Badwater Basin (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America and a main draw for visitors to California’s Death Valley National Park. Situated 18 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, visitors can walk out across the salt flats and, near the start, observe the hyper-saline, spring-fed pools that gave the area its name: “bad water,” as in, even the horses of the original pioneers who explored and settled this area would not drink it. The salt crystals at the basin grow quickly, forming a thin crust over a basin of mud; after recent rains, the vast salt pan fills partly with water, forming an intermittent lake that is dry for much of the year. Visitors can walk the half-mile out to the edge of the salt flats, then explore the flat and sunny valley. The actual low-point is difficult to pin down, as it varies depending on season and the changing topography of the muddy expanse.

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Spring-fed pool at Badwater

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Lowest point in North America!

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Walking out to the salt flats

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Salt deposits at Badwater Basin

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Traversing the salt flats

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Seasonal lake at Badwater Basin

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Sidewinder Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Sidewinder Canyon Slot #3, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

It has been a long time since Live and Let Hike has featured a true slot canyon. Nearly five years, in fact. Fortunately, the drought is over: a January trip brought us to California’s Death Valley National Park, which boasts several such slots—narrow sluices in the rock that form dark passages, sinuous bends, and hidden natural bridges begging to be explored. Unlike the slot canyons of Utah, which were carved in the colorful sandstone, the slots of Death Valley slice through clunky conglomerate with highly speckled and protruding walls. The three main slots at Sidewinder Canyon, situated south of Furnace Creek in the Black Mountains, are among the park’s best and can be explored as part of a half-day’s hike. Come prepared with good boots, headlamps, and perhaps even some gloves: the Sidewinder slots are far from obstacle-free and require some (albeit relatively mild—and far from technical) climbing skills to negotiate.

Sidewinder Canyon hike information Death Valley slot trail

Sidewinder Canyon trail hike Death Valley map

Map of Sidewinder Canyon and slots, Death Valley National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There is little fanfare at the trailhead for the hike to Sidewinder Canyon. Roughly 33 miles south of Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center—and 14.5 miles south of Badwater Basin—there is a small sign pointing toward the Sidewinder parking area on the left. (Note: If driving south from Furnace Creek and you hit the “Mormon Point” sign, you have gone too far.) A short, unpaved track leads to a broad parking lot situated amid large mounds of gravel.

Choosing the right trail from here can be confusing. In fact, a second hike also begins from the same area—a longer but slot-less walk through Willow Canyon, the next major drainage to the north. To reach Sidewinder, look instead to the south, where a greyish berm appears to lead into a larger canyon, which cuts suddenly eastward. (See picture below) From the end of the parking area, a well-worn hiker’s path leads up a rocky alluvial fan toward the canyon.

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Entrance to Sidewinder Canyon to the south of parking area

The first 1/3 mile requires an uphill slog to the canyon’s mouth, with broad views of Death Valley and the Black Mountains, with the Panamint Range across the low desert to the west. Once in the canyon, the trail disappears as it settles into the wash—simply follow the drainage up-canyon to the southeast.

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Sidewinder Canyon with Black Mountains beyond

Over the course of a half-mile, the canyon’s low walls of gray and brown conglomerate gradually grow taller and more inviting. A teaser slot appears on the left at 6/10 mile, followed by a second on the right about 250 yards later, but these are merely appetizers for the main slots. At 9/10 mile, a major side canyon enters from the right. This is your cue to turn: the first of the three Sidewinder slots is ahead on the left. (Note: This side canyon too splits; stay left and make your way toward what appears to be a massive boulder jam: this is the entrance to the first slot.)

The first Sidewinder slot

The first slot canyon of the hike is the shortest of the three but also the darkest. Headlamps will be needed if you proceed to its end. The most difficult obstacle comes right at the beginning: a 3- to 4-foot climb at the start will require hikers to set aside their packs and use a bit of upper-body strength to mount a rock jam and crawl through a small window under the entry boulder choke (Note: It should be doable for most hikers, however.). After this rite of initiation, the canyon opens up, revealing high and curving narrows.

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Toward the entrance to slot #1 (through the boulder choke ahead)

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Entering dark section of the slot

Make your way through this pleasant section, then flip on your flashlight as the slot thins and enters a dark, mysterious cut in the stony walls. After a brief, sunnier interlude, the path plunges into the darkness again; the route ends abruptly in a cavern-like chamber: the drainage technically continues onward but requires a difficult, Class 3-4 climb. Turn around here and make your way back to the slot entrance.

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Inside the first slot

The second Sidewinder slot

Once back in the sunlight, follow the side canyon back to the main Sidewinder drainage and bear right, continuing up-canyon for about 1/10 mile. Look to your right, where one can spot the relatively obvious entrance to the second slot.

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Second Sidewinder slot

The second Sidewinder slot is arguably the prettiest of the three and by far the longest. It begins with an easy stroll through a dark and narrow passage, buttressed by towering and leaning walls on either side. The rock faces are dotted with thousands of rocks inside rocks—cemented into a conglomerate over the course of millennia. Like most canyons in Death Valley, the Sidewinder slots were a product of rainwater, which—though rare—produces occasional flash floods that erode weaknesses in the stone.

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Second Sidewinder Canyon slot

Obstacles are aplenty in this slot, although they start relatively easy. An initial five-foot ascent clears a small chockstone near the beginning, followed by two four-footers with nice handholds. Just beyond, the walls lower and the canyon suddenly opens up, revealing a garden of spires and hoodoos on the right, a secret paradise of rock.

The canyon continues onward, narrowing again and leading to a 7-doot dryfall that, while difficult to ascend head-on, is relatively easily bypassed via an upslope with nice handholds on the right. The narrows beyond are splendid and largely crowd-free; with the right angle, the sun reveals streaks of orange and red up above, with deeper blues and purples in the lower reaches.

About 1/3 mile from the start, hikers reach an unexpected feature: a natural bridge, where water has cut through a weakness in the rock to form a 20-foot-high archway. Beyond the bridge lie the canyon’s three hardest obstacles: three 6- to 8-foot dryfalls that are relatively easily negotiated by experienced canyoneers but may be intimidating for first-timers. Most hikers turn around at this point.

