Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Golden Canyon Trail

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After hiking the Badlands Loop Trail at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, it was only a 5-mile drive back to Badwater Road and south to the trailhead parking for the Golden Canyon Trail. This canyon hike is one of the most popular with visitors to Death Valley, and it’s easy to see why: the rock formations on either side of the canyon and in the vicinity, visible from the trail, are spectacular.

The primary hike is just 2 miles out and back, and there are several options to lengthen the hike. I ended up taking the side trail to Red Cathedral and then the first part of a loop that passes over the flank of Manly Beacon toward the lower part of Gower Gulch. I turned around at Manly Beacon and returned via Golden Canyon, for a total of 3.7 miles with 775 feet of elevation gain. On the GPS track the orange dot denotes the trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track

The canyon walls are a terrific lesson in geology if you have sufficient background. There are supposed to be trail guides and numbered stops, but I actually found neither on the day of my visit, so I simply enjoyed the interesting shapes and colors. Especially in the lower part of the canyon the canyon walls show obvious layering, but at almost crazy angles. The floor of Death Valley has been getting pushed downward at the same time that the surrounding mountains (here, the Black Mountains of the Amargosa Range) have been getting pushed upward. In areas like this there is significant tilting and twisting of the layers.

image of wall of Golden Canyon

Wall of Golden Canyon

Here is another view of the canyon walls in the lower canyon, showing many layers of different colored rocks. A patch near the center of the picture is green, which I think indicates chlorite.

image of another section of wall of Golden Canyon

Another section of wall of Golden Canyon

About 0.5 mile from the trailhead there is a row of jagged formations overlooking the north wall of the canyon.

image of formations overlooking the north wall of Golden Canyon

Formations overlooking the north wall of Golden Canyon

As I had found in other Death Valley canyons, the canyon floor climbs steadily into the hills. The first part of the Golden Canyon Trail climbs at a comfortable 5% grade. The side trail to the red cathedral (mile 1.0 – 1.5) climbs more steeply, with about 10% grade, and the loop trail up the flank of Manly Beacon (mile 2.0 – 2.4) reaches over 20% grade.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 0.7 mile from the trailhead I encountered a large solitary rock at the edge of the canyon floor. It doesn’t have a special name that I know of, but I thought it looked like a frog.

image of frog-like rock in Golden Canyon

Frog-like rock in Golden Canyon

As I approached the junction with the side trail to Red Cathedral, there was a beautiful view of this dramatic and distinctive formation. The red color results from the iron oxide in the rock and contrasts starkly with the surrounding area.

image of Red Cathedral

Red Cathedral

From essentially the same location there is another beautiful view of a different dramatic and distinctive formation: Manly Beacon. I had seen both of these formations just an hour prior from the Badlands Loop Trail.

image of Manly Beacon

Manly Beacon

I should note that, while hiking up the main Golden Canyon Trail, I encountered a couple I recognized hiking downhill. I had encountered them earlier on the Badlands Loop Trail. It turned out that they were doing a one-way hike from Zabriskie Point to the bottom of Golden Canyon. This is an interesting option if you have a way to stash a second car.

The side trail to Red Cathedral takes off from the main trail almost exactly 1 mile from the trailhead. A short distance up this trail there is a nice view into the nearby hills, showing layers of different colored rocks, again at almost crazy angles as the layers that were formed vertically are now closer to horizontally oriented.

image of muti-colored hills near Golden Canyon

Muti-colored hills near Golden Canyon

A bit farther up the side trail to Red Cathedral the formation seems bigger and even more impressive as you approach. The hiker in the picture has stopped to take in the view.

image of Getting closer to Red Cathedral

Getting closer to Red Cathedral

Along this side trail I encountered a few caltha-leaved phacelias (Phacelia calthifolia). Other than the phacelias and some desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) I did not notice vegetation in the canyon.

image of caltha-leaf phacelia

Caltha-leaf phacelia

A description of the hike to the base of Red Cathedral mentions a notch “directly below the cathedral’s looming presence.” This is the view from up close, looking directly up at the vertical wall rising over 500 feet above my location.

image of Red Cathedral up close

Red Cathedral up close

Although this may have been the intended turnaround point for the side trail, I continued to explore a bit farther, so see if I could get even closer to the formation. I found an interesting little network of slots and mini-tunnels between and through the rocks. Here is one slot, with my hiking poles providing a measure of the dimensions.

image of narrow slot near Red Cathedral

Narrow slot near Red Cathedral

Nearby there was a nice view through another slot formed by vertical walls and a tilted rock forming the top of an arch-like structure.

image of arch-like slot near Red Cathedral

Arch-like slot near Red Cathedral

After deciding I’d gotten as close as I could to Red Cathedral, I returned to the beginning of the side trail and proceeded roughly southeast toward Manly Beacon. About 0.2 mile along the trail there was an impressive view of this formation. Just to the right of the person you can barely see the trail making its way up the lower flank. I continued up the trail until I reached an elevation of about 450 feet and decided I’d had enough of the 20% slope! Note that the top of Manly Beacon is at an elevation of 810 feet.

image of Manly Beacon

Manly Beacon

Near my turnaround point I had a wonderful view westward across the lower parts of the badlands rock formations, with a glimpse of the Death Valley floor and the Panamint Mountains in the background.

image of view of Golden Canyon area from the flank of Manly Beacon

View of Golden Canyon area from the flank of Manly Beacon

I was also aware of the time, and was hoping to be able to experience some more views along Artist Drive in the setting sun. So I retraced my path to the trailhead and was soon on my way.

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One Response to Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Golden Canyon Trail

  1. Pingback: Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Artist Drive at sunset | trailhiker

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