In this edition of Beyond L.A., we tour some of Death Valley’s most famous attractions in a route that can easily be done as a two-day road trip from Los Angeles. Needless to say, there’s much more to the largest park in the continental U.S. than the hikes and sites described here, but for those intimidated by Death Valley’s reputation – a healthy fear – the itinerary described below offers a introduction to the park, including the lowest point in the western hemisphere, a natural arch, historical artifacts, sand dunes and a waterfall. Yes, a waterfall.
Any discussion of Death Valley National Park should start with the weather. The official record for the hottest temperature on Earth, 134 degrees F/56.6 degrees C, was set at Death Valley in 1913. Temperatures in Furnace Creek range from an average daily low of 38 degrees in January to an average daily high of 114 degrees in July. Annual precipitation is a little over 2 inches. Death Valley’s National Park’s elevations range from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater to over 11,000 feet at Telescope Peak, but the highest point on this trip is 3,600 feet and the majority of these sites are located at or below sea level. Even if the temperature is relatively cool, the dry air and complete exposure of several of these sites – notably Badwater Basin – may have more of an effect than one might think. Peak season at Death Valley is considered to be October through April.
GAS, FOOD, LODGING
Death Valley is the 5th largest national park and biggest outside of Alaska at 5,262 square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut. (Joshua Tree is 1,235 square miles). While the wide open spaces are one of its attractions, the scarcity of services and goods requires planning, especially considering that there is virtually no reliable cell phone reception outside Furnace Creek. Gas and food can be purchased at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, but needless to say, prices are inflated. If you are following the route described below, your best bet is to fill up in Barstow (gas in Baker will usually be considerably more expensive). From Barstow to Trona via the route described here is about 300 miles. There are three campgrounds in Furnace Creek: Sunset (which primarily caters to RVs and campers) at $14 per night as of this writing; Texas Springs ($16) and Furnace Creek ($22). Sunset and Texas Springs are first come first serve; Furnace Creek accepts reservations and also keeps a few walk-up spots open. More upscale lodging is available at the Oasis at Death Valley – expect to pay over $250 per night in peak season. The Ranch at Death Valley has a general store with basic supplies and groceries. There is also a buffet and saloon.
This itinerary assumes an overnight stay in Furnace Creek, but Stovepipe Wells (located about half an hour’s drive from Furnace Creek) also has accommodations including a first come/first serve campground ($14/night) and a hotel (typically less expensive than the Oasis, but still usually over $100 per night). A general store, restaurant, saloon and gas station are also available. Panamint Springs Resort, half an hour southwest of Stovepipe Wells, also has accommodations, a gas station, store and restaurant. Prices are comparable to Stovepipe Wells.
There are a few more remote campgrounds outside of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. For more information about camping in Death Valley, click here. Note seasonal restrictions (several campgrounds are only open from October to April while some of the campgrounds at higher elevations are closed for the winter).
Desert hiking with dogs presents serious risks including heat, rattlesnakes and coyotes. Dogs are allowed in campgrounds at Death Valley National Park and at the hotels at Stovepipe Wells and the Panamint Springs Resort. They are not allowed at any of the sites described in this post, although there are a few dog-friendly walks in Death Valley. For more information about taking pets to Death Valley National Park, click here.
Badwater Basin, the Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail and the paved road to Zabriskie Point are accessible. For more information about accessibility in Death Valley National Park, click here.
The drive times are approximate, depending on traffic, and the times at each attraction are ballpark figures, based on an average hiking speed and personal taste. Distances assume a departure from downtown Los Angeles. NOTE: the Artist’s Palette, a popular attraction known for colorful geology, can easily be added to the day 1 schedule as it is located off of Badwater Rd. between Natural Bridge and Golden Canyon. Unfortunately, as of March 2019 it is closed due to storm damage.
Drive from Los Angeles to Badwater Basin (289 miles, 5 hours)
1 hour at Badwater Basin
Drive from Badwater Basin to Natural Bridge (5 miles, 10 minutes)
1:15 for Natural Bridge hike
Drive from Natural Bridge to Golden Canyon (12 miles, 20 minutes)
1:45 for Golden Canyon hike
Drive from Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point for sunset (6 miles, 10 minutes)
0:30 at Zabriskie Point
Drive from Zabriskie Point to Furnace Creek (5 miles, 10 minutes)
Total day 1 mileage: 317; total time: 10:20 plus breaks
Drive from Furnace Creek to Zabriskie Point for sunrise (5 miles, 10 minutes)
0:30 at Zabriskie Point
Drive from Zabriskie Point to Harmony Borax Works (7 miles, 15 minutes)
0:30 at Harmony Borax Works
Drive from Harmony Borax Works to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (21 miles, 25 minutes)
1:30 at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Drive from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to Darwin Falls (36 miles, 50 minutes)
1:30 at Darwin Falls
Drive from Darwin Falls to Los Angeles (221 miles, 4 hours)
Total day 2 mileage: 290; total time: 9:40 plus breaks
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. Its relative accessibility makes it one of the most popular spots in the park; even on hot days, it easy to get out of the car and take a picture by the sign. (If you want to be technical, the sign isn’t located at the actual lowest point, which varies depending on conditions, but your social media followers will probably let it slide.) On cooler days, you can stroll out onto the salt flats and experience the endless open space, framed by the distant Panamint Mountains. It’s possible to walk about five miles out onto the flats, although most people only walk the first half mile or so.