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In the slot

 

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Hoodoo garden above the second slot

The hearty and persistent, however, are rewarded with more excellent narrows before the canyon opens up again and splits, revealing a second hoodoo garden. Eventually the drainage rises high enough such that Death Valley is visible again through a cleft to the north. After a seemingly endless series of bends and turns, it is potentially possible to climb all the way to the top of the ridgeline, with more expansive views of the surrounding area. Reaching this point requires at least 30-45 minutes of climbing from the slot’s start.

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Views of Death Valley and the Black Mountains from above the second slot

Heading back down can be as tricky as climbing up the slot, so allot a similar amount of time for returning to the slot entrance.

The third Sidewinder slot

The day is not yet done, as one more slot awaits, this one situated a quarter-mile walk up Sidewinder Canyon via beautiful, reddish narrows. Look for the third slot on the right; like the second, it is easy to spot.

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Walking up main Sidewinder Canyon as the wash narrows

The third Sidewinder slot is a close match to the second for beauty. Almost immediately, hikers are greeted with two natural bridges. The slot then opens up a bit into a section with high narrows, followed by the first obstacle of the hike: a low underpass that requires getting on hands and knees to clear.

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Narrows in slot #3

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Natural bridge in slot #3

After emerging out of the dark crawl space, hikers must negotiate a tricky notch, after which the canyon drops suddenly down a gravelly slope. Ahead is a massive chockstone, at least 30- to 40-feet high, that guards the entrance to another narrow and beautiful passage. Within this slot is a smooth and difficult boulder about seven feet high that is probably passable…but was yours truly’s turn-around point.

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Natural bridge near the start of slot #3

Retrace your steps back up over the notch, through the crawl space, and out of the slot canyon. There is more of Sidewinder ahead, off to the right—but most head back to the trailhead from here. (Note: Ambitious hikers can continue up-canyon to visit some additional, smaller slots before the main drainage ends at an impassable dryfall.) Allot around 4-5 hours to visit the three main slots and return to the trailhead.

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Returning down Sidewinder Canyon toward Death Valley

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Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop, and Gower Gulch Trail Loop, including Red Cathedral & Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Badlands Loop Trail, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

The Golden Canyon Trail is one of the most popular hikes in California’s Death Valley National Park—and with good reason: its dazzling colors, sun-soaked badlands, and valley views entice hikers of all stripes to the park’s Furnace Creek area. Yet far fewer visitors combine Golden Canyon with the adjacent Badlands Loop and Gower Gulch Trails, stringing together an excellent, moderately-difficult circuit. Adding in side trips to the fluted cliffs of Red Cathedral and the popular viewpoint at Zabriskie Point, the 7.6-mile stem-and-loop trek described below is one of Death Valley’s showstoppers, a must-see for any hiker’s first-time visit to the park. (Note: There are several shorter variants of this hike, such as the Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch Trail Loop, described here.)

Golden Canyon Badlands Loop Gower Gulch Trail Loop hike information Death Valley

Golden Canyon Badlands Loop Gower Gulch Trail Loop hike map Death Valley

Map of Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop, and Gower Gulch Trail Loop, Death Valley National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

For purposes of this description, the Golden Canyon, Badlands, and Gower Gulch Trail Loop begins and ends at the Golden Canyon Trailhead, situated at the base of the Black Mountains 3.5 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in the heart of Death Valley National Park. (Note: However, it is also possible to complete the same loop starting at Zabriskie Point, situated just off California 190, five miles southeast of Furnace Creek.) From Golden Canyon Trailhead, the route follows the Golden Canyon Trail east, briefly detours to Red Cathedral, then climbs steadily to meet the Badlands Loop and Zabriskie Point before descending the Badlands Loop again and tracing the Gower Gulch Trail back to the trailhead.

Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral (1.5 miles)

The Golden Canyon Trailhead, a paved parking area just off Badwater Road, is situated at the confluence of the narrow wash with the broad and vast Death Valley, producing a small alluvial fan that is typical of the region. Begin by following the largely level Golden Canyon Trail as it follows the snaking wash through a deep cut in the Black Mountains. The canyon narrows immediately, exposing a section of the 5,000-foot thick Furnace Creek Formation, the dominant rock layer in this region. The fine narrows here are reminiscent of those elsewhere in the park, such as Fall Canyon and Natural Bridge Canyon.

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Narrows in Golden Canyon

At about 150 yards, mount a minor obstacle, then continue east as the canyon opens up, revealing saffron-colored crags on the left and a multihued uplift on the right. Tracing the wash bed, views of Death Valley and the Panamint Range to the west begin to dissipate but are replaced with the first look at the ruddy, iron-oxidized cliffs to the east. But the predominant feature as hikers bear farther up the trail is the chalky yellow badlands that produce an alien-like landscape, one of the most iconic scenes in Death Valley National Park.

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Uplifted ridge along Golden Canyon

A multitude of side canyons on the left entice hikers to take a brief detour: one particularly striking wash at around the ½-mile mark leads through the mudstone badlands to a cliffside with golden- and champagne-colored hues.

Further up the trail, the canyon forks at 7/10 mile; stay right in the broader wash. Minutes later, the walls narrow again, revealing uplifted and tilted layers, the product of millennia of tectonic activity. At the one-mile mark, the Golden Canyon Trail leaves the wash and bears right at a signed junction. To complete the one-mile round-trip detour to Red Cathedral, however, stay left in the wash, continuing amid the badlands for a half-mile.

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Heading toward Red Cathedral

At 1.25 miles, the canyon splits again; stay left on the broader path, after which the route begins to do its first real climbing. At 1.4 miles, stay right, then enter a short and narrow slot where the walls narrow significantly. A few minor obstacles require some careful maneuvering, but most hikers will be able to negotiate the thin passage to Red Cathedral. At one point, hikers pass the remains of an old rusty ladder.

Finally, at 1.5 miles, the canyon opens up to reveal an amphitheater of fire-colored rock towering hundreds of feet high: this is Red Cathedral and the end of the half-mile spur.

