Falls Trail Loop (Mount Diablo State Park, CA)

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Falls Trail, Mount Diablo State Park, January 2020

The East Bay, for all of its wonderful hiking, is not known for its waterfalls. Flowing streams, let alone tumbling cascades, are scarce amid the largely scrubby, chaparral hills that separate San Francisco Bay from California’s vast Central Valley. After springtime rains, however, there a handful of seasonal streams that come alive. One of the best-known spots is the lush, shady landscape of northeastern Mount Diablo State Park, where a moderately-difficult loop hike leads to a series of modest but beautiful waterfalls. Of course, the waterfalls largely disappear by summer, but the towering cliffs and diversity of plant life in Donner Canyon may be enough to entertain hikers year-around.

Mount Diablo Falls Trail Loop hike information

Falls Trail Loop Mount Diablo trail map

Map of Falls Trail Loop, Mount Diablo State Park, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There are a few options for starting this 5.5-mile loop hike, although the choices may be narrowing as the city of Clayton begins to place restrictions on parking in the area. The ideal place to start is at the end of Rialto Drive, a residential street in Clayton that abuts the edge of Mount Diablo State Park (see directions here). But the neighbors are onto this, and non-resident parking is now barred on weekends. If it’s Monday through Friday, you’re in the clear (at least as of January 2020), but weekend hikers should look elsewhere—nearby access along Regency Drive (which is also rumored to have restrictions) or, further west, at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area ($6 park entry fee required). Note: Starting at Mitchell Canyon adds at least two miles round-trip to the loop described below. The Regency Drive Trailhead adds around ½ mile.

Assuming one starts at the Rialto Drive staging area, hikers should pass through the entry gate to enter Mount Diablo State Park, the East Bay’s largest. With the namesake peak visible ahead, the route splits just steps beyond the start. While possible to go either way, the route as described heads right, following the Falls Loop in a counterclockwise direction.

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Heading into Mount Diablo State Park

The westward route quickly climbs out of the grassy ravine and crests a low ridge before reaching a second fork within 250 yards. Stay left here, continuing as the old road drops into Donner Canyon, laced with the East Bay’s ubiquitous oak-bay woodlands. After crossing Donner Creek, the path weaves around a pair of bends, climbing to Donner Canyon Road, about 1/3 mile from the trailhead. (Note: Here the entry path from Regency Drive and Mitchell Canyon comes in from the right.) Bear left at the fork, following the dusty Donner Canyon Road for the next 1 ¼ miles.

As you proceed, the diversity of plant life increases, with lovely manzanita and toyon beginning to appear amid the oak-bay mix. Ahead, one can the high mountain tops of (from left to right) Mount Olympia (2,946’), North Peak (3,557’), Mount Diablo (3,849’), and Eagle Peak (2,369’), the titans of this scenic stretch of the Diablo Range.

Following the creek on the left, the fire road ascends gradually, passing a string of junctions at about the one-mile mark. First, a spur trail heads left to Donner Cabin, then the Donner Cabin Trail bears off to the right up ahead. Finally, stay straight on the fire road as the Hetherington Loop Trail bears left toward the creek bed. Just beyond, Donner Canyon Road begins to ascend more rapidly, the first heavy-breather of the hike. The track rises well above the creek, providing wider vistas up and down the canyon.

At 1.3 miles, pass the junction with the Tick Wood Trail on the right, then come to a junction with the Hetherington Loop Trail again on the left. Stay straight on the double-track; finally, at 1.6 miles, deviate from the main route by heading right (uphill) on Meridian Ridge Road. The westward turn is only temporary, as hikers should head south again on the Middle Trail, which begins 100 yards up the road on the left.

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Middle Trail, with Wild Oat Canyon ahead

Now, for the first time, the path turns to single-track, a pleasant, narrow, and winding trail that weaves through dense patches of toyon, chamise, manzanita, oak, and bay. The Middle Trail provides access to Wild Oat Canyon, the heart of the falls area.

