It’s funny, but many times in National Parks I notice people who don’t seem quite sure what to do (other than stop and gawk, which gets old after awhile). Some will see me parked at some random spot, stop and try to figure out what I’m doing hiking away from the road. They’re tempted to follow, but that almost never happens. Of course they don’t know about my photography passion and frequent odd impulses to walk off into the hills.
This is the first of two hiking posts for Death Valley National Park in California’s Mojave Desert. It covers some basics and lists a few of my favorites amongst the park’s more popular hikes. Next post will highlight some of the less well-known and more adventurous hiking options.
Most would-be hikers check out the park’s visitor center and are told by the rangers where to hike. I wonder if I was a ranger, would I feel good about directing one person after the other to the same few hikes? I don’t think so. Some rangers will ask more questions of hikers and try to steer them towards hikes that match their abilities and interests. But most often what happens is that a relative few hikes are popular, while most other options are uncrowded, the domain of the so-called adventurous.
Instead of always following a ranger’s recommendations, I strongly believe you need to come up with your own ideas. This is especially true in areas like Death Valley where trails are not really required. You will avoid the crowds, make discoveries, and gain confidence. Of course many hikes are popular for a good reason.
Both a good map and good sense of direction are important if you plan to head off according to your impulses. A little experience helps too. But you will at some point need to push your limits if you are to gain experience in the first place. So I recommend being prepared and pushing ever outward. Just remember where you parked!
Death Valley is arid. Nevertheless springs are not uncommon. Having some knowledge as to what springs are running (and which are potable) can mean carrying less water. Check with the rangers at the wilderness desk in the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. Carry at least a half-gallon per person on a typical day hike. More if it’s hot, less only if you are sure of a spring. Note that late winter and early spring is normally the only time of year that you should expect flowing springs. Carry iodine tablets or a purifier.
I’ll start with a few hikes that rangers will recommend to first-time visitors, but which I happen to think are well worth it. If you’re visiting in late March, expect to have company.
- Mosaic Canyon: This hike near Stovepipe Wells is a good “starter” canyon hike. It also shows off some of the park’s fascinating geology. You can climb up the sides of the canyon to lose many of the people who stay in the bottom.
- Titus Canyon: When Titus Canyon (one of the park’s most spectacular canyons) is closed to vehicles, it is an excellent up and back day hike. Even better, hike up to the ghost town of Leadfield, camp there, and return. Nearby Redwall Canyon is a more adventurous option when Titus is either too crowded or open to vehicles.
- Darwin Falls in the western part of the park is a shortish hike. The falls are not the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, but in this driest region of the continent, it is amazing to walk up a cool little canyon to see a waterfall.
- Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes: The standard access point to the famous dunes near Stovepipe Wells can be very popular. But if you head off into the dunes at dawn, or under a full moon, it is sublime. If you’re into photography, pick a different access point unless the wind has blown hard and steady overnight. Too many footprints can ruin your foreground.
These are a few of the standard hikes at Death Valley, perfect for your first visit. Golden Canyon near Furnace Creek is perhaps the park’s most popular hike. But unless you have plenty of time or are visiting in winter, I would give it a skip and walk the hills and canyons around Artist’s Palette instead. The hike along Salt Creek, to see the pup fish, is fun because of the cute little guys darting around. So this short walk I can heartily recommend. You can also visit Devil’s Hole to see one of the world’s rarest species, its namesake pup fish. Stay tuned for more Death Valley…