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Red Cathedral

Red Cathedral to Zabriskie Point (2.5 miles)

After taking in the views in this scenic corner of Golden Canyon, head back the way you came, weaving through the narrow notch then back to the Red Cathedral Junction, where the Golden Canyon Trail continues left, climbing up into the chalky badlands. To this point, the main trail has made relatively limited elevation gain (about 200 feet), but the ensuing section makes up for lost time, climbing a grueling 300 feet in less than a quarter-mile.

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Climbing toward Manly Beacon

Ascending the lumpy badlands, hikers get their first look at the imposing face of Manly Beacon, an iconic touchstone of many Death Valley photographs. The tower is named for William Lewis Manly, a prominent 19th-century pioneer and gold prospector who passed through the region in 1849 as part of the expedition that gave Death Valley its name. (Note: Lake Manly, the prehistoric body of water that once covered this area, is also named for the same man.)

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Excellent views of the badlands and Death Valley from the Golden Canyon Trail

As hikers approach Manly Beacon, some of the hike’s best views unfold to the west, overlooking Golden Canyon and an amalgam of colorful badlands, with Death Valley and the Panamint Range reemerging in the distance. These terrific vistas help ease the difficulty of the steep ascent.

At 2.3 miles, with Manly Beacon towering above, the incline eases and the Golden Canyon Trail crests a ridgeline, revealing the first views of the next drainage to the south: Gower Gulch and its various corollaries. After a brief descent, the trail climbs again, then clears another low ridge before gradually dropping into another alien-like landscape of wispy badlands.

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Descending toward Gower Gulch drainage

At 2.75 miles, bear left at Badlands Junction, continuing eastward on the Badlands Loop Trail. (Note: Those pursuing the shorter version of the Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch Trail Loop can continue straight to shave off around three miles of the hike.) After the fork, the path climbs again, affording excellent views of Manly Beacon to the northwest. This is one of the most spectacular sections of the hike.

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Manly Beacon and the badlands from the Badlands Loop Trail

Ahead to the east, hikers also get their first views of Zabriskie Point, the popular roadside viewpoint that is the next destination on the hike. After snaking around barren drainages (there is virtually no vegetation in the badlands), the trail descends into the wide Gower Gulch drainage. Take a hard left at the Zabriskie Point Junction, following the side wash to continue to Zabriskie Point.

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Zabriskie Point and Gower Gulch from the Badlands Loop Trail

In the next half-mile, the trail gradually climbs out of the wash and follows the trace of an old mining road up to the busy parking area for Zabriskie Point. From here it is a short, paved climb to the viewpoint.

Zabriskie Point, aside from sporting beautiful views (particularly at sunset), has a storied and eclectic history. Several movies were shot here, including a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and the namesake Zabriskie Point (1970), and the view from here features prominently on the cover of U2’s time-tested album The Joshua Tree. Famed French philosopher Michel Foucault also once claimed that his 1975 acid trip at Zabriskie Point was the best experience of his life. Today, alas, you are far more likely to see gads of ordinary tourists than philosophers and rock stars.

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Iconic view of Manly Beacon and Death Valley from Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon Trailhead via Gower Gulch (3.6 miles)

Having covered more than half of the trek and all of the absolute elevation gain, it’s time to make your way back down toward Golden Canyon Trailhead. From Zabriskie Point, retrace your steps to the parking area, then bear left on the connecter trail and follow it for ½ mile back to Zabriskie Point Junction. Instead of climbing the path leading up into the badlands, stay left and enter the broad dry wash of Gower Gulch. Here the Badlands Loop Trail continues downstream for 8/10 mile to the next junction.

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Hiking down Gower Gulch on the Badlands Loop Trail

This section is undoubtedly the dullest portion of the hike, but it is straightforward, downhill, and features the gradual return of hearty vegetation that begins to pop up along the flanks of Gower Gulch. At 5.25 miles, a large side drainage enters from the left. Stay straight, continuing to Gower Gulch Junction at 5.4 miles.

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Gower Gulch Trail

Stay straight again at the fork, following the Gower Gulch Trail, as the gulch passes a clumpy chocolate-colored peak on the right. At around six miles, the route becomes considerably more scenic as the badlands fade and are replaced by high, multicolored walls. At a sharp left-hand bend, one can spot a man-carved window in the cliffs on the right: this is an adit, an entrance to an old borax mine that is horizontally carved.

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In the slot along Gower Gulch Trail

Just beyond, Gower Gulch narrows significantly, and hikers are greeted with a fun descent through a spiraling slot, one of the highlights of the trek. After another flat section, the wash drops abruptly at a 25-foot dryfall, emptying out into Death Valley, a dramatic end to Gower Gulch. Here the trail leaves the wash and skirts the cliffside on the left, revealing broad valley views again. From here the Gower Gulch Trail bends northward and hugs the western flank of the Black Mountains for nearly a mile. Ups and downs through side drainages and over low ridges finally lead back to the Golden Canyon Trailhead, culminating a 7.6-mile stem-and-loop hike.

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Approaching the pouroff, with Death Valley and the Panamint Range beyond

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Rounding the corner at the end of Gower Gulch

Hikers walking at an average pace should allot between 4-6 hours for this hike, including the two spurs to Red Cathedral and Zabriskie Point. Hiking early or late in the day will help avoid crowds, although hiking in the early morning will mute some of the colors as the sun remains behind the Black Mountains.

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Final approach heading back toward the trailhead

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Artist’s Drive (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Artist’s Drive, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

Artist’s Drive is a popular, 9-mile one-way scenic road in the heart of California’s Death Valley National Park that weaves through craggy badlands and skirts colorful hillsides in the shadow of the Black Mountains. The drive bears east from Badwater Road, roughly 10 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, in Death Valley. Climbing up out of the salt flats, the drive offers views of the western flank of the Black Mountains (most illuminated in the evening) and the Panamint Range across the valley. Gray and brown hues give way to more diverse colors at Artist’s Palette, a beautiful landscape of greens, oranges, and purples caused by the oxidation of iron, manganese, and mica. Beyond Artist’s Palette, the drive descends through narrow canyons in the Artist’s Drive Formation, finally leaving the yellow badlands at the end of the 9-mile journey, returning to Badwater Road.

