Golden Canyon - Badlands - Gower Gulch Loop

On the first full day of our first visit to Death Valley we started by exploring along the Badwater Road with a hike up Golden Canyon and back through Gower Gulch, with the Badlands Loop thrown in for good measure. The short story is that this is an outstanding hike and offers such a variety of views all along the trail. It is probably one of the best day hikes I have taken in the National Parks. We hiked three canyon trails while in Death Valley, the other two being Fall Canyon and Mosaic Canyon. The other two were out-and-back routes and were both very pretty in their own right. But there were some advantages to the Golden-Badlands-Gower loop that made it a better hike, one being that it was a loop trail so that you were not retracing your steps over the same ground. But more importantly was the fact that each segment of the loop had its own character and when considering the connectors from Golden Canyon below Manly Beacon and from the mouth of Gower Gulch back to the trailhead, there were five very distinct areas each with each offering very distinct but wonderful scenery and views. The complete loop, plus the spur trail up toward Red Cathedral, was 6.5 miles and took a little under 3.5 hours to traverse. The trail is overall very easy with the only strenuous part being the steep uphill sections along the connector between Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch and again the uphill section along the initial part of the Badlands Loop, but these tougher sections are short and well worth it for the wonderful views at the higher ground. There are a couple of minor falls to negotiate coming down Gower Gulch, but these are simple to get through. We did not use our trekking poles along these trail (the only place they would have really been useful was on the steep section heading from Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch). In fact we did not use our poles at all in Death Valley. We arrived at the trailhead at 7:40 AM and it was basically empty. There were maybe four other cars there when we arrived and a couple more pulled in while we were getting our gear in order, so not crowded at all. I reckon this will be the lowest starting point that we have had for a hike as the trailhead is about 140 feet BELOW sea level. The view from the parking lot out over the valley was lovely particularly with the morning light on the Panamints off in the distance. Golden Canyon is almost a nature walk, pretty easy with the views being from the floor of the canyon up to the walls. By itself I’m not sure that Golden Canyon would be a great hike, but then again it is pretty and relatively short so just doing it as an out-and-back would not take much time and would still be worthwhile. However when combined into the loop with Badlands and Gower Gulch, well, it then takes on a whole new vibe and becomes a really amazing hike. Actually, Golden Canyon is very pretty, particularly in the morning as the sunlight works its way down the canyon walls and does give the rocks a golden glow (thus the name, right?). From the point that we entered the canyon the trail runs gradually, almost imperceptively, uphill. It was an easy trail to walk for the most part as we could usually walk on a hard packed surface with occasional patches of gravel in the wash. Early in the hike while still in the narrows we passed a couple of sections of the old road surface that I had read about during my research for the trip. These were the remains of the road that used to run through the canyon until it was washed out during a flood in 1976. The canyon got wider the further in and up we hiked, allowing for better views. When we reached the end of Golden Canyon we continued up the trail that branched to the left toward Red Cathedral. Great views along this stretch as we were looking up at the fudge ripple striped rocks flanking the canyon as we walked toward the dark wall of Red Cathedral. The colors in the rock are simply amazing. There are areas with very sharply contrasting layers of yellows and dark browns but also more subtle hues of pinks, purple, green and grey thrown in for good measure. The colors, texture and contours truly make for a photographer paradise, not to mention a mesmerizing hike. Rather than returning to the trailhead by retracing our path back down Golden Canyon we hung a left onto the connecting trail that continued gaining elevation as it working along the base of Manly Beacon. This is where the hike started to get really interesting, fun and more challenging. Where the trail through Golden Canyon was a very gradual climb, this section was severely uphill and gave us a bit of a workout. But the effort paid off as the higher we got the better the views of the surrounding formations and the mountains off across the valley. These vistas were some of the best landscape shots of the trip. We also got a bit more solitude along this section of the trail. While there were several hikers working their way up and down Golden Canyon, we only saw three other hikers on the traverse below Manly Beacon. There were wonderful images everywhere from wide panoramics or more narrow shots that honed in on the contours and textures, or the shadow and light of specific areas of the rock formations. It was quite the photographers and I bet geologists delight. At the high point of this section of the trail we were provided a view over the variety of rocks was simply amazing starting with the frozen and stark sandstone dunes of the badlands on the left and stretching back around to the brightly striped hills