very beautiful but also dangerous with falling rocks. While progressing up canyons (and other areas), hikers often run into dry falls or other obstacles which result in three options. The three options are to either stop and turn around, climb the dry fall, or look for a way to bypass the dry fall. The option you choose will depend on your skill level and safety awareness. An example of such a dry fall obstacle is shown in the middle picture below. The right picture below shows an example of a ledge bypass which should not be crossed without the use of safety ropes and gear because there is no margin for error.
Wise hikers know their own limitations and do not attempt to push the boundaries of safety. Keep in mind that you are responsible for knowing your limits and for your own personal safety. Do not attempt to use exposed bypasses and climb dry falls in order to see more of a canyon than feels safe. It is not worth it. Most hikers who reach the spot at the right picture above wisely stop and turn around. The left picture below shows a tragic accident that occurred in a Death Valley canyon. In this example, a hiker named Karyn decided to hike the Artists Dip #2 Canyon in April of 2012. She wanted to reach the narrows, so she kept going beyond what was safe and reasonable for her. While taking a bypass up and over one of the dry falls, she fell 10 feet, breaking one leg and shattering her other ankle and foot. For her rescue, helicopters were deployed and a 6-hour evacuation was carried out by a squad of climbers. It took Karyn 18 months and 4 surgeries to recover from her severe injuries. Karyn agreed to share her story to help others avoid the same fate. The lesson is simple. If a bypass or climb looks or feels unsafe in any way... don't do it. Turn around and go see another beautiful area in the park. In my reports, I am able to make it farther than most regular hikers. But even I don't get to see everything that climbers and canyoneers see. So don't try to get as far as others do if an area doesn't feel safe.
Beginning in 2014, all of my hikes done in Death Valley include a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). The two bottom right pictures show PLBs I have used in Death Valley. Bringing a PLB with you on hikes greatly increases overall safety because you will most likely be able to call for help if you need an emergency rescue. Be aware that PLBs may not work without a clear view of the sky. I am currently using a PLB that also works as a satellite messenger. Satellite messengers are made by companies such as SPOT, DeLorme, and BriarTek. My model allows for 2-way satellite text messaging, real time location tracking by others, SOS emergency help, and pairing with my iPhone.
Some of our reports contain a Safety Alert after the introduction paragraph. In these alerts, we try to explain what major obstacles appear on the route and where hikers should consider stopping. But still, these alerts do not cover all dangers found on the hike. Remember, your personal safety is your responsibility and you should not attempt anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or is beyond your own reasonable and safe limits.
The hikes listed under the Tourist and Family Hiking Options section are among the easier ones in the park. They are generally safe for children as long as you keep close watch on them and don't allow them to start climbing or wander off on their own. Most of these hikes are located in close proximity to Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, and only one of the recommended hikes requires a little extra research and effort to locate. This is a short list of six of the best hikes which fall into this category. A few of these hikes are not among my personal favorites, but that is only because there are lots of tourists doing them. They are still very beautiful places for first-time visitors and others who would like to take their families someplace safe and enjoyable.
Mosaic Canyon is a great place for first-time visitors to Death Valley to take their families. It serves as a perfect introduction to some of the beautiful slot canyon narrows that can be found within the park. Children will enjoy feeling the smooth polished walls and doing small climbs. When you reach a challenging dry fall partway into the canyon, test your skills at figuring out how to bypass it by looking for a well-used path on the right. Expect to see loads of tourists throughout the lower part of the canyon, which means patience is required in order to get great photographs. It is very difficult to get lost in here since there is only one main canyon and the crowds are easy to follow. Watch children closely as they get close to the small dry falls and keep them from climbing up the small cliffs overlooking the wash. Day hikers who want to extend this into a longer trip can go all the way to the base of the large dry fall at the beginning of the 3rd Narrows which is where most people who are hiking stop and turn around for the day. Adventure hikers can find a way to bypass this major dry fall and see more narrows higher up in the canyon or they can loop back down by way of an old mining trail nearby.