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Toward the start of Artist’s Drive, looking down at Death Valley and the Panamint Range

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Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Artist’s Drive

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Artist’s Drive

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Approaching Artist’s Palette

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Artist’s Palette

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Artist’s Drive through the badlands

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Natural Bridge (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Natural Bridge, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

California’s Death Valley National Park sports many natural archways, but there is none more prominent than the natural bridge in Natural Bridge Canyon, which slices through the Black Mountains south of Furnace Creek and Artists’ Drive. The natural bridge is easily accessible by way of a short trail, with roughly 80 feet in elevation gain. Here a series of flash floods over the centuries has carved a gaping hole in the canyon, one of the largest natural bridges in the region.

Natural Bridge Death Valley hike information

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Map of the Natural Bridge Trail, Death Valley National Park

The hike

The trailhead for Natural Bridge is situated roughly 16 miles south of Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park and six miles south of the entry for Artists’ Drive, just off Badwater Road. The rocky but 2WD accessible Natural Bridge Road provides visitors access to the trail’s start. There is ample parking here, as well as several interpretive panels on the hike and local geology.

The short hike to the natural bridge begins by skirting a left-hand bend, climbing surprisingly steeply—like seemingly every other side drainage in Death Valley—into the mouth of Natural Bridge Canyon. Here the region’s periodic rains have carved a relatively shallow channel into the mostly reddish Furnace Creek Formation, composed of cemented gravel, silty mud, and ash from the Black Mountains volcanic field. This conglomerate rock layer is extremely thick, at least 5,000 feet deep, and not particularly graceful—a sharp contrast from the smooth and picturesque sandstone found in much of southern Utah.

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Natural Bridge Canyon

The canyon is nonetheless enjoyable, with the walls gradually constricting as a social trail climbs a sandy bench on the right (before prompting dropping back into the wash). Follow the dry stream bed for about ¼ mile to reach the natural bridge, an impressive sight with an aperture at least 30-40 feet high. Unlike arches, natural bridges are formed by waterways, this one sculpted by flood waters that cut through a weakness in the thick rock.

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Approaching the natural bridge

It is possible to continue for another ¼ mile beyond the natural bridge, where passage ends at a dryfall, but most visitors will turn around at the bridge, descending back to the parking area with terrific views across Death Valley and Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.

Allot about a half-hour for this easy and brief out-and-back journey.

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Death Valley from near the Natural Bridge parking area

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Fall Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

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Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

Carving a dramatic gorge hundreds of feet deep in the Grapevine Mountains, Fall Canyon is a relatively popular destination in California’s Death Valley National Park. The hike through the lower reaches of the canyon is moderately difficult but climbs relentlessly, a common trait of canyons in the area, tilting upward from the vast expanse of Death Valley. Along the way, hikers are rewarded with views of snaking narrows and highly-streaked walls, ending at a dryfall at 3.2 miles. A sketchy bypass on the south side of the canyon provides onward passage beyond the pour-off, but most visitors turn around here.

Fall Canyon Death Valley hike information

Fall Canyon Death Valley map

Map of Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The hike to Fall Canyon begins at the end of the two-way section of the Titus Canyon Drive, a rough but 2WD-accessible road situated off the Scotty’s Castle Road in Death Valley National Park. (Note: The trailhead is located roughly 35 miles northwest of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.) The Titus Canyon Drive itself climbs 800 feet in elevation from the base of Death Valley or, alternatively, travelers can visit Fall Canyon after driving the length of the one-way section of the road, which winds through Titus Canyon and begins outside the park near Beatty, Nevada.

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Starting out on the route to Fall Canyon

The route to Fall Canyon begins next to the restrooms at the parking area, skirting the western flank of a crumbly hillside. The first section of the hike traverses an alluvial fan, formed by the accumulation of deposits from the nearby canyons and mountainsides, sloping ever-steadily down into Death Valley. At 1/3 mile, the single-track trail enters a wash, then follows the left fork before climbing up to a high platform with unobstructed views of Death Valley and the Cottonwood Mountains beyond.

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Looking back at Death Valley, Tucki Mountain, and the Cottonwood Mountains

Nearly ½ mile from the trailhead, the route descends sharply into another dry creek bed, then follows the arroyo up again to a rocky ridgeline. From here, one can see down into a third, much larger wash: this is the drainage for Fall Canyon, reached by way of a steep descent at about the 7/10-mile mark.

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Entering the drainage for Fall Canyon

Once in the broad gulch, head east as the drainage cuts into the Grapevine Mountains. This is the start of Fall Canyon. As the walls begin to take form, hikers start to notice streaks, ridges, and mosaic patterns in the stony breccia, part of the broader, Cambrian-era Bonanza King Formation, one of the thickest rock layers in Death Valley National Park. At the one-mile mark, the canyon narrows for the first time to a width of roughly 40 feet across. Following a right-hand bend and broader left turn, the canyon further constricts at 1.25 miles, forming orange- and gray-tinted narrows. Vegetation in the area is sparse, largely confined to hearty sagebrush.

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First narrows of Fall Canyon

 

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Spectacular walls of Fall Canyon

As the canyon opens up again at around 1.5 miles, the vertical cliffs rise more than 500 feet in either side. The next set of narrows at 1.8 miles are as little as 15 feet wide, and the undulating walls, partly stained with iron oxides, make for some of the best scenery on the hike.

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Dark narrows in Fall Canyon

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Iron-bleached walls of Fall Canyon

The gorge opens to the sunshine again at the two-mile mark, and a large side canyon comes in from the left (it quickly ends at an impassable dryfall). Ahead is a stony monolith, more than 100 feet high, marking the onward passage up-canyon. Soon enough, the walls constrict again, and a left-hand turn reveals an unusual feature on the south-facing rock wall that resembles a swirl of fudge in a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Not to be outdone, a larger and grander version of the swirling rock is visible around the corner, with distinct, dark ridges leading upward into the mountains. The walls here are now more than 800 feet tall, with the mountaintops continuing even higher. By now there is also more vegetation in the canyon, with the usually dry basin and cliffs supporting occasional creosote bush or even cactus.