Climbing uphill through the thicket, the Middle Trail reaches a fork at 2.2 miles. Bear left on the Falls Trail, the highlight of the hike. In the shadow of Mount Diablo, this scenic track skirts the eastern flank of the canyon, then switchbacks down to the first of several stream crossings, 2.3 miles from the start. The cascades here are modest, but better waterfalls are ahead.

After crossing the first stream, the Falls Trail crests a hill topped by a gnarly juniper, then traverses a second creek. Beyond, the single-track climbs steeply to an excellent viewpoint in which one can see down-canyon to Clayton, with the Concord Hills and Suisun Bay beyond.

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Views across Donner Canyon to the town of Clayton and North Bay

Rounding the next scrubby slope, the first “real” waterfall comes into view, firing off a mossy cliff and plunging into Donner Canyon below. The water flow here rarely becomes a torrent, but the sight of flowing waters is welcome nonetheless. The Falls Trail descends steeply to cross the stream above the flume, then proceeds to climb again on the other side.

After this third stream, the trail approaches a rock outcrop with a nice view back at a 15-foot falls. Then the rocky path descends again to cross a fourth creek, this one sporting a trailside cascade that is relatively modest; the stream below, however, drops more precipitously, a sight only realized after the trail pulls away from the creek on the other side.

 

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Waterfall along the Falls Trail

After crossing a fifth and final stream, the route hugs a scrubby hillside and descends a set of switchbacks, offering views back at the highest and most impressive of the falls, a multi-tiered chute. The waterfalls are not easy to access, however, leading most visitors only to admire from afar.

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Waterfall in Wild Oat Canyon

By now the trail is situated high up on the scarred western slope of Wild Oat Canyon. The brownish Franciscan chert forms high, impressive walls, and the grade drops sharply—roughly 300 feet—off to the left. This is the end of the falls section; hikers are now heading back north toward the trailhead, although by way of a different route than the approach.

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Heading down the Falls Trail back toward Donner Canyon

At 3.4 miles, the Falls Trail ends, merging with the wide Cardinet Oaks Road, another double-track fire road. Bear right (uphill), then turn left at the next fork on the Wasserman Trail. This scenic path meanders through very dense thickets of toyon and manzanita. Stay left at an unofficial junction at the park boundary at 3.6 miles, then descend a mild slope, partway down into Donner Canyon.

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Wasserman Trail

At 4.1 miles, the trail emerges into a pretty clearing and bounds down to another junction; bear right on the Donner Trail. Amid grassy, oak-studded slopes, this path heads northwest for 250 yards. Bear right on the Bruce Lee Spring Trail, which climbs again to clear a low ridge, then skirts a long ravine before ending at Clayton Oaks Road, now 4.6 miles around the loop.

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Looking back toward the Falls Area from Donner Trail

Follow the fire road left as it passes two junctions (stay left) and gradually descends a beautiful ridge dotted with oaks. Eventually the strip mine of Mount Zion (1,635’) becomes visible ahead. At last, after a steady descent with open views, Clayton Oaks Road returns to the familiar starting point: the initial trailhead at Rialto Drive.

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Descending Clayton Oaks Road

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Final stretch

The entire loop clocks in at about 5.5 miles and, despite some occasionally steep ascents, is a moderately-strenuous circuit. Allot roughly 3-4 hours for the hike, or more if you plan to explore some of the many interlocking trails along the way.

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Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, CA

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Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, January 2020

Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California is a small National Park Service site dedicated to the life and memory of the most famous leader of the California farm workers movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Nestled in a picturesque valley in the southern Sierra Nevada, the national monument features several exhibits on the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), as well as beautiful gardens and the gravesite of Chavez and his wife. Cesar Chavez is a relatively new park, designated by President Obama in 2012, but includes a series of interlocking paths around the property, with nice views of the surrounding, rock-hewn hills. The park is easily accessible off Highway 58 (the route over Tehachapi pass), an easy stopover for visitors heading from central California to Death Valley, Las Vegas, and beyond.

