Trails I've Hiked: Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Manly Beacon is one of Death Valley's iconic landmarks and readily visible towering over Golden Canyon. NPS photo.

You won't find any trees to escape the glaring sun shining down on the heavily eroded badlands of Death Valley National Park. Fortunately, my trek through Golden Canyon took place in early December, one of the more reasonable, temperature-wise, months in the park best known for its unrelenting heat.

While a dozen or so folks stood at the Zabriskie Point overlook with hopes the cloud cover would break long enough to allow sunrise to shimmer across Golden Canyon, my party of seven headed down into the desert landscape with its rich patina of buffs, tans, pinks, browns, cinnamons, greens, and yellows.

Though only about 2.5 miles in length from Zabriskie Point to the Golden Canyon parking area off Highway 190 on the valley floor, the descent takes you not just 950 feet down in elevation but through millions of years of geology that's colorfully stacked in the sedimentary rocks, mud stones and silt stones. As you drop deeper and deeper into this landscape it's almost as if you're surrounded by golden breakers from some long-forgotten ocean.

Like much of Death Valley, this area was carved over millions of years by flash floods that pushed alluvial fans of debris out onto the valley floor. Over a period of roughly 5 million years fans piled atop fans, compressing the rocks, muds, silts, and sands into cement-like conglomerates that geologic uplift eventually pushed upwards only to allow the onslaught of erosion to reveal them again. The uplift is readily visible along the hike as we passed tilted layer cakes of sedimentary deposits.

Down below, hiking-wise, but rising above this landscape is Manly Beacon, a promontory of banded rock. Named for William Manly, one of the pioneers who wandered into Death Valley in 1849 and who is credited with saving several families from certain death by leading them out of the valley, the rock juts only 810 feet above sea level, but is said to be Death Valley's iconic promontory because so many view it from the Zabriskie Point overlook.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s these undulating flanks were the target of prospectors looking for borax, a white mineral once referred to as "cottonball gold" for its value in industrial processes. It was the hunt for borax that led to the Harmony Borax Works and the well-known "20-Mule Team" slogan spurred by the teams of 18 mules and two horses that were necessary to haul ore wagons of borax 165 miles from Death Valley to a railhead at Mojave, California.

As we continued our descent, following a trail that mostly follows the eroding ridgelines, some of these prospecting holes became visible. Ten-to-20 feet deep in general, these burrows failed to find marketable borax ores and remain today to house bats and recall a part of Death Valley's mining days.

While most of the hike is suitable for novice and expert, young and old alike, there is a stretch or two where the trail narrows and the drop-off becomes significant enough that young children and anyone with a fear of heights might balk at moving forward. These are short, though, and the payoff with the views of the golden hillsides, the aptly named Red Cathedral, and the close-up of Manly Beacon is well worth the effort.

If you don't have time to arrange a car shuttle, heading up into Golden Canyon from the Highway 190 parking lot is a reasonable alternative. While the hike uphill is a bit more strenuous, there are many interesting side canyons that will fascinate kids and adults.

If you do venture down this path, even in winter, don't forget a bottle or two of water.

Comments

I have to agree, Golden Canyon is worth the effort. I did this particular hike during early May (a few years back). The temps were in the 90s as I recall, and I could not imagine hiking that trail if it were any hotter. We actually did a bit of a loop from the Highway 190 parking lot, uphill to just beneath Zabriskie Point, and then back down through a different side canyon.

Your point about extra water though can't be stressed enough. There were four of us, each with just one liter of water. In hindsight, it probably would have been wise to carry no less than two liters a piece, maybe as much as a gallon, seriously.

We had heard a story of a fellow the summer before dying on the trail. He left the lower parking lot feeling very fit. By the time he reached the half-way point (or some point far from his car), he was very thirsty. Apparently the effects of dehydration amplify very quickly, especially in a place like Death Valley. Because his body could not perspire, he found himself physically unable to make it the few miles back to his car and water, his internals shut down under the stress.

But ... don't let that stop YOU from enjoying this hike! Just bring extra water. :-)