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Around mid way up Fall Canyon

After a straightaway in the sun, the canyon yields right at 2.7 miles, cutting through low narrows that constrict to around eight feet. Ahead the canyon is varied and ledge-like, with distinct streaks on the protruding walls. In the final stretch, a smooth layer of gray dolomite rock begins to blanket the sides of the canyon, indicating another narrowing of the route.

At last, the hike ends (for most) at the appearance of an 18-foot dryfall at 3.2 miles. It is possible to continue onwards by backtracking about 50-75 yards and taking a potentially marked bypass on the south side of the canyon. The route is sketchy, however, with serious exposure. (Note: A bummer, since evidently some of the canyon’s best narrows are just beyond.) All but the bravest will head back down canyon from this point, returning the way you came.

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Dryfall at the end of the hike

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Around the sketchy bypass

The return is significantly easier than the initial journey to the dryfall. While lacking any particularly steep drops (except for the dryfall), Fall Canyon is positioned on a steady incline, with inward hikers gaining more than 1,300 feet over the course of 3.2 miles. On the return route, this gain becomes 1,300 feet in elevation loss, helping to provide additional momentum, like having wind at your back.

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Returning down Fall Canyon

All told, a journey up Fall Canyon to the dryfall and back covers 6.4 miles and should take 3-4 hours.

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Teutonia Peak Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

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Teutonia Peak Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020

Mojave National Preserve is a wild playground of desert peaks, sand dunes, Joshua tree forests, rocky jumbles, and dry lakebeds situated in southern California, near the Nevada and Arizona borders. Considerably less crowded than nearby Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave boasts a seemingly endless set of hiking opportunities, as well as a relatively liberal roadside camping policy. For starters, try the 3.2-mile round-trip Teutonia Peak Trail in the northern reaches of the park, roughly 12 miles south of Interstate 15. Here the views themselves are spectacular, but the real attraction is the peak’s location astride the world’s densest concentration of Joshua trees.

Teutonia Peak Trail Mojave hike information

Teutonia Peak Trail Mojave hike map

Map of Teutonia Peak Trail, Mojave National Preserve; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Teutonia Peak Trail in Mojave National Preserve takes off from the west side of Cima Road, 12 miles south of Interstate 15 (Exit 272). The turnoff is situated just north of the White Cross World War I Memorial and Sunset Rock, an excellent roadside camping area that, due to its relatively high elevation, is chilly in winter. (Note: No one in their right mind should visit Mojave in the heat of the summer, where temperatures regularly top 100-110 degrees.)

Immediately from the trailhead, which has several parking spaces and an introductory sign, one is immersed in a sea of Joshua trees. These desert wonders are actually not even trees at all; rather, they are a particularly large species of yucca that is found largely at elevations between 2,000 and 6,000 feet.

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Joshua trees with Teutonia Peak beyond

As you walk along the relatively level trail toward Teutonia Peak, you will notice that the Joshua trees are not alone. The desert landscape also features bunch grass, Mojave yucca, several varieties of sagebrush, a particularly interesting flavor of cactus called the buckhorn cholla, and occasional patches of juniper and pinyon pines, the last of which become increasingly ubiquitous at higher elevations.

The broad Teutonia Peak Trail follows a sandy trace for the first mile, climbing only a single rock step at 4/10 mile before passing between two bulging rock outcrops. Stay straight as the path crosses a dirt road at ½ mile. Inching closer to the base of the mountain, the route remains rather level for the next half-mile before leaving the road trace at the one-mile mark. (Note: It is possible to bear left at the road junction here to reach the old Teutonia Silver Mine, where one can peer down the (fenced-off) mine shafts.)

Beyond the one-mile mark, the trail finally begins to climb in haste, leaving behind the Joshua tree forest. Amid a dense grove of junipers, the trail bounds up a series of switchbacks. At 1.25 miles, the Teutonia Peak Trail crests a high ridgeline, offering views of the rocky wonderland beyond.

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Northside views from the climb up Teutonia Peak

From here the trail bears left, continuing up the slope toward Teutonia Peak. At 1.4 miles, the path crests a higher ridgeline, and hikers get their first look at Cima Dome (5,745’) to the west, a gently-sloping mound that is reportedly the most symmetrical natural dome of its kind.

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Cima Dome – a dramatic incline in which photos do not do it justice

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Approaching the summit of Teutonia Peak

Rounding to the backside of Teutonia Peak, the trail climbs a steeper, rockier incline before ending at a high notch with eastward views back toward the trailhead, with Kessler Peak (6,163’) beyond. The actual summit lies farther to the south: while it is possible to continue beyond the end of the trail, looping around the peak’s various rock jumbles, reaching the actual peak requires at least a Class 3-4 climb. Not recommended without rock climbing experience.

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Northward view of Clark Mountain Range and Shadow Valley

Besides terrific views of Kessler Peak, Teutonia Peak also provides a vantage point for seeing the desolate New York Mountains to the east, as well as the continuation of the Ivanpah Mountains and Clark Mountain Range to the north. To the west, beyond Cima Dome and Shadow Valley, is the relatively low Cinder Cone Lava Beds area, with the Soda Mountains in the distance.

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View northeast to the Mescal Range and Ivanpah Mountains

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Kessler Peak from Teutonia summit

Once ready, return the way you came, enjoying again the dense forest of Joshua trees. Allot about 2-3 hours for this 3.2-mile round-trip hike. Gaining 650 feet in elevation over a short period, this hike is best described as moderately difficult.

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Marvelous Joshua trees along the Teutonia Peak Trail

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Bald Mountain Loop (Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, CA)

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Bald Mountain Trail, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, December 2019

Towering above California’s wine country, Bald Mountain (2,729’) is the highest point in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and one of the tallest peaks in the Mayacamas Mountains, a subset of the Coast Range in the North Bay. While the main draw of Sugarloaf Ridge is the nearby 25-foot seasonal waterfall, hearty hikers can trek to the summit of Bald Mountain for panoramic views stretching as far as the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge to the south and Sierra Nevada to the east, with endless ranges and valleys in between. The following describes a 6.6-mile stem-and-loop that ascends the Bald Mountain Trail and descends the Gray Pine and Meadow Trails, making for a strenuous, 3- to 5-hour jaunt.

