You made it to the top, the star dune. Directly below, countless smaller dunes, like waves of sand, throw deep shadows in the early morning sun. To the south, the seemingly endless expanse of Death Valley eventually leads to Badwater—282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America. To the southwest, amid the purple expanse of the Panamint Mountains, is Telescope Peak. Rising to 11,049 feet, its summit lies just a few miles from Badwater. While the temperature at the sand dunes on a spring day can reach 90 degrees, the upper reaches of Telescope are still covered in snow.
Death Valley National Park is all about extremes and so is the #NVRoadTrip you’re on that takes you here: It’s the hottest and driest region in the United States and the largest national park outside of Alaska. Death Valley is also about the splendor of the starkly beautiful dunes and canyons. But the most pleasant and peaceful surprise is that it seems to be absent of sound.
There are only two maintained trails in the park, but don’t let that stop you. Some of the best hiking is off trail, where you can easily follow canyon bottoms, wander over salt flats, or climb sand dunes. The canyon hikes are short, so relaxed hikers can be finished in a few hours, and the more adventurous can pick a hike in the morning and still have time for another in the afternoon.
Three miles from the park’s hub at Furnace Creek Ranch is Golden Canyon, the most popular hike. The highlight of most canyon walks is the narrows, where the sheer rock walls on both sides of the canyon close in to just a few feet wide. The Golden Canyon hike starts in the narrows, then widens as you wander through a dramatic landscape of what looks like vanilla fudge swirl with views dominated by aptly named Red Cathedral and the distinctive Manly Beacon. Given the lack of water, it is hard to believe that thousands of years ago much of the area was under Manly Lake, which covered Death Valley in more than 600 feet of water. The moderately difficult four-mile roundtrip route reaches Gower Gulch and continues downhill past old borax mining tunnels before passing through narrows less than six feet across.
The Mosaic Canyon trail begins just a few miles from Stovepipe Wells. Named for the mosaic-like rock formations found in the canyon, the best part of this hike (up to four miles roundtrip) is the first half-mile, featuring narrow canyon walls with rock polished smoothly into marble and short fascinating scrambles through tight passageways. The canyon widens to showcase high multicolored rock walls and pineapple-sized cactus hanging on rock ledges before narrowing again at a chokestone. Chokestones are huge boulders that were carried by infrequent, but powerful, flash floods to a spot in the canyon where they block the route.
While floods are very rare, visitors should check the weather forecast and avoid canyon areas during thunderstorms. In Mosaic Canyon, an easy climb leads around the blockage and to more narrows before the route is blocked again, this time by a high dry fall.
The hike up Fall Canyon begins with a .75-mile traverse across a huge alluvial fan—often covered with wildflowers in the spring—before dropping into the mouth of the canyon. For the next 2.5 miles it continues past towering gold, red, and green rock walls.
Although the canyons are the highlight of a hiking excursion in Death Valley, there are a variety of other fascinating places to explore.When temperatures soar, seek refuge by climbing Wildrose Peak. Take the hour-and-a-half drive from Furnace Creek, which leads to the trailhead at the charcoal kilns, built in 1877 to make charcoal for use in mining operations 25 miles away. Stand inside the kilns, and you will notice the incredible acoustics and the still distinctive odor of charcoal. The trail begins at 6,900 feet, travels 4.2 miles past piñon pine and mistletoe-infested juniper, and culminates at 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak. What makes this hike unique is that it provides views of Mounts Whitney and Badwater—the highest and lowest points in the lower 48 states.