Hiking distance to dry fall at start of 3rd Narrows -- 1.7 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,025 feet
Golden Canyon is widely recommended in park brochures and guidebooks and is well worth visiting. It is just a 5 minute drive away from Furnace Creek and the whole family can spend as much time exploring as they wish. Children will enjoy exploring the side passages and searching out locations where Star Wars movie scenes were filmed. You will likely find even more tourists here than in Mosaic Canyon. In fact, I once encountered an entire busload of tourists hiking out of the canyon. Golden Canyon is especially nice to visit when the rays of the sun are shining on the canyon walls, making them glow a bright color. There are many options for hiking within the canyon, including out to the base of Red Cathedral and doing a full loop through nearby Gower Gulch. If you decide to do the full loop, keep a close eye on children as there are many side canyons and drainages where they could get lost, as well as some basic dry falls which must be climbed down in order to continue. But there isn't anything extremely hard and that's why I recommend it as one of my suggested family hikes. One of the special aspects of walking through here is the views of Manly Beacon.
Hiking distance to complete Gower Gulch loop -- 4.0 miles total
Elevation gain -- 350 feet
MESQUITE SAND DUNES
The Mesquite Sand Dunes have always been the most popular dunes in the park. Children really love them. You can see evidence of that if you check out my full report on the Mesquite Dunes. These sand dunes are easily accessible, being just a short drive from Stovepipe Wells. As with the other hikes, expect to see a lot of tourists and photographers here. While the photographers tend to stick to the western and eastern ends of the dunes, tourists and children enjoy trying to hike out to the highest sand peak which is visible in the distance from the parking lot. The highest peak doesn't look that far away, but you will find that it takes longer than you expect to reach it. This is because of the ups and downs as you hike over sand ridges that are heavily marked up with footprints. One word of caution to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in the warm weather. I have seen snakes out here and you wouldn't want your children to try to pick one up or get bitten. That has already happened two times in the park that I know of. Also, when it is hot outside bring plenty of water if walking out on the dunes. But avoid trying to walk out on them during the Summer months when the sand will amplify the heat that is in the air.
Hiking distance to summit of highest dune -- 2.0 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 350 feet cumulative (approx.)
Sidewinder Canyon is a very fun destination. Stop by the Visitor Center and get the hand-out and then follow the directions to reach Sidewinder Canyon and begin your exploring. This place is not as heavily frequented by tourists, so you may only see 1 or 2 other groups out there while you are hiking, or you may see none at all. While the first half of the canyon is just a basic wash with walls slowly growing in height on each side, the second half of the canyon is very neat. There are a series of three official slots that you can enter which are more like long caves. These slots close in very tight and rise high in the air, blocking out much of the sunlight from the outside. It actually gets quite dark inside the slots and you may want to bring a flashlight with you. Progressing deep into the slots requires basic climbs so watch and assist children carefully. Beyond the slots, the main canyon narrows down considerably and your family will enjoy hiking through the tight passages all the way to the logical end. Another note about this canyon is that Bighorn sheep tend to frequent the general area. Sidewinder Canyon also contains some beautiful natural bridges -- three major and one minor.
Hiking distance to first official slot -- 1.1 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 525 feet
Ubehebe Crater is another good destination that I am listing under my suggested family hikes. I decided to include it because it is such a great place to take children and teenagers. There are several short hiking options in the area, all of which are interesting and fun. In fact, you could spend an entire day at Ubehebe Crater doing all of the different hikes and enjoying lunch at the parking lot overlook area. The three hikes are -- (1) hiking and sliding down to the bottom of the crater, (2) hiking around the rim of the crater which includes a visit to Little Hebe Crater, and (3) doing the more challenging hike up to Crater BM. Some of these hikes are self-explanatory. Others you will have to do research for and consult maps. But a few things to keep in mind are that it is often very windy at Ubehebe Crater, you need to watch children closely while hiking around the rim to make sure they don't get too close to the cliff edges, and it is a lot more difficult to hike back out of the crater than it is to hike down into it. A visit to Ubehebe Crater and a tour of Scotty's Castle can be combined for one outstanding family day in the park. My family members and I have probably done both a dozen times or more.
Hiking distance around Crater Rim Trail -- 2.25 miles total
Elevation gain -- 300 feet cumulative (approx.)
