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.
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 nps.gov/deva 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, natgeomaps.com)
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.
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.
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?
On The Menu
On the road
Almond butter and honey on pitas
Gold Valley Pasta
Oatmeal with walnuts and honey
Badwater Tuna Sandwich
Snacks Granola bars, apples
Gold Valley Pasta
Cheesy noodles and veggies
3 ounces angel hair pasta
1 cup broccoli
1 pack powdered cheese
Pinch of salt, pepper, and garlic powder
Boil three cups water. Place pasta and broccoli into zip-top bag. Add water and let sit for 10 minutes. Pour excess water back into pot to brew tea. Add powdered cheese and mix it thoroughly. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste.
Badwater Tuna Sandwich
An easy, on-the-go lunch
1 pouch tuna
1 pack precooked bacon
1 packet mayonnaise or salad dressing
1 stalk celery
Spread mayo or salad dressing inside pita. Fill with tuna, bacon strips, and diced celery. Dig in.
Grocery List (Aisle # in Nearest Store Below)
1 box zip-top bags (13)
3 oz. angel hair (14)
1 pack powdered cheese (14)
1 box granola bars (16)
2 packs instant oatmeal (16)
1 packet mayonnaise or salad dressing (17)
1 bottle of honey (17)
1 jar almond butter (17)
1 pouch tuna (18)
4 pitas (19)
1 pack precooked bacon (deli)
1 small head broccoli, 1 stalk celery, 2 apples, handful of walnuts (produce aisle)
Pack salt, pepper, garlic powder
Hang with park rangers at the 19th Hole, their favorite local dive at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort. They keep it simple, going for a burger and fries. CA 190, Death Valley, CA; (760) 786-2345
Nearest Grocery Store
Smith's Food and Drug Center
601 S. NV 160; Pahrump, NV;