Bald Mountain Trail loop Sugarloaf Ridge State Park hike information

Bald Mountain Trail loop Sugarloaf Ridge map

Map of Bald Mountain Loop, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Start this hike from the main recreation area in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, a roughly 4-mile drive east of Kenwood, California in Sonoma Valley. While the shortest loop technically starts from the Robert Ferguson Observatory at the end of Adobe Canyon Road, most hikers seeking to conquer Bald Mountain will begin at the parking area just east of the Sugarloaf Ridge Visitor Center, on the north side of the road. Across the drive to the south is the Sugarloaf Ridge Campground, across the banks of Sonoma Creek. There is an interpretive sign and map, as well as pit toilets, at the trailhead.

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Start of the Bald Mountain Trail

Bald Mountain Trail to Bald Mountain summit (2.7 miles)

Begin by following the sign for the Bald Mountain Trail. (Note: The Stern Trail, which also leaves from here and provides quicker access to Bald Mountain, is less scenic and follows a wide road, making the path described below more enjoyable.) As the gravel-packed trail climbs mildly to an initial junction, the hulking mass of Red Mountain (2,548’), with Bald Mountain beyond, dominates the landscape to the north. At the first fork, encountered within a minute of hiking, stay right, edging through an oak-pine woodland. After a set of switchbacks, the well-trodden path spits out into a grassy meadow.

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Toyon plants along the Bald Mountain Trail

At 3/10 mile, stay left at the second junction, continuing on the Lower Bald Mountain Trail. Remain left again at a subsequent fork, then climb back into the woods around ½ mile. Live oaks predominate for a brief period, but the trail soon reenters the sun, cutting through a section flush with low, scrubby, and berry-toting toyon bushes. By 9/10 mile, when the trail intersects with the paved but hikers-only Bald Mountain Road, hikers have gained roughly 400 feet in elevation.

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Ascending toward Red Mountain and Bald Mountain

Bear right on the road, following as it continues to climb, providing sweeping views to the south and east, including Adobe Canyon, Sugarloaf Ridge (2,265’), Little Bald Mountain (2,275’), and the Brushy Peaks (2,243’). Just beyond the park boundary to the east, in the shadow of Mount Saint John (2,375’), is a small vineyard and a quicksilver mine.

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Eastward view of the Sugarloaf Ridge area

For the next mile, the road ascends steadily as it rounds a series of bends and minor ravines, largely in full sun. Stay left on the main road at the junctions with the Vista Trail and Red Mountain Trail at 1.1 miles and 1.9 miles, respectively. After passing the second junction, the vegetation becomes denser and taller, with toyons and other shrubs replaced with California’s characteristic oak and bay woodlands. Here the trail actually sheds elevation in a brief descent before climbing again to a windy saddle between Red Mountain to the south and Bald Mountain to the north. Approaching a fork in the road at 2.25 miles, views open up to the west, toward Santa Rosa and Mount Hood (2,730’), which is actually a foot taller than Bald Mountain.

Bear left at the junction, then ascend the gravel track as it makes the final approach to the summit. Passing a picnic table on the right, the Bald Mountain Trail wraps around the south-facing hillside to the west. At 2.66 miles, there is another fork, this time with the High Ridge Trail. Stay right, then right again at another junction—with the Gray Pine Trail—at 2.7 miles. From here it is a short climb to the summit of Bald Mountain.

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View north to Mount Saint Helena from the Bald Mountain summit

On a clear day, the views from Bald Mountain are some of the best in the Bay Area: one can see north across Napa Valley to some higher peaks in the Coast Range, including Mount Saint Helena (4,341’) and Saint John Mountain (6,783’). To the east, on the horizon, one can make out the curvature of Pyramid Peak (9,983’), situated all the way across the Central Valley in the Sierra Nevada. Southward, past Red Mountain, hikers can spot Mount Diablo (3,849’) and the San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean beyond. To the southwest are Point Reyes, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol—with Mount Hood obstructing the vista due west.

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Southeasterly view from the summit

Gray Pine Trail and Meadow Trail to Bald Mountain Trailhead (2.9 miles)

From the summit, the quickest way back down is to return the way you came. But to make a loop of it, instead backtrack for 50 yards and turn right on the Gray Pine Trail, which bears east from the summit. This wide track bounds up and down a ridge with several minor hills, generally shedding elevation. At 3.5 miles, stay left at the junction with the Red Mountain Trail, then climb—along the Napa-Sonoma County Line—to another fork where a dirt track enters from the left. Stay right, approaching a third junction at 3.8 miles. Bear right here again, staying on the Gray Pine Trail as it traverses a narrow and precipitous ridgeline heading south.

After flirting with a string of power lines, the Gray Pine Trail descends steadily and steeply into Adobe Canyon and the Sonoma Creek drainage. At 4.9 miles, cross a tributary of Sonoma Creek, which flows through a man-made pipe. By 5.1 miles, you are firmly in the valley, and the trail levels before traversing Sonoma Creek. Just beyond, stay left at the junction with the Vista Trail.

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Crossing Sonoma Creek

At 5.25 miles, the trail crosses the main stream again, this time in the shade of a moss-covered bay tree. In the clearing beyond, bear right on the Meadow Trail, which immediately traverses a wide bridge over Sonoma Creek. Keeping the creek on your left, the Meadow Trail weaves through a patchwork of woods and open fields, opening up into a broad meadow at 5.75 miles. The Adobe Canyon Road and Robert Ferguson Observatory are ahead. Stay right at the junction with the Hillside Trail, then cross the parking lot for the observatory. A sign for the Lower Bald Mountain Trail marks the continuation of the hike.

After climbing briefly, hikers return to familiar terrain: the initial hillside encountered at the start of the loop. Stay left at two subsequent junctions, then follow the Lower Bald Mountain Trail down a set of switchbacks, through a grouping of live oaks, and back to the parking area.

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Returning to the trailhead

This strenuous hike covers 1,500 feet in elevation gain and takes about 3-5 hours to complete.