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Exhibits at the Visitor Center

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Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Garden

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Five fountains dedicated to the five activists who were killed in UFW protests

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Gravesite for Chavez and his wife

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Villa La Paz from atop a hillside in the middle of the park

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Sonoran garden, intended to reflect the flora of southern Arizona, where Chavez grew up

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Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

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Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020

The Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail in California’s Mojave National Preserve is a boon for those looking to identify some desert plants: the short jaunt, which connects the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center to the nearby campground, includes more than a dozen identifiers. Who knew there were so many variants on desert sagebrush? The highlights are the large Mojave yucca and two species of cholla (buckhorn and pencil).

Hole in the Wall Nature Trail Mojave hike information

The hike

Most come to the Hole-in-the-Wall area to camp or hike the nearby Rings Loop Trail. Overnighters and day visitors, however, can also stretch their legs—and test their knowledge of the local flora—on the Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail.

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Nature Trail to the campground

Starting at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center, cross the road and follow the path heading toward the campground through the sandy desert. Immediately the identifiers appear: squawbush, Mojave yucca, blue yucca, blackbrush. The many varieties of shrubby plants are eye-opening for those—like me, previously—who are quick to dismiss all desert scrub as “sagebrush.” As hikers pass the various plants, the sandy path ever so modestly climbs, featuring expansive views across the sun-soaked flats: the Woods Mountains to the east; Barber Peak to the northwest.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail, with lots of yuccas

At 2/10 miles, the trail forks. A longer path leads westward to the Rings Loop Trailhead. The hike described here continues right for less than a hundred yards before ending at the Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. Return the way you came for a roughly 20-30 minute out-and-back hike.

Extra credit

After this short introduction, try the harder but still short Rings Loop Trail, which winds through bizarrely beautiful Banshee Canyon.

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Rings Loop Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

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Rings Loop Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020

The Rings Loop Trail at Mojave National Preserve’s Hole-in-the-Wall area meanders through Banshee Canyon, a wild, narrow notch named by early settlers for its howling desert winds. Though only 1.4 miles, this brief circuit packs a punch, passing through desert scrub to a set of ancient petroglyphs before ascending a pair of ring ladders, bolted into the rock, to exit Banshee Canyon. Dotted with hundreds of tafoni, the weathered canyon walls are a spectacular sight, making this hike one of the best in the area. (Note: It does take a bit of physical strength to ascend the ring loops; those not up for it can turn back at the first ladder, making this an out-and-back.)

Rings Loop Trail Mojave Hole in the Wall information hike

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Map of Rings Loop Trail, Mojave National Preserve

The hike

The Hole-in-the-Wall area is situated in the heart of southern California’s Mojave National Preserve and, sporting a visitor center and campground, is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Park at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center, a modest building in the shadow of a high butte, roughly 20 miles north of the Needles Freeway (I-40). (Note: Hole-in-the-Wall is around 40 miles from Kelso Dunes, the other major destination in Mojave.)

Begin by walking east to the end of the parking lot, where the Rings Loop Trail takes off into the desert. (Note: One can also start at the official Rings Loop Trailhead farther up the road, but its best to start at the Info Center, leaving the best part (Banshee Canyon) for last.) With a steep proclivity on your right, the wide path quickly drops into a sandy wash. After 150 yards, the path leaves the wash on the right and cuts through a break in a barbed wire fence. Across the flat desert to the east is Woods Mountain, a hulking mass that rises to more than 5,000 feet, while the stairstep mountain to the northwest is Barber Peak, which climbs still higher to 5,505 feet.

As the trail hugs the scrubby hillside on the right, it curves southward, and then west, to reveal another wide basin, the mouth of Wild Horse Canyon. The Wild Horse Canyon Road provides access to a handful of private residences in this remote and desolate environment.

 

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Petroglyphs along the Rings Loop Trail

At about 1/3 mile, an interpretive wayside invites hikers to pause and scour the jumble of chestnut-colored boulders on the right for ancient petroglyphs. The rock art is not necessarily easy to find: it took yours truly at least 10 minutes to spot the tiny bighorn sheep etched on an outward-facing stone that is highlighted in the wayside’s photo. There are also scrawlings that resemble snakes in a couple of places, but overall the petroglyphs are not particularly special.