TITUS CANYON NARROWS
The Titus Canyon Narrows are an excellent way to be introduced to what it feels like to pass through towering rock walls on both sides of a canyon. The starting point for the hike is easily accessible by driving 3 miles on a graded gravel one-way road off of Scotty's Castle Road. In thinking about hikes that would be good for families, I noticed that this one was included on the park's official web site as an easy hike. I've done this hike several times in the past and feel that it is far superior to driving down through the canyon from the other direction because it's just a different experience to be outside walking. The NPS sometimes leads visitors on wildflower walks up the narrows, which we have also participated in. In thinking about this hike, there is one serious concern when it comes to children -- the oncoming traffic from vehicles which are driving through the canyon on the 27-mile one way road from the other direction. Most of the time, drivers are passing through the narrows at a slow speed, being aware of the presence of hikers in the lower canyon. But you can never be too careful and thus it is important to keep your children close to you as you hike up the narrows.
Hiking distance to end of 1st Narrows -- 1.8 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 650 feet
The hikes listed under the Day Hiking Options are a mixture of well-known and little-known destinations. And if you were to look at Best of Death Valley hikes listed on other web sites, a majority of these would probably not be listed. But keep in mind that these are my recommendations, the places which I feel hold the best and most interesting day hikes in the park. There are other hikes that I love immensely as well, but this list was limited to the twelve which I thought would appeal to the widest variety of people. If you select any one of these hikes and carry it out successfully, you will have a great and memorable day in Death Valley. Most of these hikes involve hiking cross-country and understanding desert hiking. You may find a GPS helpful for navigation if you aren't very good at reading maps.
Fall Canyon is a true Death Valley classic, one of the best hikes in the park. The scenery is on a grand scale with towering canyon walls on each side of you as you walk up a wide wash at the beginning. Soon the wash narrows down and the walls close in on you, until you reach the base of the 1st dry fall. Up until this point, this hike is pretty much family friendly. But if you want to bypass the 1st dry fall and get into the narrows, you will need to scramble up the obvious route. There is a high likelihood that you will run into quite a few other groups of hikers while you are inside this canyon. And that is fine, since the canyon has plenty of space and you will still be able to take amazing pictures throughout. For those who want to turn this into an adventure hike, they can go past the 1st dry fall and 1st Narrows, and continue up canyon to try to reach the 2nd dry fall and 3rd dry fall. One thing to keep in mind about this canyon is that the hiking is slow going most of the way. The wash has deep gravel, which means that you sink down everytime you take a step and make slow progress. But that just gives you more time to enjoy it. This has always been one of my favorite hikes.
Hiking distance to end of 1st Narrows -- 3.7 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,450 feet
Fall Canyon's nearby neighbor Palmer Canyon is not nearly as well known. And that's good news if you're planning on hiking out there. Palmer Canyon boasts a long section of beautiful narrows right from the beginning of the canyon. In contrast, Fall Canyon's narrows don't really start until you are about 3 miles into the canyon. I have been asked which canyon I like better -- Fall or Palmer. And the honest answer is that I just don't know. Each canyon is spectacular and unique in its own way. What I like about Palmer is the solitude. It is a near certainty that you will not run into any other hikers. Despite the amazing two sets of narrows that exist in Palmer Canyon, it remains relatively unknown to most park visitors. Most people will probably find it easier to hike up to Palmer Canyon directly from Scotty's Castle Road, although it can be accessed via a slightly shorter route from the Titus Canyon parking area. A couple things to keep in mind about Palmer are that there is a slightly difficult boulder climb in the middle of the 2nd Narrows and there is a massive dry fall at the end of the 2nd Narrows which is the logical end of the hike for most people.
Hiking distance to dry fall at end of 2nd Narrows -- 3.75 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 2,100 feet
FUNERAL SLOT CANYON
Situated very close to Furnace Creek and Texas Spring Campground, Funeral Slot Canyon is one impressive place. Funeral Slot is a seemingly never-ending slot of tall conglomerate rock narrows. The route can be a little bit confusing to find the entrance to the canyon, so you will need good map reading skills or a GPS with marked coordinates. Once you find your way into the canyon, the scenery grows more impressive by the minute. The walls grow in height, the sunlight creates bright glowing on the walls, and the narrows twist and turn, always keeping you excited to see what is around the next corner. There are a few obstacles within the canyon that require small climbs in order to see the entire canyon. But even if you don't want to do any basic climbs, you still can see at least half of the canyon. The interesting thing about this canyon is that it was mostly unknown for many years. It is only in recent times that information about its existence was shared with me and I was able to pass that on to visitors to my site. Funeral Slot Canyon is pretty much a must-do if you happen to be staying in the Furnace Creek area and you want to see a great slot canyon.
