Day 2 of a terrific visit to Death Valley National Park to see the spring 2016 wildflower bloom: after going to Dante’s View and hiking to Dante’s Peak, I returned toward Furnace Creek with a stop at Zabriskie Point to hike the Badlands Loop Trail. This hike had not been on my original agenda for the day. However, when I noticed the parking area on my way to Dante’s View I stopped to check it out and immediately decided to return later in the morning. It was one of those “well, somehow the timing will work itself out” moments, and I’m very glad I went back to do the hike and explore the area.
From the parking area there is an obvious path to the overlook.
Since I had not read up in advance about Zabriskie Point, I was unprepared for what I would see. I had not been aware that there is such a badlands area, very stark and beautiful with different kinds of rock exposed by erosion over the millennia. Looking in one direction there was what I think of as “wrinkly rock,” one small area of which was starkly darker on top.
Looking in another direction it was evident that the badlands area is somewhat localized, with more typical Death Valley area mountains in the near background and a wash snaking its way downhill between the folds in the land.
Manly Beacon (see below) juts up toward the sky, and next to it the aptly-named red cathedral formation rises above multi-colored stripes of rock.
I actually walked out to the overlook area on my way to Dante’s View, and discovered that there is a 2.7-mile loop trail through the badlands. This spectacular scenery is what prompted me to come back after visiting Dante’s View to hike the Badlands Loop. The trailhead is right next to the parking area, on the right as you face the overlook. It’s just a simple sign with two rows of small rocks defining the beginning of the trail, so it could be easy to overlook it.
The GPS track shows both the short path to the overlook and the loop trail, which is actually a semi-loop or balloon configuration. It would have been helpful to know in advance that the configuration is a semi-loop rather than full loop, since I found the signage at the trailhead to be a bit confusing initially. The sign at the trailhead suggests hiking the loop in the counterclockwise direction, as the way-finding signage is a bit easier to follow in that direction. The orange dot denotes the parking area.
The parking area is at about 600 feet elevation, and the views from the overlook make it clear that the trail initially descends. Here is a view of the trail shortly after the initial section defined by parallel rows of small rocks. At this point it was kind of a mystery to me how any trail could pass through the badlands, so I was looking forward to the discovery and the experience. To the right there is a glimpse of the floor of Death Valley, and in the background the Panamint Mountains rise on the far (west) side of the valley. Snow-capped Telescope Peak, 11,000 feet high, is just visible at the left of the skyline.
From the 600-foot starting elevation the loop descends to about 300 feet elevation, with a brief rise just after the beginning of the actual loop, and then climbs back up through Gower Gulch. Figuring that the trail was going to be on a relatively hard surface, I had left my hiking poles in the car. However, I found that the initial descent (and final ascent) had a grade of about 15%, similar to the short climb at the beginning of the loop at 0.6 mile. And the steeper descent just before the 1-mile mark had a grade of 19%. The footing was ok, though, and all of these steeper sections were fairly short; the steepest one only covered a 150-foot elevation change.
Very soon after beginning the first descent, I encountered an unusual-looking plant which was present in a few clusters. Checking out my photos afterward, I realized that it was golden carpet (Gilmania luteola), a belly-flower that is both native to, and endemic to, Death Valley. One of my wildflower books states that it is found in only 5 (presumably small) areas in the badlands. It is included in the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on a list that designates plants that are rare, threatened, or endangered in California or elsewhere; it is not threatened at this time, it’s just very rare. It is said to bloom only in exceptionally wet years. So this was certainly a serendipitous find.
A short distance before the signage that designates the loop proper, the trail passes a small gully where I found a few wildflowers: desert gold, phacelia, and brown-eyed evening primrose. Signage shows that it is not the trail and discourages exploration of the gully. The loop begins at 0.6 mile, and I did go in the counter-clockwise direction as suggested.
At the north end of the small scallop, near a red arrow on the GPS track image, there was a spectacular view to the northwest, including Manly Beacon on the left and the red cathedral to its the right. I hadn’t quite put the pieces together yet, but I was planning to hike up into that area in the afternoon from Golden Canyon. Manly Beacon is only about 0.5 mile away on the map.
The signage along the trail – except for junctions, which have more prominent signage – consists of modest paddle markers with a trail designation and an arrow. Many trails in the park do not have any signage at all along the trails, but it is needed in the badlands due to the possibility of getting lost in the folds/wrinkles I’d seen from the overlook. In some cases the lettering and arrow were only on one side of the paddle; this is what made the way-finding somewhat easier when hiking in the direction I hiked. If you were hiking in the other direction and saw a blank one of these paddles, you could certainly look at the other side and figure out the correct way.
At 1.1 mile from the trailhead there is a junction marked with more extensive signage. Here a trail enters from the Golden Canyon trailhead. Also, the loop trail turns left and descends more gently to Gowers Gulch. There is a dramatic close-up view of Manly Beacon, now only about 0.35 mile away, with the trail to Golden Canyon winding over in that direction.
About 1.5 miles from the trailhead the loop trail bottoms out as it enters Gower Gulch at another trail junction and begins to climb. From this junction it is possible to hike along the lower part of the gulch on an alternative path to the Golden Canyon trailhead. I continued up the gulch on the Badlands Loop.
Within the floor of the gulch several things were evident: there had been a rain event, with at least a minor flash flood in the canyon; someone had walked through the area when it was still wet, leaving over-sized footprints; and the land had subsequently dried up with lots of cracking at the surface of the previous mud.
Unfortunately, someone had also thought it to be a cute idea to draw designs in the ground just to the high side of a small lip next to the main gully floor. Although these were prettily drawn, they still represent vandalism of the park. They will remain in place until sufficient water flow in that exact spot evens out the surface of the ground. Who knows how long that will be? There is fainter evidence of other previous drawings in the background of my picture. I was saddened and angered to find this kind of graffiti vandalism in a protected wilderness area.
Along Gower Gulch the Badlands Loop Trail simply follows the canyon for about 0.7 mile. Here there is no need for signage because the way-finding is obvious. Along the way there were many interesting views of the badlands area, showing more of the colored striping denoting different types of rock.
Along the canyon floor, here and there were bushes such as these desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra). Not surprisingly, this kind of vegetation only seemed to be present in locations where water is at least ephemerally more abundant than in most of the region. It survives in Death Valley because it is perhaps the most drought-tolerant saltbush in North America.
I continued up the gulch and followed a sign to the nearby junction that marked the end of the loop and return to the section of trail hiked in both directions. When I reached the very last part of the trail, I think where the rock-lined path begins, I found some lesser mojavea (Mohavea breviflora). By now this had become one of my favorite wildflowers of the Death Valley.
The entire Zabriskie Point and Badlands Loop Trail area was kind of a lucky find; the hike was interesting and the views were beautiful and different. My next adventure of the day was directly below Zabriskie Point, where I planned to hike in Golden Canyon up toward the lower part of the Badlands Loop.