Moving on, the trail continues westward, highlighted by buckhorn cholla, an attractive species of cacti that sticks out amid the otherwise scrubby brush. Ahead is the orange-hued thumb of Horse Mesa, which towers over the desert floor.

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Buckhorn cholla, with Wild Horse Canyon beyond

At 2/3 mile, the trail cuts through another fence then briefly follows a sandy wash. At 8/10 mile, leave the dry bed and trace the narrow path as it comes to the base of a honeycombed wall. Just beyond, the Barber Peak Trail bears off to the left; stay right on the Rings Loop Trail, entering Banshee Canyon.

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Monolith near the junction with the Barber Peak Trail

The landscape ahead is terrifically weird: weathered openings in the rock (called tafoni) give the canyon walls an appearance of swiss cheese, while the uneven heights of the rock transform the walls into ghost-like figures. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild as the trail edges deeper into the canyon.

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Entering Banshee Canyon

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Banshee Canyon

After the fork, the route climbs a chalky white surface and then approaches a fork in the canyon: the wash to the right ends at an impassable pouroff, while the trail continues left. Traverse a boulder jumble as the walls tighten, reaching the first of the two ring climbs at just over the one-mile mark.

A half dozen rings, bolted into the right wall, assist with the ascent through the crevice: hikers may not need to use all of the iron rings, but the last three are particularly helpful to get up and over the smooth dryfall.

From here, the route rounds a corner and then leads to the second set of rings: this time there are only four, but they are likely to be essential for most climbers.

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Second set of rings

After ascending, follow the narrow, winding wash as it emerges back into the sunlight. A final climb leads to a shelf with a nice view back at the short but scenic canyon. Steps later, the trail ends at the Rings Loop parking area. (Note: There is also a short spur trail that leads to an overlook of another part of the canyon off to the right.) Interpretive signs at the trailhead provide a brief geological and human history of the area.

Having exited at a different point, a ¼ mile walk along the paved road is required to return to the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center. All in all, the hike clocks in at 1.4 miles, which can be done in under an hour.

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After exiting Banshee Canyon

Extra credit

Extend your time at the Hole-in-the-Rock area by trying one of the area’s three other hikes, including the short Nature Trail, which leads to the campground.

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Kelso Dunes Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

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Kelso Dunes Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020

Mojave National Preserve in southern California boasts a wide array of desert ecosystems, from pinyon-juniper woodlands, to Joshua tree forests, to cactus-yucca scrub, but there is perhaps none more iconic than the massive desert dunes scattered across the 1.6-million acre park. The primary show-stopper is Kelso Dunes, the largest dune field in the Mojave Desert and a relatively popular destination in an otherwise remote preserve. A trip at sunset reveals stunning colors on the wispy dunes, and hearty hikers can climb more than 500 feet in elevation to summit the highest of the bunch, offering panoramic views of the quiet desert and surrounding mountains.

Kelso Dunes Trail Mojave hike information

Kelso Dunes Trail map Mojave

Map of Kelso Dunes Trail, Mojave National Preserve, created using alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Kelso Dunes is located in a broad desert basin in the southwest portion of Mojave National Preserve, roughly a 100-mile drive from either Barstow, California or Las Vegas, Nevada. While still remote, Kelso Dunes is a major draw of visitors to the park, and the Kelso Dunes Trailhead is located just 12 miles southwest of the Kelso Depot Visitor Center. From the visitor center, drive south on Kelbaker Road for eight miles, then bear right on the unpaved Kelso Dunes Road (passable to 2WD but often heavily washboarded) and follow it for roughly three miles to the trailhead. There is a pit toilet and several parking spots at the trailhead. (Note: The road continues on from here, providing access to some decent dispersed camping spots.)

The destination—the highest of the dunes, at 3,113 feet above sea level—is easily seen from the Kelso Dunes Trailhead. Although the trailhead serves as a common entry point, there is no official “trail” to the top. After an initial sandy track, the route quickly goes haywire amid a series of crisscrossing potential paths. There is, however, a recommended route—which minimizes time spent on steep inclines—described below.