and Red Cathedral on the right all with the Panamints as an awesome backdrop. The connecting trail ends at the junction with Gower Gulch and the Badlands Loop. We headed left at this point along another uphill climb toward Zabriskie Point. The little extra exertion of the uphill hike was more than compensated for by the wonderful views in all directions as we climbed up the ridge. The colors in the rocks were subtle but varied: ribbons of white, yellow, brown, pink and orange. Just and amazing variety of hues. There was also quite the variety of people in this area as well as we passed a number of hikers coming down the trail from Zabriskie Point. Not far after we passed intersection with the Zabriskie Point Trail, our route started to descend through the Badlands toward Gower Gulch. It was all downhill from here, at least in terms of elevation but still great views were to be had. That’s one of the factors that really made this trail special, the variety. So many colors and textures in the rocks along every step of the trail. It seemed that each time we turned a corner on the trail that there was something new. The variety really rivals the rocks of the Grand Circle. Gower Gulch kept up with the pace in terms of adding interesting sights with new twists and turns. Gower had a completely different feel than Golden Canyon even though they are adjacent to each other. Gower seemed wider and less deep than Golden but Gower also had more variation in terms of width as there were a few narrows with steep falls to negotiate while Golden Canyon was basically “level” with no abrupt obstacles. Gower Gulch also sported some very interesting patches of color with green and reds along with some streaks of yellow in the strata. We also spotted a few old mine tunnels that had been dug into the cliff face above the gulch. There were social trails up to some of these old sites but we just observed from a distance. We were back at the trailhead at 11:00, so 3:20 to cover 6.5 miles. Not bad for us. The temperature at the trailhead head risen to 78 F so up about 20 degrees from the time we started. The parking lot was jammed by the time we returned to the trailhead. Folks were parking out on the road. Again, this was an amazing hike and provided a lot of variety along every step of its length. This is a hike that I would definitely take again when we next visit Death Valley.

Hiking/Backpacking

An early start is a good thing for several reasons: it was easy to find a parking spot at the trailhead, there was very little traffic on the trail and the temperature is much more conducive for hiking. Through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch there are patches of shade, but for the most part the trail is exposed, so take the precautions of wearing a hat and sunscreen and bring plenty of water. No need for trekking poles (would have been nice to have on the steep uphill sections but otherwise not needed). Make sure the battery in your camera are fully charged!
California, United States
OhioHick photo
time : Mar 25, 2016 7:32 AM
duration : 3h 23m 7s
distance : 6.5 mi
total_ascent : 1096 ft
highest_point : 476 ft
avg_speed : 1.9 mi/h
user_id : OhioHick
user_firstname : Allen
user_lastname : Arrington
On the first full day of our first visit to Death Valley we started by exploring along the Badwater Road with a hike up Golden Canyon and back through Gower Gulch, with the Badlands Loop thrown in for good measure. The short story is that this is an outstanding hike and offers such a variety of views all along the trail. It is probably one of the best day hikes I have taken in the National Parks. We hiked three canyon trails while in Death Valley, the other two being Fall Canyon and Mosaic Canyon. The other two were out-and-back routes and were both very pretty in their own right. But there were some advantages to the Golden-Badlands-Gower loop that made it a better hike, one being that it was a loop trail so that you were not retracing your steps over the same ground. But more importantly was the fact that each segment of the loop had its own character and when considering the connectors from Golden Canyon below Manly Beacon and from the mouth of Gower Gulch back to the trailhead, there were five very distinct areas each with each offering very distinct but wonderful scenery and views. The complete loop, plus the spur trail up toward Red Cathedral, was 6.5 miles and took a little under 3.5 hours to traverse. The trail is overall very easy with the only strenuous part being the steep uphill sections along the connector between Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch and again the uphill section along the initial part of the Badlands Loop, but these tougher sections are short and well worth it for the wonderful views at the higher ground. There are a couple of minor falls to negotiate coming down Gower Gulch, but these are simple to get through. We did not use our trekking poles along these trail (the only place they would have really been useful was on the steep section heading from Golden Canyon to Gower Gulch). In fact we did not use our poles at all in Death Valley. We arrived at the trailhead at 7:40 AM and it was basically empty. There were maybe four other cars there when we arrived and a couple more pulled in while we were getting our gear in order, so not crowded at all. I reckon this will be the lowest starting point that we have had for a hike as the trailhead is about 140 feet BELOW sea level. The view from the parking lot out over the valley was lovely particularly with the morning light on the Panamints off in