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Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, CA

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Rated  Favorite Wish List CA > Death Valley
3.6 of 5 by 5
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Difficulty 2.5 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance Round Trip 5.1 miles
Trailhead Elevation -130 feet
Elevation Gain 709 feet
Accumulated Gain 1,060 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 3 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 10.4
Backpack No
Dogs not allowed
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
Inaugural Calculation on Button Tap!
73  2017-02-17
Man Plans God Laughs
20  2016-02-10
Death Valley
7  2014-11-02
Golden Canyon - Gower Gulch Loop
25  2012-09-18 CannondaleKid
12  2010-04-04 hippiepunkpirate
Author hippiepunkpirate
author avatar Guides 25
Routes 36
Photos 2,877
Trips 657 map ( 2,276 miles )
Age 33 Male Gender
Location Peoria, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Jan, Dec, Feb, Nov
Seasons   Autumn to Spring
Sun  5:35am - 5:44pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Named place Nearby
Gold's not the only color
by hippiepunkpirate

Overview: The Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail is a very popular Death Valley hike, but for good reason. Rolling through the brilliantly colored badlands surrounding Zabriskie Point and Manly Beacon, the terrain is incredibly unique. There are more remote places in Death Valley, but there may be none more beautiful.

Route Possibilities: There several options for this trail. The statistics above stipulate an out and back from the lower trail head on Badwater Road up to Zabriskie Point and back the way you came. Also starting at the lower trail head, it is possible to do a loop of about the same difficulty, which also utilizes the Gower Gulch trail. I have listed this as a separate hike: Golden Canyon - Gower Gulch Loop. The third option is a shuttle, most logically starting at the upper trail head at Zabriskie Point and ending at the lower trail head on Badwater Road. According to the Death Valley Trails Illustrated Map, the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail is 2.3 miles one way. When I did the downhill shuttle in April 2010, I estimated the AEG for the shuttle to be about 200 feet.

Hike: If you start at the lower trail head, grab a pamphlet (this is the interpretive part). There are numbered posts along the trail, so the numbered entries in the pamphlet explain the geology at each stop. Along the initial climb up Golden Canyon, you will notice sections of pavement, with large sections conspicuously missing. That is the power of a flash flood. As the trail comes up out of Golden Canyon, the badlands really open up, with Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral towering overhead. There is evidently a short side trail that leads to the base of Red Cathedral, which I didn't explore, but there is a signed junction.

The badlands remind me of the Painted Desert in Arizona. The geology is vaguely similar, with ash deposits within the bedrock being the chief cause of the badland topography both here and in the Painted Desert's Chinle Formation. The difference being the Chinle was primarily formed by streams with volcanic ash blown in, whereas the rocks here are the deposits of pre-Basin and Range lakes in which volcanic ash blew in. The volcanic ash in the bedrock creates a clay that creates the classic badland weathering pattern and also makes plant grown impossible. On my hike on the badlands, the only plant life I saw were the gorgeous Panamint Daisies growing in a patch of soil-supporting alluvium. Caves are present at a few places above the trail, and are reasonably accessible for exploration. I didn't check them out personally, but a few of my hiking partners did. Evidently the temperature inside is noticeably cooler, and one particular cave was about 20 feet deep.

Any time of day can be an enjoyable experience at the badlands, but I can personally attest that the nice light in the early morning or late afternoon can enhance the trip immensely.

Cautionary Measures: For much of this hike, there is no shade to speak of and the sun exposure is intense. I was taken aback by the influence of such exposure during the shuttle. 2.3 miles downhill sounded like a cakewalk to me going in, but I was much more tired than I expected coming out. Part of that was the sun exposure, and part of that was the fact that hiking downhill is more strenuous than we normally think. Bring a hat, bring water, and don't underestimate the extreme climate of Death Valley. This is not necessarily a "hard" hike, but it is harder than it looks on paper, so don't underestimate it or you might find yourself in a dangerous situation. That said...enjoy!