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Kelso Dunes from near the trailhead

The route begins on a well-worn, sandy track through a sea of creosote bush, seemingly the predominant plant at this altitude in the park. (Note: At about 2,600 feet, it’s generally too low for Joshua trees.) After a few minutes, the creosote and sagebrush give way to clumps of bunchgrass, seemingly the only living plant in the thick dunes.

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Looking southeast toward the Providence Mountains and Granite Pass

At about ¼ mile, the “choose your own adventure” begins as footprints diverge in several directions. It is generally easier to stay to the right, below the escarpment that emerges on the left. The various paths, however, effectively converge as they head toward a high saddle to the right of the highest dune visible ahead. The initially level landscape begins to gain texture and height as the hike proceeds. At about 8/10 mile, the “main” route crests a hillside, then another, and continues to stairstep up the dunes ahead of the saddle approach.

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Approaching the high dunes

At about 1.2 miles, the now steadily-climbing route splits into two ridges; take either approach, skirting a series of interlocking bowls that form a set of figure-eights. (Note: In general, stay high on the ridges to avoid steep descents and ascents out of the bowls; if you’re still descending to clear sandy basins at this point, you’re doing it wrong.)

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Sun sets on Kelso Dunes

At 1.3 miles, there is no avoiding the monstrously steep ascent to the saddle, which is best taken by switchbacking to the best degree possible in order to avoid a crushing incline. It is at this point that first-time dune hikers will be yearning for flat land—ascending aeolian sand is considerably more difficult than “normal” terrain.

Finally, at about 1.5 miles, the route crests the saddle, revealing views of the broader dune field to the north. Views at sunset can be simply spectacular, as the evening light flashes color on an otherwise greyish-white landscape.

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Granite Mountains from Kelso Dunes

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Kelso Dunes and views to the west

Heading left from the saddle, the ensuing route first ascend a false summit, then it’s a final, short but steep push to the actual summit of the highest dune, the capstone of the hike. While hopes of spending an extended period of time at the top are likely to be dashed by frequent winds, the views from atop the peak are simply stunning.

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Kelso Dunes and Providence Mountains beyond

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Kelso Dunes summit view

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Northwesterly views across Kelso Dunes and Devil’s Playground

To the north, the dunes of Devil’s Playground extend off into the distance, with the Kelso Mountains and Soda Mountains beyond. To the east, the desert basin comes to an abrupt end as the Providence Mountains rise to nearly 7,000 feet. To the south are the craggy Granite Mountains and Old Dad Mountains. The dunes themselves were a product of these mountain boundaries, which blocked passage of the prevailing winds that carried the sands that now make up Kelso Dunes all the way from the Mojave River, dozens of miles to the west.

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Sun setting on Kelso Dunes and Granite Mountains

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Kelso Dunes after sunset

Finally, to the west, the setting sun. That way to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, bustling metropolises that feel like a world away.

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Descending Kelso Dunes

Once you’ve had enough—or the winds force you to descend—make your way back the way you came, or, for the adventurous, try traversing the steep-sloping ridge that bears southwest from the summit. Below your feet, the sounds of shifting sands create small “booming” sounds, the effect of the hot surface crashing over the colder sands below. This way is definitely a steeper descent than the original route—and some route-finding is required—but is generally good fun as hikers skate down the shifting sands. Be sure to eventually edge leftward, however, as the trailhead lies slightly to the east.

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Dusk at Kelso Dunes

It’s possible to spend at least a half-day on the dunes, but allot at least 2-3 hours for the round-trip hike to the summit and back. If doing a sunset hike, bring a headlamp or, with a full moon or starlight sky, let your night-vision kick in to experience the beautiful desert after the sun sets. Consider pairing the hike with a visit to the nearby Teutonia Peak Trail or various hikes in the Hole-in-the-Wall area.

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Final shot of Kelso Dunes

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White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ)

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White Rock Canyon Trail, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, January 2020

Nestled in the depths of a slot canyon downriver from Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, Arizona Hot Spring boasts sizzling temperatures of 85-120 degrees year-round. On weekends in winter and spring, residents of the Las Vegas area flock in droves to the spot, with their bathing suits and Tevas in hand, in order to soak in the spring’s three small but pleasant pools. Yet the hike to the spring is arguably even better than the destination, gradually descending impressive White Rock Canyon to the banks of the Colorado River before winding around to the hot springs and ascending Hot Spring Canyon back to the start for a roughly 5.75-mile stem-and-loop hike. (Note: Do not attempt this hike in summer, when temperatures in the Mojave Desert easily top 100 degrees. After all, would want to soak in a hot spring under those conditions?)