Geologically, Badwater is an endorheic basin, meaning that no water flows from it. The average 2 inches of annual precipitation that Badwater receives evaporate, leaving behind salty deposits that may look like snow from a distance.
Parking is tough here, due to the trail’s popularity; even an expanded lot built in 2003 often is quickly filled up. There are vault-style toilets at the trail head.
The short Natural Bridge Trail delivers exactly what its name promises. After a somewhat tricky 1.5 mile trip on a dirt road (high clearance vehicles are best but not required), the hike is easy: simply stroll up the canyon for about 1/3 of a mile to the natural bridge. The 35-foot gap below the bridge was created by millennia of erosion. Shortly beyond the bridge you pass a 50-foot dry waterfall. Deeper into the canyon, you come to two more dry waterfalls, both of which are fairly easy to negotiate, before reaching the end of the trail: a 20-foot cliff that blocks further progress. The total hike distance is about 1.4 miles round trip with 400 feet of elevation gain.
Red Cathedral gets its color from iron compounds in its rocks. Until 1976, when a flash flood destroyed the road, it was possible to drive to the base of the cliffs. Now you can get there by a short hike which showcases some of Death Valley’s most interesting geology.
From the parking lot (which, like Badwater’s, tends to fill up quickly in peak season), head into Golden Canyon, where the narrow walls provide shade during the earlier and later hours of the day. The volcanic formations resemble those of Vasquez Rocks and the canyons east of Palm Springs. About one mile in, a trail branches off, eventually reaching Zabriskie Point; if you have time and want to explore the area more, you can make a 6-plus mile loop to Zabriskie and back via Gower Gulch.
To reach Red Cathedral, stay left and continue up the canyon, which soon narrows. About 5-10 minutes after the junction, look for a “Y”-shaped split. Head up the right fork of the canyon, using your hands as well as your feet as you climb under rocks to reach the base of Red Cathedral. Here you can scramble up a use trail on the right to get a panoramic view of the canyon before carefully making your way back down.
Zabriskie Point was built in the 1920s – before the 1933 establishment of Death Valley National Monument (it became a National Park in 1994). Christian Zabriskie (1864-1936), president of the Pacific Borax Company, sponsored the building of the overlook as a way of getting his product’s name out there and also promoting tourism in Death Valley. Click here for an article about the history of Zabriskie Point.
Nearly 100 years after it was built, Zabriskie Point remains one of the most popular park attractions, an ideal place to watch the sun rise over the Amargosa Range or to watch it set over Badwater Basin – nearly 1,000 feet below. A short paved trail leads from the parking lot to the view point. The upper trail head for Golden Canyon is also located here.
Located a few minutes north of Furnace Creek, the lightly visited Harmony Works Borax Interpretive Trail provides a glimpse into the area’s human history and also offers some wide-ranging desert views. On my recent trip to Death Valley, this was the only site at which I did not see any other visitors.
As mentioned above, Death Valley is rich in “white gold” – borax. Borax’s uses include cleaning, pest control, fire extinguishing, fertilization and more, making it a valuable commodity. Harmony Borax only operated from 1883 to 1888, but ruins of a few of the plant’s buildings can still be visited on this short interpretive trail. Also here are wagons that were used to haul the product to San Francisco and elsewhere for sale. According to one of the plaques, Chinese laborers were paid $1.30 per day to scrape borax off the rocks. This wage did not include meals and lodging, which had to be purchased from the company. One wonders how “harmonious” they found their livelihood to be.
Located just east of Stovepipe Wells on Highway 190, this spot gives hikers a chance to explore sand dunes and take in unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains. The dunes here range in size from just a few feet tall to 100 feet. You can explore as much or as little as you like and you don’t have to worry about following a trail; you will never be very far from the road so when you have had your fill of sand, just head south, following the path of least resistance.
Reaching the highest dune may take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the route you take. Veterans of the Manhattan Beach sand dune will probably find these dunes easier, at least the smaller ones closer to the highway. Progress becomes slower as you start tackling the bigger dunes, although the ridges have been compressed by the feet of many hikers, making climbing them a little easier.
Last, but certainly not least, we have something usually not associated with Death Valley National Park: a waterfall. Fed by China Garden Spring, 25-foot Darwin Falls cascades over a cliff in the back of a canyon.
Reaching the parking lot can be tricky: the turnoff on Highway 190 is not signed, so when you pass Panamint Road (your return route back to Los Angeles), keep track of the miles. The Old Toll Road is 3.6 miles past the junction (a total of 34 miles southwest of Stovepipe Wells). Though high clearance vehicles aren’t necessary, the 2.4 miles on this dirt road have a few rough spots.
Once you reach the trail head, head into the canyon, either by following the wash or a vague trail. Vegetation includes desert gold wildflowers, mesquite and palo verde. About half a mile from the start, the character of the hike changes as the canyon walls narrow. The marshy terrain, with willows and cattails, will make you forget where you are. The route becomes more vaguely defined here, requiring a few stream crossings and some easy scrambling. At one point, a ladder and rope have been placed to aid hikers in scrambling over a rock, although this can be bypassed by following the stream or climbing the side of the rock.
However you get there, a little over a mile from the start, you reach Darwin Falls, which cascades over a boulder into a pool. The boulder splits the bottom of the waterfall, making it look like an inverted “Y”. After enjoying this peaceful, intimate (an adjective not often associated with Death Valley) spot, carefully retrace your steps back down the canyon and to the trail head.
As for the name: Darwin Falls was named after Erasmus Darwin French, a military doctor, whose name was also given to the near by ghost town.
Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.