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2010-05-02 hippiepunkpirate
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail
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    Man Plans God Laughs
    Man Plans, God Laughs

    Death Valley National Park is larger than Connecticut. Thus, a well thought out plan is required if you want to see a lot of the various offerings of the Valley without back tracking and driving even more miles. I’d tweaked my plan for several months to make maximum use of our week-long trip. And then it rained!

    Friday morning we set out under cloudy skies. The day’s objective was to see a few sites along the way and overnight in Kingman. Went up through Chino Valley and stopped off at the ruins of the Puntenney Lime Kiln dating back to the late 1800s. Lime is still mined near here, well more accurately limestone. We saw a big cloud of dust a few miles before reaching the kiln. Stopped to chat with some of the quarry workers to discover they had just blasted a section of the quarry wall, but all was now clear for us to explore the area. Preservation efforts have slowed the demise of this historic kiln and we enjoyed poking around for a few minutes.

    We drove onto Seligman for lunch and to begin our planned drive along old Route 66 into Kingman. Seligman is nothing if not a little odd. We’d planned on a burger at the Snow Cap, but it was closed for repairs. Westside Lilo’s proved a suitable alternative.

    Route 66 winds through the countryside and history far slower than its replacement, I-40, to the south. We stopped at a few of the historic roadside establishments that had pumped gas and comic book images of the west at motorized travelers a half century ago. All had signs and t-shirts adorned with poor attempts at humor and outside was the obligatory collection of ORS (old rusty stuff).

    We sped through Kingman and stayed on 66 out to Oatman, going up the very very winding shelf road that is Route 66. Oatman is famous for a couple of things. It was a semi-prosperous mining town back in the day. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night there in 1939. Today, Oatman is a resurrected ghost town and there are burros, descendants of those used by the prospectors, roaming the streets. You can feed the burros from sacks of burro pellets on sale for $1 at any of the fine tourist trap establishments lining main street.

    For me the most interesting part of the Oatman story is that the town is named for Olive Oatman, one of the three children who survived the 1851 Oatman Family massacre northwest of Gila Bend, AZ. Olive and her sister were taken captive by Yavapai (often mistakenly labeled Apaches in various accounts). Olive’s brother was thought dead by the raiders and tossed off the side of the mesa where the incident occurred. Olive and her sister were traded to the Mojave tribe. Olive was later ransomed by white settlers. Her sister had died of starvation along with many Mojave a few years earlier. The Mojave treated Olive well and tattooed her chin in their customary way. Olive became a minor celebrity in her time and some miners in search of a name for their new boom town settled on Oatman. Earlier this year I’d visited the Oatman Massacre site, so visiting the town of Oatman closed that loop for me.

    The nice lady at the hotel desk in Kingman recommended a restaurant named Oysters. It offered Mexican fare and seafood and “very large margaritas” according to the helpful clerk. We took her advice. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that combination? It was crowded, surprisingly good, but there wasn’t an oyster to be found on the property.

    Saturday found us stopping off at Chloride, yet another ghost town. Chloride was more authentic than Oatman, as in no t-shirt shops, only more ROS and interesting yard sculptures apparently crafted by the residents. Outside of town up a very rutted trail are some murals by artist Roy Purcell. They are nothing if not unique.

    We raced through Las Vegas and only stopped once we hit Beatty. We needed gas and wanted to provision up at Nevada’s largest candy store. We knew they’d have just the right snacks for Death Valley. The whole purpose behind breaking up drive to DV into 2 days was to have time to dramatically enter the Park via Titus Canyon, one of the more impressive 4x4 trails in the Park requiring several hours to complete. A quick call confirmed it was closed -- snow, mud, and a rockslide. I sensed my plan was in grave danger. We stopped off at the Rhyolite ghost town and Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, a very strange little place, under dark skies with a light but steady rain.

    Our entry into the Park was instead on pavement (how boring). The skies were lifting with only a slow drizzle. We were greeted with a view of a VERY wet valley floor, standing water evident in the normally dry lake beds. We stopped off at Salt Creek to see the rare pupfish. Sort of odd that our first event in DV required driving through deep standing water, wearing rain gear, and walking along a flowing stream. We drove to Stovepipe Wells for dinner, lodging, and some adjustments to the plan. The rain stopped overnight.

