Death Valley National Park stretches from California to Nevada and is famous for its scorching summer heat, dry saltiness, and as the lowest point in the US – two hundred and eighty-two feet below sea level. Paradoxically it’s surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks and has lush spring meadows filled with wildflowers. It is the hottest place on Earth which means that visitors need to stay well hydrated, limit many of their activities to air-conditioned areas and stick to well-mapped regions of the park.
The best hikes in Death Valley’s National Park range from the ten-minute walk to Zabriskie Point to the five-hour Little Bridge Canyon. In between are the Darwin Falls, the fascinating Ubehebe Crater Loop, the Mosaic Canyon Trail, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the Golden Canyon Gower Gulch Loop.
Despite its formidable name, the three million acres of Death Valley National Park offer some fantastic hiking trails best enjoyed from November to March. You need to carry plenty of water and wear a hat and sunscreen. This article looks at some of the best hikes in Death Valley National Park to fully appreciate this unusual place.
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Zabriskie Point is an easy trail around half a mile long, famous amongst photographers for its beauty. It only takes around ten minutes, but the views are stunning, and it’s open all year round. It can get crowded as this is a popular site, so it’s best to leave before sunrise to see the wildlife and the breathtaking dawn view across the badlands and the towering Panamint Mountains beyond.
The elevation gain is only around fifty feet. Manly Beacon is a popular spot at Zabriskie Point to enjoy sunrise and sunset.
Darwin Falls is a round trip of two miles and takes around two hours. The elevation gain is four hundred and fifty feet, and it is a rare and unique waterfall in the Mojave Desert. Its difficulty is classed as moderate by the National Park Service, and you are not allowed to swim there.
The trail takes you under tree branches, over running streams, and slick rocks into a high walled canyon that provides welcome shade and encloses a lush green oasis around the waterfall. It’s highly recommended, but there isn’t suitable parking available for large RVs. You can get to the trailhead in an ordinary car, but a vehicle with higher clearance is more comfortable.
Ubehebe Crater Loop
Ubehebe Crater Loop is a one-and-a-half-mile loop that takes around an hour to walk. It is a very unusual place at the northern tip of the Cottonwood Mountains and, as its name suggests, is a deep hole in the Earth. Its depth varies between five hundred and seven hundred and seventy-seven feet, and visitors can look into it from the crater rim.
The strange barren rocky landscape resembles that of Mars. It formed when super-heated magma close to the surface from a geological fault encountered groundwater that flashed to steam, causing rocks and magma to erupt from the crater. The elevation gain is five hundred feet, and it’s not recommended for those afraid of heights.
The Ubhehebe Crater is half a mile wide, and the local tribes call it Coyote’s Basket in their language.
Mosaic Canyon Trail
The Mosaic Canyon hike is a four-mile round trip that takes between two and a half and three hours. The National Parks Service rates it as moderate to strenuous, and the elevation gain is twelve hundred feet. The canyon wall is lined with cool smooth marble slabs that offer some respite from the heat.
It lies at the western entrance to Death Valley, and you will need to scramble over some large boulders in places. The convoluted shapes of the canyon walls are fascinating.
You can climb up an enormous gravel wash to see the mosaic breccia rocks that give the canyon its name. There is a dry waterfall with a twenty-foot drop, but a footpath along the side gets you to the top of the dry falls further up.
Little Bridge Canyon
Try the Little Bridge Canyon, a round trip of seven miles that takes about five hours for a longer, more challenging hike. The elevation gain is one thousand nine hundred feet, and the wildflowers are stunning. The best time is between November and March.
There is no parking area, so you need to park on the shoulder of the highway, and there is no parking suitable for large RVs. This hike is not so crowded and is unknown to many visitors, so if solitude in nature is your thing, you will enjoy it. There is some fascinating geology and a natural rock bridge to admire.
There isn’t a trail to follow to the canyon, but small cairns in the ravine mark the way out. It’s advisable to bring a compass and a map because the canyon is two miles off the road, and finding it may be difficult if you haven’t been there before. You will be climbing steadily most of the time.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
If you want to see some giant dunes that everyone associates with the desert, you can walk the easy two-mile round trip to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The top of the highest dune is one hundred feet above the floor of the desert. There is no marked trail, and it takes roughly one and a half hours.
You park in a small parking lot off Highway 190, effectively the trailhead, and strike out across the sands while aiming for the highest point. Don’t try this one if the wind is blowing because the sand can sting unpleasantly. Don’t forget to bring a couple of liters of water as you have to drink more in Death Valley than in other places.
Golden Canyon – Gower Gulch Loop
Gower Gulch Loop is a four-mile hike that takes about two hours through some of the most impressive landscapes in Death Valley. It starts in Golden Canyon and has numbered markers that are easy to follow. The colors of the canyon walls are many and varied as they are made of red mudstone and mosaic conglomerates.
The best time to hike the Gower Gulch Loop is in the early morning when it is cooler, and the rising sun highlights the colors of the landscape.
The Red Cathedral is a prominent landmark on this hike. The trail drops lower into Gower Gulch, where you have to pick your way down the wash yourself as there are no markers. There is a dry waterfall at the bottom of the Gulch, which you avoid by going to the right. You follow the winding wash down and out of the mountains.
The best hikes in Death Valley are the short walk to Zabriskie Point, the longer Darwin Falls hike, Ubehebe Crater Loop, Mosaic Canyon, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the Gower Gulch Loop, and the challenging and much longer Little Bridge Canyon. Being aware of the risk of heatstroke, staying adequately hydrated, and having salty snacks are essential in Death Valley. It has many beautiful places to explore.