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Backpacker Magazine – November 2009

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.

by: Mackenzie Ryan

Petroglyphs in Gold Valley (William Adam Collins)
Petroglyphs in Gold Valley (William Adam Collins)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

GPS-Enabled Trip Report

See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.

Do It
Hike from the lowest spot on the continent to what is surely one of its least crowded on this 17-mile out-and-back. You'll trek from Badwater Basin, at 248 feet below sea level, through Sheep Canyon's towering walls to a high saddle with views of the Panamint Mountains. From a pullout (1) off of CA 178, 29.3 miles south of CA 190, head east over an alluvial fan (a triangle-shaped deposit of sand and rock left behind by seasonal water flows), gaining 400 feet in 1.1 miles to the mouth of the canyon (2). Craggy walls colored a hundred hues of brown, red, and pink shoot 600 to 1,200 feet above the canyon floor. Pass under them as you climb 1,000 feet to a fork (3). Bear right and continue another 1.3 miles–tacking on another 800 feet of elevation gain–to another fork (4).

Stay left this time, veering west for the next mile. Then bear right at the most prominent fork in the canyon (5). In the next 1.3 miles, the route climbs over three 30-foot waterfalls that are usually dry. Not comfortable with third-class scrambling (i.e., hands sometimes needed)? With some scouting, you can find user trails to the left of each waterfall. Soon, the canyon narrows to car-width, then opens up to reveal Sheep Saddle, your next objective, one mile east. Approach the saddle by climbing big slabs of granite near its base, then scrambling over loose, steep talus, gaining 1,000 feet. From the top of the 4,758-foot saddle (6), descend one mile southeast to an old prospecting road (7) and follow it south .5 mile into Gold Valley (8), a secluded oasis of yucca and pickleweed surrounded by a horseshoe of rugged mountains. Wind can whip here, so camp on the lee side of one of the many sand mounds or boulders. Retrace your route back to Badwater Basin in the morning. Note: Don't be tempted to create a loop via Willow Creek Canyon; it's impassable without climbing gear.

Trip Planner
Driving From Pahrump, take NV 372 for 7.8 miles to the California border and CA 178. Go 19.2 miles to CA 127/CA 178. Turn right and go 1.7 miles to CA 178 (Badwater Rd.), then drive 41.2 miles to the pullout.

Click "Morning Report" at for the most up-to-date forecast. Temperatures are ideal from fall through spring, and wildflowers bloom in March. Gear Up Ace Hardware, 1201 S. Loop Rd., Pahrump, NV, (775) 727-4440

Death Valley ($12,

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Death Valley National Park
Dec 08, 2010

Death Valley National Park offers a lot of the variety for those who like to explore geological wonders and discover unique bits of American history. You can hike into the back country but you can also have a very full experience without the hiking at all. Climb sand dunes experience amazingly cool breezes over the Ubehebe Crater, discover a variety of geologic creations, and visit the lowest inland elevation in the North.

David Singer
Mar 01, 2010

This is a tough slog but the canyon is beautiful. Half way up we found a spring and an old prospecting site. It was raining most of the day and we went to the left at the major fork just up canyon from the spring. This lead us all the way up to the end of Sheep Canyon just below Funeral Peak. It should be noted that this is a dead end. The exit saddles out of this part of the canyon are extreme and would be very difficult without climbing gear.

Remember this is a tough hike. The ground is very rocky and unforgiving. I recommend high boots with a tough sole.

Kris Wagner @ Backpacker
Jan 12, 2010

UPDATE: I talked to ranger Charlie Callagan on January 12. Backpacker was concerned about his post implying that the hikers rescued near Willow Creek on January 7th were mislead by our Sheep Canyon route description in "Rip & Go: Badwater Basin to Gold Valley - Death Valley National Park, CA" from our November 2009 issue. "I think the article is quite clear" in directing readers to stay in Sheep Canyon, he told me on the phone. He acknowledged that the rescued hikers veered off the route we detailed. The story and map clearly describe an out-and-back in Sheep Canyon, with directions like “Retrace your route back to Badwater Basin.” Nevertheless, Callagan said, the group talked themselves into hiking out via Willow Creek Canyon, which led to a series of bad decisions which triggered a helicopter rescue. Since our route does include a significant drop in elevation from Sheep Canyon into Gold Valley, Charlie asked us to add a line to emphasize why hikers need to return via Sheep Canyon and avoid the temptation to drop into the much lower Willow Creek Canyon. As a rule, our editorial focus is to give readers advice about what routes to do, not on the myriad of alternate routes or sidetrips not to do while in the wilderness. But given the recent rescue and the human nature to travel downhill, we’ve added a line to our online story and map stressing that nearby Willow Creek Canyon is impassable without climbing gear and to do the route as we describe.

Kris Wagner @ Backpacker
Jan 11, 2010

Charlie: Thanks for informing us about the rescue. We're glad to hear the hikers are safe. I just left a message on your voicemail to clear up any misunderstandings about our route description. Our route here doesn't mention anything about dropping into Willow Canyon. In fact, we write the route as an out-and-back through Sheep Canyon only, and you can see the map at The info for this trip was scouted and mapped in person by Roger Homrich and our writer reported and fact-checked the route, so what it contains and entails should be accurate. Let's discuss it more.

Bryan Appleby
Jan 11, 2010

Word to the wise;

Rangers Rescue Four Lost Hikers

On the evening of January 6th, rangers received a report of two missing hikers reported to be hiking a route through Sheep Canyon that had recently been featured in Backpacker magazine. Subsequent interviews with family and friends of the missing hikers revealed that there were actually four members of the party, all two days overdue. Three search teams deployed on the morning of January 7th and found numerous sets of footprints matching those associated with the vehicle parked at the mouth of the canyon. Around noon, an observer on an airplane from Lake Mead spotted a large white “X”, a signal fire, and a person waving at the plane on a ridge south of nearby Willow Canyon. One of the search teams located the other three individuals trapped in Willow Canyon shortly thereafter. A Navy Seahawk helicopter from China Lake Naval Weapons Center successfully hoisted all four of the hikers out of the canyon and delivered them to Ridgecrest Regional Medical Center. Initial reports were that one member of the party injured an ankle, and that the others were suffering from minor exposure and dehydration. Ranger Micah Alley served as IC during this incident.

Contact Information
Name: Brent Pennington, Chief Ranger

Ranger Charlie Callagan
Jan 07, 2010

Beware of this hike!. There is no hikeable outlet to Gold Valley as Willow Canyon below the end of the road has impassable waterfalls and cliffs. You must return the way you came via Sheep Canyon. It is unfortuante that this warning was not priovided by the author of the article. Charlie Callagan, Death Valley, Wilderness Coordinator.


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