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Fremont Peak Trail (Fremont Peak State Park, CA)

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Fremont Peak Trail, Fremont Peak State Park, October 2019

Fremont Peak, one of the highest in the Gabilan Range south of the Bay Area, takes its name from the 19th century explorer, military officer, senator, and presidential candidate John C. Fremont, whose survey expedition passed through the area in 1846. Facing objections from the Mexican authorities who controlled the area at the time, then-Captain Fremont ascended the peak, constructed a makeshift fort, and raised the United States flag on the summit, preparing for potential battle. As Fremont reconsidered his position and a windstorm blew down the flag, Fremont ultimately retreated – but the scrubby peak was later named in his honor.

Today, Fremont Peak State Park preserves 159 acres surrounding the summit and is accessible by way of an 11-mile, intensely winding road that heads south from the old mission town of San Juan Bautista. The short Fremont Peak Trail wraps around the mountain before ascending to the summit, which features stunning panoramic views of the Gabilan Range, Diablo Range, Salinas Valley, and—on clear days—Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The viewpoint is particularly stunning at sunset, as the photos below demonstrate…

Fremont Peak Trail hike information

Fremont Peak Trail map

Map of Fremont Peak Trail, Fremont Peak State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Often overlooked in favor of nearby Pinnacles National Park, California’s Fremont Peak State Park covers a small but scenic landscape with a diversity of landscapes and plant communities. The centerpiece, of course, is the 3,169-foot Fremont Peak. The narrow but paved road accounts for all but 300 feet of the elevation gain, making the climb to the top of Fremont Peak a relatively easy and brief endeavor.

Begin the hike from the parking area at the end of San Juan Canyon Road, past the turnoffs for the Valley View and Oak Point Campgrounds. (Note: On the park map, look for the parking area next to the “Historic Building” and “Fremont Historical Plaque.”) From the parking area, look for the start of the Fremont Peak Trail heading west, a short turnoff from the San Juan Grade Road, which serves as the access drive to a pair of radio towers. (Note: There is, however, a memorial plaque and monument less than a minute’s walk up the drive that are worthy of checking out.)

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Fremont Peak Trail rounds a bend to the south side of the mountain

Leaving the parking area behind, the Fremont Peak Trail wraps around the northern flank of the mountain, with relatively dense woodlands blanketing the hillside below. After a mostly flat and straightforward preamble, the trail becomes rockier and steeper as it climbs to clear a high saddle between Fremont Peak on the left and the lower mounts of aptly-named Rocky Ridge on the right. At ¼ mile, the well-manicured trail descends briefly to the south side of Fremont Peak, affording views down into Gabilan Creek Valley. After traversing a short bridge, a dark—but ultimately brief—rock crevice on the left invites exploration.

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Grassy southern slope of Fremont Peak

Unlike the northern slope, the south side is largely free of greenery, defined instead by wiry grasses and minor rock outcrops. As the Fremont Peak Trail bears eastward, the summit comes into view on the left, and the path climbs steadily, through a pair of switchbacks, to a trail junction at ½ mile.

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Switchback on the Fremont Peak Trail

Here a service road heads right, downhill, toward the broadcasting towers (outside the park boundary and off-limits to hikers), while the trail continuation bears left. There are multiple options to reach the summit, but the easiest is arguably a relatively well-defined path that ascends a set of stairs to the right before fading away into the rock jumble. Some minor scrambling is required for the final climb to the windy summit.

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Final approach to the summit

Atop the summit is a plaque dedicated to John C. Fremont, as well as a flagpole. From the top, one can see north across the park campgrounds to the San Juan Bautista area and Santa Clara Valley. To the east, the view is partly obscured by the radio towers, but the Gabilan Range unfolds with the San Andreas Rift Zone beyond. The Gabilan Range also continues to the south, toward Pinnacles. It is the westward views that are the most rewarding, especially on a clear day, when one can see Monterey Bay and the Monterey Peninsula, with the Santa Lucia Range and Big Sur area beyond.

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Views westward toward Monterey Bay from the summit of Fremont Peak

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View north over the campground area and parking lot

Once ready, return the way you came, carefully descending the craggy jumble of rocks that forms the summit. Follow the Fremont Peak Trail back to the parking area for a 1.2-mile round-trip jaunt that should last around 1-1.5 hours.

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Chalone Peak Trail (Pinnacles National Park, CA)

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Chalone Peak Trail, Pinnacles National Park, August 2019

Rising to 3,304 feet, Chalone Peak is the highest point in California’s Pinnacles National Park and a worthy challenge for peak-baggers who seek to brave the exposed sun and 2,000 feet in elevation gain to reach the summit. The Chalone Peak Trail juts off from the end of Bear Gulch Cave in the eastern section of Pinnacles and climbs through a section of the park’s namesake spires and knobs before ascending a scrubby ridgeline to the windy highpoint. In terms of distance and elevation gain, this is probably the most difficult maintained hike in the park.

Chalone Peak Trail Pinnacles hike information

Chalone Peak Trail Pinnacles hike map

Map of Chalone Peak Trail, Pinnacles National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

To reach the trail’s start, drive west along Pinnacles Highway from the Pinnacles Visitor Center in the eastern section of the park, continuing for 3.3 miles to the end of the road. Park at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, which has a restroom and picnic tables. Tucked away in a shady canyon, Bear Gulch is a popular starting point for the short jaunt through Bear Gulch Cave, one of the area’s finest examples of a boulder-choked talus cave. (Note: For a full description of this shorter hike, see my post from January 13, 2020. To reach the trailhead, continue past the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which serves as the starting point for the excellent Condor Gulch-High Peaks Trail LoopParking is somewhat limited at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area; if there are no spots, backtrack to the Nature Center and park there, then follow an easy, wide path through a picnic area for ¼ mile to reach the trailhead.)

The approach to Chalone Peak begins by climbing the Moses Spring Trail from the parking area, traversing a shady oak woodland and entering a narrow gorge rimmed by rhyolitic breccia. Stay left at the first trail junction, then follow the path through a short, man-made tunnel. Take the left fork again at the next junction, turning onto the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. From here it is a short walk to the entrance of Lower Bear Gulch Cave, about 4/10 mile from the trailhead. (Note: Bring a flashlight for the cave, and check at the Visitor Center to ensure that the caves are accessible. Upper Bear Gulch Cave is generally open for only a short window in late March and late October and thus excluded from this description. The lower cave is usually open year-round except between mid-May and mid-July. If both caves are closed, use the Moses Springs Trail to bypass the cave to the west.)