White Rock Canyon Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Lake Mead NRA loop hike description

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Map of White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The hike

While the bulk of the attractions in Lake Mead National Recreation Area lie on the Nevada side, a short drive from Las Vegas, the White Rock Canyon-Arizona Hot Spring hike is situated just across the border in neighboring Arizona (hence the name of the hot spring). The trailhead can be somewhat tricky to spot: heading southeast on Highway 93 from Boulder City, Nevada, cross the Colorado River into Arizona, then continue for 3.5 miles to a left-hand pull-off that leads to a modest parking lot in the desert scrub. (Note: Being near a major road and metropolis, there tends to be decent cell and data service here, though not in the canyons.) It is wise to arrive as early as possible in the morning for several reasons: hikers can avoid the heat, burgeoning crowds, and parking shortages that worsen as the day progresses.

Trailhead to Colorado River via White Rock Canyon Trail (2.75 miles)

A cluster of hikes are reached from this well-trafficked trailhead—including the Hot Spring Canyon Trail, White Rock Canyon Trail, and Liberty Bell Arch Trail—although all three begin with the same half-mile stretch of dusty wash. After reading and studying the maps and other information at the trailhead kiosk, head down the wide gravel track, which cuts through full sun before proceeding through an underpass of Highway 93. Just beyond, hikers are greeted with a fleet of entry signs, including a warning about a peculiar but deadly form of amoeba—naegleria fowleri—present in the hot springs. (Note: When you’re at the hot spring, be sure to avoid dipping your head under water, as the killer amoeba tends to enter the body through the nose.)

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Entry signs at the start of the hike

Beyond the signs, the route follows a dusty and largely uninteresting wash for a quarter-mile, although the view of rolling hillsides and towering escarpments teases the maze of canyons and palette of colors ahead. The Lake Mead area is situated at the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert, where the Colorado River has carved deep gorges into the rock, the oldest of which dates to around 1.7 billion years old. While Lake Mead, of course, is a manmade construction, the Colorado River south of the reservoir flows semi-naturally through Black Canyon for several miles before again entering another unnatural feature—Lake Mohave—downstream.

For now, the wash remains relatively open, dotted with only small shrubs, such as burrobush, sage, and Mormon tea. The generally taller creosote bush, a staple of the Mojave Desert, is also ubiquitous in this region. As the wash narrows, the vegetation becomes sparser, replaced by mud banks that grow higher and higher.

At ½ mile, hikers are faced with the first true junction of the hike—an unsigned but well-defined path to left leads up toward Hot Spring Canyon, the shortest and most frequented approach to Arizona Hot Spring. Instead of an out-and-back to the hot spring, however, consider staying right on the White Rock Canyon Trail, which loops around to the hot spring from the north, forming a nice, 4.75-mile circuit. Just beyond, about 100 yards further, a second spur heads left—this too leads to Hot Spring Canyon—but hikers taking the White Rock Canyon route should stay right again.

Just beyond this junction, the wash begins to narrow, hemmed in by ruddy stone walls that grow gradually taller. A two-foot drop in the canyon at about 8/10 mile is easily bypassed on the left, and the canyon continues largely uninterrupted by obstacles for the next two miles.

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Dropping into White Rock Canyon

After the brief narrowing, the canyon opens up to small alluvial fan at 9/10 mile, and a signed junction directs hikers heading for Liberty Bell Arch to the right. (Note: While the arch is a worthy destination, it adds an additional 3-mile out-and-back to the hike and thus is excluded from this description. Best saved for another day.) Continue following the wash as it cuts deeper into the rugged mountains, forming high canyon walls and winding passages that are occasionally clogged with fallen granitic boulders. (Note: Although not quite white, these volcanic chunks are presumably what gives the canyon its name.)

