Death Valley National Park: Badwater Basin to Gold Valley

Don't waste winter: Tackle this cross-country canyon trek in the Lower 48's largest national park.
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Don't waste winter: Tackle this cross-country canyon trek in the Lower 48's largest national park.

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 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. 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. Bear right and continue another 1.3 miles—tacking on another 800 feet of elevation gain—to another fork. Stay left this time, veering west for the next mile. Then bear right at the most prominent fork in the canyon.

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, descend one mile southeast to an old prospecting road and follow it south .5 mile into Gold Valley, 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.

Conditions: Click "Morning Report" at nps.gov/deva for the most up-to-date forecast. Temperatures are ideal from fall through spring, and wildflowers bloom in March. Carry all the water you need for the trip (at least 6 liters per person/per day), in case seasonal waterflows are dry.

Gear Up: Ace Hardware, 1201 S. Loop Rd., Pahrump, NV, (775) 727-4440

Map: Death Valley ($12, natgeomaps.com)

Contact: Death Valley National Park, (760) 786-3200; nps.gov/deva.

-Copy by MacKenzie Ryan; mapped by Roger Homrich

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 13.7

Waypoints

DVP001

Location: 36.092387, -116.73733

Head east from trailhead.

DVP002

Location: 36.084242, -116.723051

Enter the mouth of Sheep Canyon.

DVP003

Location: 36.08293, -116.702352

Here, the canyon doglegs south.

DVP004

Location: 36.076947, -116.689581

Canyon makes a S-curve, winding northeast.

DVP005

Location: 36.080388, -116.674475

Go right at fork in canyon. From here, climb to Sheep Pass on loose talus and navigate around a series of 30-foot dry waterfalls.

DVP006

Location: 36.072731, -116.641357

Continue southeast.

DVP007

Location: 36.063405, -116.632381

Join old prospect road, heading south.

DVP008

Location: 36.055729, -116.63406

Gold Valley. At this point, turn around and retrace steps back through Sheep Canyon. Caution: Do not be tempted by creating a loop via Willow Creek Canyon; it's impassable without climbing gear.