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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.

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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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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