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Rip & Go: Badwater Basin to Gold Valley – Death Valley National Park, CA

Don't waste winter: Tackle this cross-country canyon trek in the Lower 48's largest national park.
november 09 rip n go badwater sheep saddle 445x260Petroglyphs in Gold Valley (William Adam Collins)

Key Skill: Desert travel

You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: Death Valley is the driest, hottest place in North America. Here are four desert-comfort tips from Roger Homrich, the first person to thru-hike the park on a cross-country route.

Water Pack 1.5 gallons per person, per day, in soft-sided containers. Conserve by cooking and eating out of zip-top bags (no dishwater).

Clothes Homrich swears by this system: synthetic long-sleeve shirt, a merino midlayer for cool nights, stretchy nylon pants, a poncho instead of a rainshell, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Camping Bring a tarp and sleeping bag. In the canyon, pick a shelf at least five feet above the floor. Check above for loose rocks. In the valley, find a natural windblock and scan for scorpions and snakes before setting up. In the morning, shake out boots.

Navigation Sheep Canyon has no trail. From Badwater Rd., angle toward Funeral Peak and cross over the alluvial fan to Sheep Canyon. Circle each canyon fork on your map and make note of which direction to turn before you start.

See This: Pupfish
Few creatures, especially fish, can survive this kind of heat. But six species and 20 unique populations of one-inch-long pupfish have managed to adapt to Death Valley’s 100°F salt water and its small creeks and pools. Visit these ancient fish at Devils Hole, 37 miles east of Furnace Creek. An isolated population of pupfish has lived in the tiny but 500-foot-deep pool for 10,000 to 20,000 years. Despite the depth, the translucent fish breed exclusively on a rock shelf just below the water’s surface. The Devils Hole pupfish population ranges from as low as 100 in the summer to as many as 500 in winter.

Locals Know
Once you cross Sheep Saddle and set up camp in Gold Valley, stroll south on the obvious jeep trail (rangers call it Willow Creek Road). When the road dead-ends at a spring, look east; just 50 yards away, there’s a rock wall covered with etchings. The art was made by the migrant Native Americans who occupied Death Valley for nearly a thousand years. Today, the Shoshone consider the petroglyphs sacred, says ranger Jay Snow. Take pictures but don’t touch, because oils and friction from hundreds of hands will destroy these delicate drawings. Want more? Snow says Greenwater Valley is another art-filled secret. From CA 190, take Furnace Creek Wash Road 8.3 miles south. Park at the road barrier and follow the dirt path, formerly known as Petro Road, for 1.25 miles to the canyon.

Camp Chat
According to rangers, Death Valley has anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 mine shafts, and the area’s mining history is one of the park’s main draws. While officials do their best to manage these ruins, the crumbling stuctures present a potential danger to hikers. But close the mines, and visitation might drop. Allow access to all, and there’s an increased risk of injury or looting. Discuss: How should rangers deal with the discovery, cleanup, and access associated with these ruins?

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