Hiking distance to end of passable canyon -- 4.25 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,600 feet
PANAMINT SAND DUNES
Of all the sand dunes in Death Valley, the Panamint Dunes are my favorite. The dirt road to get out to the starting point to hike to these dunes can be a bit rough with some drainage crossings, but I have always made it in a regular 2WD truck. An alternative would be to hike from the highway and make this into a very long day hike. One neat thing about hiking out to the Panamint Dunes is that for 3+ miles you get to watch the dunes grow in size as you draw ever closer to them. As you approach the edge of the dune system, you begin walking on sand, checking out all of the nearby plants and animal tracks. One thing you probably will not see out here is people tracks. The Panamint Dunes might only see a handful of hikers each week. That means that most of the time, you can have pure pictures of the dunes with no trampled down ridges or tourists in the background. About the only thing out here that might happen to you is getting buzzed by a military jet zooming through the area. The late afternoon seems to be the best time for taking photographs of the Panamint Dunes. If you hike to the top of the dunes, you can have nice views down Panamint Valley. As a top-secret alternative, try the Buckwheat Dunes.
Hiking distance to summit of highest dune -- 4.0 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,100 feet
Telescope Peak is a late Spring and Summer hike for most people. The trail is maintained and begins at Mahogany Flat campground, high up in the Panamint Mountains. All along the trail, you will never stop having great views of both Death Valley and Panamint Valley. And once you are at the top of Telescope, your views will stretch all the way to the Sierras and beyond. On my hike (which took place in the month of July), we were fortunate enough to have large blooms of wildflowers along the trail and we saw groups of mule deer grazing in Arcane Meadows. One caution would be that this hike involves hiking into high elevations over 11,000 feet. So that may be a concern to some people. At the very least, it will likely slow you down as you get farther into the hike and reach the switchbacks section toward the end. Along with being an excellent destination for day hikers, Telescope Peak also seems to attract its share of extreme adventurers. Some will attempt to summit Telescope Peak all the way from Badwater in 1 or 2 days. Others will come in the Winter when the mountain is covered in snow and attempt to summit with ice axes and crampons.
Hiking distance to summit -- 7.0 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 3,000 feet
Red Amphitheater is a nice fairly easy day hike that visits a very scenic area of red cliffs and fallen boulders. The hike out to Red Amp can be started at two different locations -- either at Hole In the Wall or along Hwy 190. The tricky part about this hike is finding Red Amphitheater. On park maps, it has always been labeled across a very wide general area. Yet, when a hiker goes out to this general area, there is nothing significant to find. Therefore, it is necessary to use our route map included on our trip report for this area in order to successfully find Red Amphitheater and Red Amp Canyon. Along the way, be sure to stop at Strange Place to see a very interesting pyramid shaped rock formation with a cave entrance at the front. This is one of the easiest hikes that is located close to Furnace Creek. The only difficulties along the way besides route finding are scrambling up to a ridge and then slowly working your way down the opposite side on a steep slope (if you start at Hwy 190). On our trip report page, we have taken a few panoramic photographs of the Red Amphitheater formation. As you can see, this is a very nice place for photography. This hike should take about a half day.
Hiking distance to Red Amphitheater base -- 4.75 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,200 feet
Contact Canyon is the most scenically beautiful of the five officially named canyons in the Owlshead Mountains. Reaching the starting point for the hike requires about a 1 hour drive south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road and then a brief stretch on the gravel Harry Wade Road. Not many people come to Death Valley and hike in the Owlshead Mountains, but Contact Canyon would serve as a great introduction. The Owlsheads are made up of decomposed granite, which is very unique and not found very often in other areas of the park. Contact Canyon remains fairly narrow from the mouth of the canyon all the way to the logical end at the colorful 4-Way Junction. If you look carefully, you can even find a beautiful white rock arch above the canyon in this colorful area. Surely you will want to take lots of pictures if you can make it this far. One thing to keep in mind about this hike is that you are going to have to hike several miles just to reach the beginning of the canyon. And getting to the beginning can be slightly tricky when you pass through the Confidence Hills. So if you are not a good map reader or navigator of desert terrain, you may want to bring a GPS unit.
