Per Digonnet’s hiking guide, Golden Canyon is “…one of the most easily accessed and busiest hiking destinations in the park…” (which may explain why it’s never been high on our list of hikes). But having vowed to hike where we have not hiked before, we selected the Golden Canyon~Gower Gulch Loop – including tourist-rich Zabriskie Point – as the third hike for our 2017 visit to Death Valley National Park. Having noticed on our way back from Willow Canyon that the Golden Canyon trailhead parking was overflowing by early afternoon, we resolved to get an early start for this loop.
The signed and paved Golden Canyon trailhead, with its pit toilet amenities, is just 2.0 miles south of Highway 190 along the Badwater Road. This made it easy for us to get there by 0730 and we counted ourselves lucky that there were only a handful of cars waiting for us in the parking lot.
The trail is a little weak on signage, but it’s impossible to miss, and the National Park Service provides a very nice downloadable map of it on their website. The trail starts in the obvious opening immediately east of the parking lot,
and continues east up the fairly broad canyon. But as the sun climbed higher, we could increasingly see why this place is called “Golden” Canyon
The rising sun brought out the rich yellowish cream color of the slopes down along the trail. Walking past these is like enjoying a delicious custard concoction – but without the calories.
Unlike a lot of other formations in the Park, the ones here are essentially dried mud and very fragile – which, of course, doesn’t stop droolers from wandering off-trail and scaring the scenery. After a mile, we came to a minimally signed trail junction, from where we could see the upper walls of Red Cathedral to the east,
and the sharp prominence of Manly Beacon to the southeast. The Beacon was named in honor of William L. Manly, who along with John Rogers, guided the remaining members of the ill-fated Forty-niners out of Death Valley during the gold rush of 1849.
From here we took the short (1 mile round-trip) spur trail to the base of the Red Cathedral, both to see it and to experience the only slice of slot canyon on this hike.
Shortly before we reached the base of the Cathedral, the trail did enter a stretch with high, narrow walls,
which got crawlspace narrow in a few places,
before bringing us to the amphitheater,
at the base of the fluted walls of the Red Cathedral.
From the base of the Cathedral, we were able to access a short, hard-packed use trail that allowed us a view out to the west.
We took the spur trail back to the junction and then went southwest through those yummy-looking custard-colored formations,
ascended the western slopes of Manly Beacon,
crossed the divide west of the Beacon,
and dropped down into the upper reaches of Gower Gulch.
The Beacon looks particularly impressive when viewed from Gower Gulch.
From this junction, we went east and up on the Badlands Loop Trail, which afforded us a big view out over the Red Cathedral to the northwest.
After going around a few corners, we came into view of Zabriskie Point,
named for a vice-president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company (now Rio Tinto Borax), and possibly the most photographed and culturally referenced point in the entire Park, as it has featured in more than a few films, songs, novels, and acid trips. We feared it only because it’s immediately accessible to hoards of tourists from a parking lot on its eastern side. But this being a weekday, there were only about a dozen people on its summit when we got there and they all left soon thereafter (why?), leaving us alone for the obligatory tourist souvenir snapshot.
After that and a snack, it was back along the other side of the Badlands Loop Trail to Gower Gulch, and then down the Gulch toward the trailhead. It seems that in 1941, most of the surface flow of Furnace Creek Wash was diverted into Gower Gulch to protect the Furnace Creek Inn from flash floods. So the wash we hiked today is wider, deeper, and more gravel-strewn than it was back in the day.
Going down is mostly an easy stroll, enlivened along the way by one narrow spot and some old borax mines.
The Gulch discharges into the valley over a 40-foot drop-off, so there’s a trail along the south wall that took us gently down to valley level,
and then along almost level back to the Golden Canyon trailhead, which was considerably busier than when we’d left just a few hours before!
This turned out to be a varied, colorful, and interesting hike (7.6 mile loop; 900 feet of elevation gain), with good views, old mines, and a visit to an iconic Point. Despite this loop’s reputation for being among “the busiest” in the Park, we saw very few people other than at the trailhead and Zabriskie Point. An early start on a weekday may have helped a lot but it seems that most people just do the first mile of Golden Canyon as an out-and-back (there’s a Ranger-led hike there every day at 0900 during the winter season) or just drive to Zabriskie Point. The whole loop doesn’t appear to qualify as busy. If you’re up for an early start, we recommend doing it, as it’s particularly pretty in the morning light.
We got done with this hike in plenty of time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with drinks and a nice dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn, another one of the Valley’s iconic institutions. It too is highly recommended! So is love, but that’s your business…