    Day 3 found us at the Ranger Station checking road closures. It doesn’t take much water to move a lot of mud in Death Valley. Two days of rain (snow in the higher elevations) made the list of open roads much shorter than the closed list. The people working to open the roads and the rangers apparently don’t communicate. The information was incomplete and sometimes misleading. But we slowly began to realize we were seeing something unique. Rain is rare in DV. We were getting to see the whole area change in front of us.

    The day was spent on mostly touristy sights -- the old Borax Works, Badwater (282’ below sea level and crowded), hiking Natural Bridge Canyon and the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch Loop. We did get to drive Mustard Canyon. It was fun sliding in the mud between the orange dunes. Driving back to Stovepipe Wells for the night we met a Ranger in a muddy truck coming out one of the closed roads. We stopped him and asked a few questions about destinations we hoped to still see. He’d just come from Ubehebe and the paved road to there was passable but muddy. We wanted to get to the Racetrack about 27 miles of dirt beyond Ubehebe. He said he had no idea about the road to the Racetrack. We told him we’d give him a report late tomorrow. He grinned and said good luck.

    We geared up early on Day 4 and raced past the Road Closed sign headed towards the northwestern portion of the park. The drive to the Ubehebe Crater was easy and we were the only vehicle on the road. Evidence of the somewhat cleared mudflows were numerous. We bypassed Ubehebe figuring we’d hit it on the way back. We stopped long enough to air down the tires. The dirt track to the Racetrack was wet and sloppy in a few places, total washboard everywhere else. Twenty mph was top speed and that was still jaw jarring. But the scenery was great. There was one set of tracks in front of us. Someone else was out here, so we felt confident. Stopped for the obligatory photos at Tea Kettle Junction. The storm had knocked a few kettles off the sign. MJ tied them back in place and emptied rainwater out of any that needed it.

    A few miles later we arrived at the Racetrack. A truck was parked on the trail. A Ranger was there to remind people not to walk or drive on the normally dry playa (lakebed). He was going to camp here for a few days to protect the playa since muddy footprints and tire tracks remain for years and years. The Ranger was the most interesting person we’d met so far in the Park. He loved the backcountry portions of the Park and was a fount of knowledge for us. While we didn’t get to walk out and see the trails of the moving rocks that makes the Racetrack such a unique site, the conversation with this guy was a decent substitute. The tracks were under a few inches of water on the south end of the playa anyway, guarded by a lone seagull standing in the muddy water. We sated ourselves by walking around the edges or the Playa and talking about next time.

    Being close, we continued on to the old abandoned Lippincott Mine. The drive up was rough and fun. The mine site offered great views back towards the Racetrack and west into Saline Valley. I noticed 4 vehicles below us slowly making their way through the pass on Lippincott Road. We bumped into them a little while later and had a nice conversation. Was a group of 4 young men doing a few days of offroading in the northwestern portion of the Park.

    After a bumpy ride back out, we stopped off at the Ubehebe Crater. MJ went to explore and take some photos while I aired the tires back up for pavement. The wind was so strong it knocked me over as I squatted beside a tire. We wanted to spend more time exploring around the volcanic crater, but the clock, wind and cold drove us back into the truck pretty fast. We moved our base camp to Furnace Creek that night, happy after a day more like our original plan.

    On Day 5, we slept in a bit after the very full previous day. After a decent breakfast and checking the status of roads (still closed), we opted to hike Mosaic Canyon. While not as pretty as Golden and the Badlands area, this hike was the most fun. There were numerous slick rock waterfalls to climb which quickly winnowed the crowd trailhead crowd down to the real hikers. One major fall required a bypass trail up and over. And eventually you hit an impressive fall that stops most mortals. We wished Kelly was with us knowing she’d try to find a way up. Sliding down the falls on the way back was just plain fun.