the distance. Golden Canyon is almost a nature walk, pretty easy with the views being from the floor of the canyon up to the walls. By itself I’m not sure that Golden Canyon would be a great hike, but then again it is pretty and relatively short so just doing it as an out-and-back would not take much time and would still be worthwhile. However when combined into the loop with Badlands and Gower Gulch, well, it then takes on a whole new vibe and becomes a really amazing hike. Actually, Golden Canyon is very pretty, particularly in the morning as the sunlight works its way down the canyon walls and does give the rocks a golden glow (thus the name, right?). From the point that we entered the canyon the trail runs gradually, almost imperceptively, uphill. It was an easy trail to walk for the most part as we could usually walk on a hard packed surface with occasional patches of gravel in the wash. Early in the hike while still in the narrows we passed a couple of sections of the old road surface that I had read about during my research for the trip. These were the remains of the road that used to run through the canyon until it was washed out during a flood in 1976. The canyon got wider the further in and up we hiked, allowing for better views. When we reached the end of Golden Canyon we continued up the trail that branched to the left toward Red Cathedral. Great views along this stretch as we were looking up at the fudge ripple striped rocks flanking the canyon as we walked toward the dark wall of Red Cathedral. The colors in the rock are simply amazing. There are areas with very sharply contrasting layers of yellows and dark browns but also more subtle hues of pinks, purple, green and grey thrown in for good measure. The colors, texture and contours truly make for a photographer paradise, not to mention a mesmerizing hike. Rather than returning to the trailhead by retracing our path back down Golden Canyon we hung a left onto the connecting trail that continued gaining elevation as it working along the base of Manly Beacon. This is where the hike started to get really interesting, fun and more challenging. Where the trail through Golden Canyon was a very gradual climb, this section was severely uphill and gave us a bit of a workout. But the effort paid off as the higher we got the better the views of the surrounding formations and the mountains off across the valley. These vistas were some of the best landscape shots of the trip. We also got a bit more solitude along this section of the trail. While there were several hikers working their way up and down Golden Canyon, we only saw three other hikers on the traverse below Manly Beacon. There were wonderful images everywhere from wide panoramics or more narrow shots that honed in on the contours and textures, or the shadow and light of specific areas of the rock formations. It was quite the photographers and I bet geologists delight. At the high point of this section of the trail we were provided a view over the variety of rocks was simply amazing starting with the frozen and stark sandstone dunes of the badlands on the left and stretching back around to the brightly striped hills and Red Cathedral on the right all with the Panamints as an awesome backdrop. The connecting trail ends at the junction with Gower Gulch and the Badlands Loop. We headed left at this point along another uphill climb toward Zabriskie Point. The little extra exertion of the uphill hike was more than compensated for by the wonderful views in all directions as we climbed up the ridge. The colors in the rocks were subtle but varied: ribbons of white, yellow, brown, pink and orange. Just and amazing variety of hues. There was also quite the variety of people in this area as well as we passed a number of hikers coming down the trail from Zabriskie Point. Not far after we passed intersection with the Zabriskie Point Trail, our route started to descend through the Badlands toward Gower Gulch. It was all downhill from here, at least in terms of elevation but still great views were to be had. That’s one of the factors that really made this trail special, the variety. So many colors and textures in the rocks along every step of the trail. It seemed that each time we turned a corner on the trail that there was something new. The variety really rivals the rocks of the Grand Circle. Gower Gulch kept up with the pace in terms of adding interesting sights with new twists and turns. Gower had a completely different feel than Golden Canyon even though they are adjacent to each other. Gower seemed wider and less deep than Golden but Gower also had more variation in terms of width as there were a few narrows with steep falls to negotiate while Golden Canyon was basically “level” with no abrupt obstacles. Gower Gulch also sported some very interesting patches of color with green and reds along with some streaks of yellow in the strata. We also spotted a few old mine tunnels that had been dug into the cliff face above the gulch. There were social trails up to some of these old sites but we just observed from a distance. We were back at the trailhead at 11:00, so 3:20 to cover 6.5 miles. Not bad for us. The temperature at the trailhead head risen to 78 F so up about 20 degrees from the time we started. The parking lot was jammed by the time we returned to the trailhead. Folks were parking out on the road. Again, this was an amazing hike and provided a lot of variety along every step of its length. This is a hike that I would definitely take again when we next visit Death Valley.
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