Hiking distance to 4-Way Junction -- 7.0 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 2,000 feet
Thimble Peak is one hike that I can highly recommend as a very enjoyable peak hike. The nice thing about doing this peak is that you can do it along with a drive of the scenic Titus Canyon Road. So that's two great destinations that you can cover in one day. The peak hike is somewhat short but fairly steep most of the time. The exception to this is a short stretch where the hillside levels off as you approach the face of Thimble Peak. This part of the hike has absolutely amazing and breathtaking views of the front of Thimble. As you continue hiking up, most of the time on a hiker-maintained trail, things begin to get steeper during the ascent of Thimble. There are a couple of slightly scary spots which may stop some hikers. The rewards for reaching the top of Thimble include being able to see some of the best views in the park of surrounding peaks, mountain ranges, and central Death Valley. As you are hiking back down from Thimble, you will enjoy views into Titus Canyon and see vehicles driving through the area and over Red Pass. When you are hiking, if you notice the trail disappear a few times, simply follow along the obvious ridges circling around toward Thimble.
Hiking distance to summit -- 1.8 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,500 feet cumulative
Lower Foundry Canyon is an excellent short hike in the Black Mountains. It does require a small amount of map reading and route finding, but it really is not that difficult of a place to find. The crown jewel of the canyon is a gorgeous section of slot narrows which are incredible to walk through. The last section is especially pretty with two giant wedged boulders which have fallen into the narrows but couldn't make it all the way down to the canyon floor. The narrows are quite tall and a hiker ends up passing right beneath the boulders. The hike through Lower Foundry Canyon ends at a major dry fall. Please use caution and do not attempt to climb this dry fall as it could result in serious injury. Just admire the dry fall from the base of it and turn around at this spot. Besides, there are more confirmed major dry falls which are even larger just minutes beyond the first one, as seen on the trip reports posted by canyoneers. The hike into Lower Foundry starts out along Badwater Road by heading up a long fan and narrowing wash. Upon entering the canyon, there are some quick turns leading into the narrows gateway. Just beyond, there is a sloping minor dry fall and that's where the fun begins.
Hiking distance to major dry fall -- 2.5 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,200 feet
The hike to Wildrose Peak is a real contrast in comparison to other Death Valley hiking destinations and peaks. Hikers will not be passing through a barren desert but rather hiking through a high elevation forest containing pinyon pine and juniper trees. This is a very pretty hike and just about everyone who has done it has thoroughly enjoyed it. The hike is about 4.2 miles one-way from the Charcoal Kilns to the summit of Wildrose Peak. There are outstanding views into central Death Valley once the final ridgeline has been reached. Many hikers summit Wildrose Peak as a tune-up for a Telescope Peak hike the following day. This allows for your body to acclimate to the higher elevations, which will be helpful when going up the infamous switchbacks of Telescope Peak. For a hike of Wildrose Peak, it is probably best to camp at either Wildrose, Thorndike, or Mahogany Flat the night before. If you need water for this hike, it can only be obtained at Wildrose campground. Before or after the hike, it is a good idea to spend some time exploring the Charcoal Kilns. Expect snow to be on the trail (and possibly the road) during the Winter.
Hiking distance to summit -- 4.2 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 2,200 feet
LITTLE ARCHES CANYON
Little Arches Canyon is another one of the many outstanding hikes in the Grapevine Mountains. This one is located north of Palmer Canyon. I decided to add it because there are two medium-sized arches at the beginning of the canyon which are made up of conglomerate rock and have been created by water erosion in an area of badlands. If hikers are interested in admiring two beautiful arches in Death Valley, this canyon seems like a great place to do that. Little Arches Canyon is easy to hike to, as it only takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes to reach if you can figure out the route to the canyon mouth. Beyond the two arches in the canyon, hikers can enjoy a nice walk past a variety of interesting canyon walls which steadily grow in height. Family groups will need to turn around at the beginning of the boulder gorge, which is a steep and somewhat challenging climb through a narrow passage filled with giant boulders. Advanced hikers who can make it through the boulder gorge by way of the rabbit-hole escape are rewarded by reaching the end of the passable lower canyon at the pretty red dry fall. This canyon was named by myself and two others who have hiked it.