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Deep narrows in White Rock Canyon

After an initial narrows section at the 1-mile mark, the canyon briefly opens up but then thins again. In the morning, as the sun illuminates the upper reaches of the canyon walls, the base of the canyon remains dark and cool, creating a contrast of colors that ranges from blue, grey, and purple in the depths to orange and red high above.

While narrows are frequent in White Rock Canyon, the canyon never quite thins to a “slot,” and obstacles are rare and easily circumvented. At 1.25 miles, the wash skirts a massive boulder then curves around a set of hairpin bends where the walls narrow almost—but not quite—to a point where one can touch both sides at once.

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White Rock Canyon

At 1.5 miles, there is another opening in the canyon, but the narrows quickly return, rounding another set of picturesque bends. The canyon truly widens at about 1.8 miles, revealing high, neatly layered cliffs on both sides, and some vegetation returns to the canyon bottom. Minutes later, the route drops into another set of narrows; at 2.25 miles, the wash passes a heart-shaped incision on the left that looks almost like a dark cave.

Beyond, as the canyon artery compresses and loosens, taller trees appear, including beautiful catclaw acacia (curiously nicknamed “wait-a-minute bush”). At one relatively open area, the slope on the right is littered with fallen rocks and accumulating sediments, and a small arch appears in the heights ahead. The section ahead features arguably the prettiest narrows yet, wrapping around a series of bends, each more enticing than the last.

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Terrific narrows in White Rock Canyon

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Final narrows in White Rock Canyon

Then comes the jarring finale: an abrupt opening, this time for good, as the canyon walls recede and the wash fans out into a relatively lush delta. The (usually dry) arroyo feeds into the mighty Colorado River, which at this point is relatively calm and soothing, inviting visitors to dip their toes in the shallow waters. Across the Colorado is the state of Nevada, with the Hoover Dam upstream to the north and, eventually, Willow Beach and Lake Mohave to the south. By now the late morning sun has illuminated Black Canyon and the surrounding mountains, bringing out the deep reds and orange hues that are so typical of the American Southwest.

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Colorado River at the end of White Rock Canyon

White Rock Canyon to Arizona Hot Spring (0.5 miles)

White Rock Canyon is exciting enough on its own, yet the hike is only halfway done, with the primary destination—Arizona Hot Spring—beckoning. After enjoying the Colorado River views, pick up the trail continuation as it hugs the canyon walls, heading south. (Note: Reportedly there is a sign—Sign #7—that points in the right direction, but I did not see it on my hike in January 2020.) The subsequent section is one of the hike’s toughest—involving some rocky ups and downs and decent exposure—but should be easily passable by most hikers.

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Colorado River from the connector route

After picking up the single-track trail, look for Sign #8, which reveals a narrow passage leading up to a stony notch. A rocky outcrop on the right offers excellent views of the Colorado from about 15 to 20 feet up. From here the trail drops down through a thicket of salt cedars—benefiting from the riparian landscape—followed by a climb to Sign #9. Here there is another rocky knob with nice vistas, but the onward track climbs up through a thin crack that looks more intimidating from afar: with good footholds and a mild incline, the actual climb is relatively straightforward.

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Narrow crack along the connector route

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Views of Colorado River back to the north

Atop another ridge, hikers reach Sign #12 and get their first views down into Hot Spring Canyon, which appears just as enticing as White Rock Canyon—in fact, it is significantly narrower, approaching a true “slot” in this section. From atop the ridge, descend a steep-sloping crack (requiring careful footing), then bend left as the trail drops to the canyon floor. Head left at the canyon floor, continuing upstream toward the hot springs.

The most obvious difference from White Rock is the presence of water in Hot Spring Canyon, which trickles slowly through the narrow passage, a sign that the hot springs pools are near. Consider changing into water shoes or hiking sandals here, as the subsequent section is more pleasant if you are willing to get your feet wet. There are a few obstacles in this stretch, including a double cascade that requires a straightforward bypass on the right, followed by a narrow slot that is best tackled by mild stemming as the canyon floor is wet and slippery. (Note: This area becomes a traffic jam on crowded days; have patience and take it one person at a time.)