    With some day left, we decided to make a run for out to Panamint Springs just because. The winding road is fun to drive as it first climbs and then descends into the little “resort” of Panamint Springs. The road crosses a normally dry lakebed. Instead there was a few inches of muddy water on each side of the road with the wind forming muddy waves. The whole thing was rather surreal. The resort part of it wasn’t a place we would have wanted to stay and they had the highest gas prices we saw in a Park renowned for exorbitant gas prices. We’d thought of trying to hike to Darwin Falls, but we had dinner reservations at Furnace Creek Inn so we turned back. Stopped for gas in Stovepipe Wells, the cheapest in the Park at $2.96. As we wheeled up to the pumps, 4 guys jumped out of their trucks waving and grinning -- our 4 buddies from the previous day at Lippincott. They were fueling their bodies and vehicles before heading home. They’d tried to cross the Panamint Mountain Range near the Tea Kettle Junction after we had last seen them. Deep snow had forced a turn around. Their MaxTrax had saved them at least once. One vehicle had suffered some fender damage. They looked pretty beat up, but were in the afterglow of an epic trip in demanding conditions.

    Day 6 was our last full day in the Park and we hoped for some good news on the roads. Nothing had changed. The high country was totally socked in. Even the very benign Twenty Mule Team Road was still closed. We opted to hit the Zabriskie and Dante’s Overlooks, along Amargosa Range the east side of the Park. While at Zabriskie, we hiked the Badlands Loop, a very pretty little hike. Dante’s provided a stunning look down at Badwater (the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level) and then across to Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet, the highest point in Death Valley National Park. The two locations are less than 18 miles apart.

    We hiked around some at Dante’s and then chilled at the overlook just soaking in the amazing views. Our trip was coming to a close. It wasn’t the trip we planned, but that just left a reason to come back. Tomorrow would just be a race back home. But for now the sun was shining and the views were never ending. It rained again that night. Plans are overrated.
    Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail
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    Death Valley
    After watching the sunrise hit the Sierra in Lone Pine, I packed up and headed for Death Valley along CA 190 to see the flowers.

    I entered the park and headed for my first hike, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. After arriving at the trailhead and changing into my hiking clothes, I set my sights for the most prominent dune. There are no trails on the dunes, you just kind of wander around and go where you like, which was kind of fun. Hiking in sand was a little more strenuous than I imagined it would be. I had never hiked on dunes before, so this was a new experience and quite exciting. Following the ridgelines was fun and made for plenty of great photo opportunities. Running down the dunes is also fun, as its easy on the knees.

    Next I decided to take a ride along Badwater Road to hunt for wild flowers. North of Badwater, the flowers are isolated to light, but below Badwater they are isolated to substantial. There were a few pockets where the entire hillside was yellow, and noticeable from a good distance away. I got out of the truck along the road a few times and ventured out into the fields. Smelled great. Looked awesome. I noticed that there were still a lot of buds coming in that haven't flowered yet, I imagine in a week or two it should be peaked in the areas which are substantial right now.

    I made it just below Mormon Point before turning around and heading for Badwater Basin. The flowers seemed to have stopped after that point, but I spotted a few spots across the valley which were very, very yellow.

    Badwater Basin was ok. It is probably one of those "one and done" things. I walked out into the basin about a mile and snapped a few pictures before turning around.

    It was getting a little late at this point for another hike, so I headed to the Furnace Creek campground and set up camp for the night. I relaxed for a bit, ate some dinner, and then headed to bed. A few people in the campsite next to me insisted on having their headlights on the brightest setting, and constantly point them in the general direction of my camp, so for the first hour of trying to get some shut eye, there was a light show in my tent...

    The next morning I woke up pretty exhausted. I hadn't hike too many miles the day before, but the last 3 days of driving and minor sleep deprivation was starting to catch up with me. I packed up camp and headed for Golden Canyon.