Hiking distance to major red dry fall -- 3.5 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,450 feet
Corkscrew Peak is the final hike that I have added for my list of Death Valley day hike recommendations. I decided to add it because there is very easy access to get to the hike, it is a fairly popular peak hike, and there is a trail much of the way to the top once you have attained the ridge. The key to this hike is to use the easier Round Boulder Route to access the ridge and gain the summit. This route does not have a lot of difficulty with the exception of getting lost or not choosing the right drainages to hike up. Corkscrew Peak has some very nice views looking out toward Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Tucki Mountain, the Mesquite Sand Dunes, and Thimble Peak are all visually impressive from the peak. Bighorn sheep also live in this area, which may provide a nice surprise for you while hiking. And there is an interesting formation close to the summit known as Keyhole Rock which is a neat natural arch formation to check out. One caution about this hike is that it is kind of steep and if you take the wrong canyon route then it will be a treacherous climb to the summit. The standard Round Boulder Route is still steep but very manageable along the trail.
Hiking distance to summit -- 3.75 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 3,300 feet
One of the questions I seem to get asked the most has to do with what the best backpacking routes are in Death Valley for both first-time visitors and returning hikers. Thus, I have put together a group of six of my favorite backpacking routes within the park. A majority of these are the same as recommended by the NPS. When backpacking in Death Valley, one of the biggest issues is water availability. If you don't want to have to carry all of the water for your trip, you are going to need a route which passes by reliable springs that you can pump drinking water out of. Some of the routes below have water and some do not. But all of these routes are well worth doing and will make for enjoyable backpacking trips. Before you start your backpacking trip, make sure to pick up a free permit at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
The Cottonwood-Marble loop is the premier backpacking trip in Death Valley. It is a very popular route and you are likely to have other people camping near you, especially on the weekends. The reason that this route is so popular is that it passes through two of the most well known canyons (Cottonwood and Marble) and there are generally reliable water sources at the springs (Cottonwood Spring and Dead Horse Spring). The only drawback with this route is that many people end up getting lost and being unable to complete their planned loop because they can't find the correct crossover into Dead Horse Canyon. For help with this, check out my special Cottonwood-Marble Backpacking report in the top box on the main page. If you carry a GPS unit with you and input the correct coordinates of the crossover, there should be no reason to get lost. The Cottonwood-Marble loop starts out by heading up Cottonwood Canyon. In the Spring, you can find lush greenery here and Cottonwood trees full of leaves. On the final day, you end up hiking down Marble Canyon, which has four sections of spectacular narrows and marble walls.
Hiking distance to complete loop of canyons -- 26 miles round-trip minimum
Elevation gain -- 3,500 feet
INDIAN PASS CANYON
One of the easiest backpacking routes to access in the park is Indian Pass Canyon. Because it is over 10 miles one-way to see this entire canyon, many people choose to do it as an overnight backpacking trip. There are a couple of seeps and springs scattered throughout the canyon where you can usually get water. If you decide to get it at the first seep, you will need to be patient and let the water build up a little bit before you can pump it. But farther up canyon, the springs seem to be more active. The trickiest part about backpacking Indian Pass Canyon is successfully finding the entrance to it. Because of this, you will need to prepare well and make sure you are able to find the correct route to get into the canyon. Before reaching the canyon, there seems to be a maze of confusing washes that can mislead hikers. We have encountered lost groups while backpacking into Indian Pass. If you do this trip, make sure you see the entire canyon, because the higher up you go, the more interesting the scenery becomes. Don't expect great views up at Indian Pass, but expect to have a good time and appreciate the scenic trenches made of breccia rock throughout the canyon.