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Entrance to Lower Bear Gulch Cave

Lower Bear Gulch Cave is dark and spooky, with vaunted ceilings formed by massive chockstones adorned with green lichen. After crossing the often-dry Bear Creek drainage, the trail climbs a long, winding staircase to bypass a series of dryfalls. After about 1/10 mile, the footpath leads through a narrow cut and reemerges into the sunlight above the cave. (Note: A spur near the end of the dark passage leads to Upper Bear Gulch Cave on the right but is closed most of the year.)

At the top of the cave, bear left at the subsequent trail junction, staying on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. From here the path ascends a scrubby hillside, then follows the boulder-choked canyon to a second, shorter cave at 6/10 mile. The chockstones in this dark passage, wedged between the canyon walls, are enormous and nearly touch the floor, requiring hikers to duck their heads as they pass.

Emerging out of the cave, hikers ascend a narrow staircase to reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a man-made lake that is nonetheless scintillating in its calmness amid a setting of towering stones. This is a popular lunch spot and turn-around point for day hikers.

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Bear Creek Reservoir

Having cleared the cave section, bear left at the reservoir at the start of the Chalone Peak Trail, which hugs the lake’s eastern shoreline. Pass a spur to “The Sisters” climbing area on the left, staying on the main track as it bears southward. Around ¾ mile from the trailhead, the trail cuts left and leaves the reservoir behind, beginning a steady ascent through a side canyon in an area known as the Little Pinnacles. As you gain height, look back to the north for distant views of the High Peaks, the towering heart of Pinnacles National Park.

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Distant views of the High Peaks of Pinnacles from the Chalone Peak Trail

Although not particularly steep, the ever-climbing trail gains 200 feet in elevation before cresting a ridgeline at 1.25 miles. One can now see down Frog Canyon to the east, flanked by the imposing Mount Defiance (2,657’) beyond. While not as ubiquitous as in the High Peaks, the rhyolitic pinnacles on the right are impressive in their own right. Even better, the crowds are likely to be minimal, leaving one virtually alone in the rock-strewn wilderness.

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High stones of the Little Pinnacles

Beyond the ridgeline, the Chalone Peak Trail ascends again, hugging the western slopes of Frog Canyon. After a set of switchbacks, hikers encounter sporadic manzanitas, sporting lime green leaves and deep red bark. Overtaking another ridgeline at about the two-mile mark, hikers get their first views of Chalone Peak in the distance. The plant life here is all scrubby chaparral, with the predominant shrub being the ubiquitous chamise.

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View east of Mount Defiance, with the Chalone Creek Valley beyond

From the saddle at the top of Frog Canyon, the trail continues right, beginning a long and arduous climb up the northern rib of the Chalone Peak behemoth. The north-facing hillside offers tremendous views of the Pinnacles region, including Bear Gulch and the High Peaks. At 2.5 miles, a rock outcrop provides perhaps the best viewpoint of the entire hike (because the Pinnacles are more distant from the summit of Chalone Peak).

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Excellent views of the High Peaks in Pinnacles National Park from the Chalone Peak Trail

As the trail bends south, take in westward views over Salinas Valley to the Santa Lucia Range beyond. Down in this valley is the town of Soledad, the gateway to the western reaches of Pinnacles National Park.

A little over three miles into the hike, the trail reaches a cattle fence, with a wooden stile providing onward passage. Follow the fence on the left as the trail continues to climb. At 3.2 miles, the Chalone Peak Trail merges with a wide gravel road. Continue left, following the broad track as it approaches the peak to the south. By now you have gained more than 1,500 feet in elevation.

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Chalone Peak tower visible ahead

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Approaching Chalone Peak from the north

After a brief descent to a high saddle, the ascent picks up again, following the west-facing flank of North Chalone Peak. This is the steepest part of the hike and often in the sun. At 3.7 miles, pass through a metal gate, passing the easy-to-miss spur to South Chalone Peak (2,269’) on the right. (Note: Technically this hike describes a climb to North Chalone Peak, the highest of the two. But it is possible to continue from here on an unmaintained path to South Chalone Peak.) Just beyond, the road passes under a string of power lines.

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View south to South Chalone Peak

Finally, at 3.8 miles, the path rounds a left-hand bend, and the abandoned tower atop Chalone Peak appears ahead. Follow the road as it winds around to the top, just under four miles from the trailhead.

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Summit of North Chalone Peak, highest point in Pinnacles National Park

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View west across Salinas Valley to the Santa Lucia Range

While the tower itself is closed to visitors, circling the summit provides panoramic views of the region. To the north, one can peer over the Pinnacles region, with the Gabilan Range continuing beyond. The Coast Range sprawls eastward toward the Central Valley, with Mount Defiance in the foreground to the northeast.

The southward view is dominated by South Chalone Peak, a summit accessible to hikers by way of an additional 1.6-mile one-way track. To the west, one can see across Salinas Valley to Soledad and the Santa Lucia Range, with the Pacific Ocean obscured behind the high mountains. In short, North Chalone Peak, the third-highest mountain in the Gabilan Range, is one of the best viewpoints in the region.

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Distant view of the High Peaks from Chalone Peak

The drawback, of course, is the looming reality of a 4-mile hike back the way you came to return to the trailhead. Yet the downhill slope is considerably more pleasant than the earlier ascent, and shifting light offers different perspectives of the pinnacles, peaks, and canyons along the way. Once back at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, there are a few options to return to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area: the first is to return down Bear Gulch Cave, the second is to follow the cave trail part way down and then turn on the Moses Spring Trail, and the third is to follow the scenic Rim Trail along the western slopes before descending the High Peaks Trail back to the start.

If taking the shortest route (through the caves), the entire round-trip hike clocks in at about 7.8 miles, a half-to-full day of hiking for many. Allot at least four hours for the out-and-back; all but the heartiest hikers will probably need at least five or six.

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