Finally, about 250 yards up the canyon and 3.2 miles from the trailhead, hikers reach Arizona Hot Spring. The springs are hemmed in by sandbags and situated atop a final obstacle: a pour-off that produces a 15-foot waterfall. Otherwise impassable, the pour-off is conquered by climbing a sturdy metal ladder, courtesy of the Park Service.

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Waterfall at the base of Arizona Hot Springs

Just beyond is a sandy landing where visitors take off their socks and shoes for the passage ahead: a series of (usually three) hot springs pools, each one warmer than the last. None are likely to be more than 2- to 3-feet deep, but wading is required. For those seeking a desert cleanse, sit down and enjoy for awhile (but of course, don’t swim or put your nose below water—per above).

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Arizona Hot Springs

While the springs are the main draw, the canyon itself is impressive on its own—narrowing to about 6 to 8 feet, with sides lined with lichen and desert varnish. The speckled walls tower more than 50 to 75 feet above, offering shade in an otherwise sun-soaked region.

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Entry to the second pool at Arizona Hot Springs

After wading through the first pool, there is a brief break before the second, hotter springs. The third (which was conspicuously missing as of January 2020) is the warmest, and ends with a somewhat tricky scramble up a jagged slope at the base of a boulder jam. This is the springs exit, with the return route via Hot Spring Canyon beyond.

Arizona Hot Spring to Trailhead via Hot Spring Canyon (1.5 miles)

Continuing beyond the hot springs, the return route to the trailhead is shorter than the approach, although there is considerable elevation gain near the end. Beyond the slot section, Hot Spring Canyon opens up, revealing high buttes and plateaus ahead. While not quite as scintillating as White Rock Canyon, the return route does dip in and out of low, colorful narrows. A thin section at 3.5 miles ends at a 3-foot dryfall that requires a little maneuvering.

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Hot Spring Canyon

After a wide opening, the wash cuts through a scenic narrow section featuring dark, shaded walls and a six-foot chockstone that is bypassed via a rock pile on the right. Just beyond, at about 4.1 miles, a well-trodden path leaves the wash to the right, cutting off a bend in the canyon. The path then drops into the wash again, but this time only crosses it, leading to an uphill trail on the north bank. Hikers can continue onward up the canyon, but the upper reaches of Hot Spring Canyon are more technically difficult, requiring two class-4 climbs.

Most hikers, therefore, opt for the “saddle route,” which leaves the canyon bottom and climbs steeply—but safely and free of technical climbing—back to the trailhead. The dusty single-track is well-worn and easy to follow as it leaves the wash, ascending gradually at first.

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Leaving the wash, en route to the saddle

After following a side canyon for 1/3 mile, the incline steepens as hikers make way for the high saddle in the full sun. Looking back, the canyon melts away, replaced by views of a prominent butte that sticks out like a thumb in the desert landscape. As hikers climb higher, the butte itself appears smaller and smaller, dwarfed by the much higher escarpments beyond.

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Looking back toward Hot Spring Canyon

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A look back again toward Hot Spring Canyon and Black Canyon, with Nevada beyond

Finally, at 4.6 miles, the Hot Spring Canyon Trail crests the saddle, revealing views of Highway 93 and the distant Black Mountains beyond to the east. What goes up must come down; thus hikers descend from the saddle via a winding track that quickly becomes a muddle of intersecting paths. Effectively any route works, as long as it is heading in a northeasterly direction, back toward the highway and trailhead.

Over five miles from the start, the route returns to the initial wash, and the turnoff to White Rock Canyon appears again on the left. Continue straight for a half-mile, passing the initial signs and under the highway again before the final climb back to the trailhead and parking lot.

The White Rock Canyon-Arizona Hot Springs Trail Loop is at least a half-day’s trek. Quick hikers can complete in three hours, while slower walkers and/or those hoping to soak in the hot springs should allot at least 4-5 hours for the 5.75-mile round-trip. In any case, the hike is one of the best in the region and a sure treat for visitors to the Las Vegas area.

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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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