Hiking distance to major dry fall -- 10.4 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 3,000 feet
SAND CANYON-OWL LAKE
The Sand Canyon-Owl Lake route is a backpacking trip that you will not find recommended anywhere else except for here. It is an outstanding hike through an extremely interesting and scenic canyon with a fantastic end destination and perfect place to camp out under the stars and enjoy amazing solitude. You will need at least high clearance to drive out to the starting point for the hike into Sand Canyon on the Harry Wade Road. Sand Canyon is the best canyon in the Owlshead Mountains and one of my personal favorites in the park. The canyon starts out very narrow and you begin passing patches of sand. Soon, you run into a bouldering section with huge boulders that are bigger than cars and houses. If you have the skills to get through this area, you can continue hiking up canyon all the way to the end where there are twin sand dunes. This is the only canyon in Death Valley which has sand dunes. Beyond the sand dunes you will attain the ridge and drop down the other side onto a very gentle grade which leads down to Owl Lake (usually a dry lake). This is where you will camp for the night before returning back the way you came the next day. You will need to bring all of your water with you.
Hiking distance to reach Owl Lake -- 10 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 2,000 feet
Bighorn Gorge is an epic overnight backpacking trip into a very isolated area with fantastic sets of polished canyon narrows. The journey begins on Scotty's Castle Road as you hike down the fan and then head up the other side toward the mouth of Bighorn Gorge. For a backpacking trip, you will want to set up camp about 7 miles into the hike. Then, on the next day, you can hike and climb your way through the narrows to get as far as your skills will let you. For most people, that will be all the way. But for some, they might get stuck at a few of the dry falls. A few people will make it all the way to the end (or head) of the gorge and be able to see out into the White Top Mountain area. You most likely will not run into any people here, but you will have Bighorn Gorge all to yourself. You might be sharing it with Bighorn sheep or a mountain lion, but don't let that scare you. This is another route where you are going to need to bring all of your water with you since there is none available in the area. When I hiked Bighorn Gorge for the first time, I did it as a 20+ mile day hike. But it would have been so much more enjoyable as an overnight trip. I have been back in Bighorn Gorge two more times since then.
Hiking distance to top of gorge -- 10.7 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 3,400 feet
SURPRISE CANYON-PANAMINT CITY
As part of my backpacking recommendations, I must include one of my personal favorites -- the trip up Surprise Canyon to the mining ruins of Panamint City. Although this hike is only about 5.5 miles each way, it will most likely take first-timers the entire day to reach camp at Panamint City. This is because Surprise Canyon is so overgrown with lush greenery that route finding can be tricky, especially for those who try to keep their feet dry as long as they can. The first section through Surprise Canyon is extremely beautiful with cascades and waterfalls in a setting of pretty canyon narrows. As you continue hiking, you will pass by Limekiln Eden and through The Tunnel of Love (pictured at right). There is plentiful water available for the entire first half of the hike. Then the spring dries up and you won't be able to get water again until you arrive in Panamint City. So be prepared for that, especially on a hot day. Once in Panamint City, you can get water from the water tank just past the city which is usually overflowing or from the creek in Water Canyon. This is not the best backpacking trip for the Winter months, as Panamint City is located at a high elevation and there is often snow on the ground.
Hiking distance to reach Panamint City -- 5.5 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 3,675 feet
This page would be incomplete without another exclusive destination which is only suggested here on this site. And that's where the backpacking trip up Wingate Wash comes in. Wingate Wash is a historic route into and out of Death Valley that makes for a memorable 2-3 day backpacking trip. Because of the sheer distances involved and the fact that you need to bring all of your own water, this trip is best done in the Winter months when there are cooler temperatures. There are three main destinations to visit up Wingate Wash -- the 478 Mine (5.5 miles from the parking area on Warm Springs Rd.), Wingate Slot Canyon (9 miles plus 1.5 miles up the slot), and Wingate Dry Lake (18 miles). A good 2-3 day trip would include visiting the mining ruins and the slot canyon. Backpacking to Wingate Dry Lake would not be practical unless you did it as a one-way hike (see our trip report on Wingate Wash for more details). But you could set up a base camp at the mouth of Wingate Slot Canyon and then do a long day hike to Wingate Dry Lake and back. Wingate Wash sees few visitors and is mostly an isolated area of wide-open spaces with incredible views of the Owlsheads, Black Mountains, and Panamints.
Hiking distance to Wingate Slot Canyon -- 9.0 miles one-way
Elevation gain -- 1,200 feet