    When I arrived at the Trailhead there was only one other vehicle, but by the time I got changed into my hiking clothes there were 3 more. I quickly moved into the canyon and was rewarded with complete solitude for the entire hike up until the last 1/4th mile when I finally saw 2 other people heading down from Zabriskie Point. The junctions in this canyon were slightly confusing in a few places. One spot had a laminated paper sign which pointed in one direction and said the Zabriskie Point TH was 0.5 miles away, and another wooden sign nearby which had an arrow pointed in the same direction but said it lead to the Golden Canyon TH (where I started) 2.0 miles away. What?!

    After taking a small break at Zabriskie Point with all the people who drove there instead of hiked, I headed back the way I came.

    The last hike I had planned was Mt. Perry. I was still feeling pretty exhausted, so I downed a rockstar to see if that would help and headed for Dante's View. Mt. Perry is accessed by continuing along the Dante's View Trail ~3.5 miles past where the Park Service says the trail ends (0.5 mile from the parking lot), and then following the ridge. Although Mt. Perry and the peak 0.5 mile from the parking lot are near the same elevation, the hike along the ridge isn't flat. The ridge drops a considerable amount of elevation before climbing back up to Perry. My research online says the AEG is in the neighborhood of 3000ft, so you're looking at something akin to a Humphrey summit.

    The trail is well defined for the first mile and a half before you have to follow cairns when it crosses a boulder field. I made it about half way to Perry before deciding to turn around. The last 3 days were catching up to me and I had a long drive back to Phoenix. It was definitely the right decision, as I struggled a little to make it back up to the parking lot. Before leaving, I meandered a little bit along the opposite side of the Dante's View trail.

    Overall I have somewhat mixed feelings about Death Valley. When it's good, it's really good, but a lot of it was kind of bland (sorry, Death Valley lovers). The lower elevations of the park seem more suited for those who like to explore canyons (not me), or people who just want to drive and see the park from behind a windshield. Then again, I may have just set too high expectations for Death Valley. I definitely want to come back, but it'll be either for Telescope, Wildrose, or maybe anther Mt Perry attempt.

    Substantial in some areas along Badwater Road. Isolated everywhere else.
    Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail
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    When we stopped here we thought the canyon was within a few hundred feet of the road so when we set off we took our cameras but no water. Only after we had gone a mile or so under a 112-degree sun did we realize our mistake. But seeing the tip of a colorful peak just in view I wanted to go 'just around the corner' to see the view, only to find another corner, and another, until finally Tracey said enough! and sat down in one of the few shady spots to wait for me to end my endless quest.

    So I set off at a jog to cover as much distance as I could so I wouldn't keep Tracey waiting too long. But with these seemingly endless corners it wasn't long and I'd gone another mile. But now closing in on the Red Cathedral I wasn't about to quit. Then I met a hiker who I had seen working his way back down from a steep but rounded hill and mentioned the view was great so it wasn't enough to jog a mile, now I'm climbing in the unrelenting sun... oh yeah, that's because it was around 1 pm in the afternoon.

    Well I climbed the hill to the top, too some photos then had the job of climbing back down... always seems to be much easier climbing up steep spots than climbing down. Probably has something to do with the sticking knee. Once back down I walked was about to head back toward Tracey when she strolls up. I told her I wanted to see what was on the sign a few hundred feet away and we could turn back. When we got there it said Red Cathedral was only .25 mile away so we continued just that much farther.

    Ok, it's brutally hot (according to Tracey anyway) and we've already been out here 45 minutes with no water so it was well past time to return, and 25 minutes later we made it back to the car. Tracey didn't have quite the beet red look as almost everyone else we met or passed (surprisingly at least 30 people) but she wasn't about to stay in the heat any longer. As for me, all my hot weather hikes this summer must have paid off because it seemed just like another hike to me.

    And if I had know it earlier, I would have had Tracey drop me off at the Golden Canyon trail head and drive around to Zabriske Point and pick me up there. It would have been a shorter hike and I would have caught all the sights. Oh well, we had many miles left to go so it was time to hit the road again.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    Paved - Car Okay

    To hike
    From Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, drive south on highway 190. Turn right at the junction with Badwater Road. The turn-off for the trailhead will be signed on the left hand side.
    page created by hippiepunkpirate on May 02 2010 9:51 am
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