Death Valley’s Gower Gulch Loop Hike through Golden Canyon

Death Valley’s Gower Gulch Loop Hike through Golden Canyon

The first time we were in Death Valley, we tried to do the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch Loop hike. We tried, but didn’t succeed, because the beginning of the hike, the Golden Canyon portion, is on the tourist must-do list. It was so busy the last time we were here that we turned around and found another canyon, the fabulous Desolation Canyon, that just happened to be deserted and beautiful.

To quote Edward Abbey, “I find that in contemplating the natural world, my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

We were happy to leave it at that, but we got a comment on our Desolation Canyon post from the Last Adventurer, who thought we really missed out on a great hike when we bailed on Golden Canyon. Of course, that put this hike at the top of our to-do list when we returned to the valley. This time we planned better, arriving early on a Monday morning. The lot is only big enough to officially fit about 15 cars and 4 RVs. There were still a few empty spaces, so we took this as an encouraging sign.

As soon as you enter Golden Canyon, you see why it got its name. It’s made up of buttery yellow rock that looks soft enough to spread on a piece of toast. After a few twists and turns, the butter rock yields to some turquoise and pink rock, then some regular old brown rock, then you’re walking between piles of white dirt that look like mounds of sugar. (I may be hungry while writing this.) Up ahead, a cliff of red rock spires is visible. It looks like a miniature version of Bryce Canyon, but more red than orange. The trail forks, and you can walk a quarter-mile to get a closer view of the red cliff, called the Red Cathedral, or continue on the loop trail. This is where Golden Canyon officially ends.

This is the steepest section of the trail, as it climbs up and over the loose sugar hills between Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch (OK, they are made of ancient volcanic mud, as much as they might look like old frosting). You then skirt Manly Beacon, a dramatic bluff made up of slightly harder frosting, on a path under its sheer face that makes you feel like a mountain goat. At this point, the official instructions tell you that the trail ends and you should follow the wash with the darker dirt downhill through Gower Gulch. When you read this at the trailhead, you’ll think it’ll be hard to find, but when you’re out in a field of white buttercream frosting, the brown, pebbly wash of Gower Gulch is obvious.

On our second visit, we stopped at the overlook above this area, Zabriskie Point. A backpacker was flirting with some girls from a van tour, telling them about how often tourists get lost in these badland canyons, especially after a rain washes out the trail markers. It is a very disorienting place, especially when you get distracted by the many, many side washes that branch off these canyons. This is an area I could easily explore for a week straight and probably not cover every path.

Gower Gulch at first starts off pretty wide, with low badlands on each side. But then it starts to narrow, and the walls start to get more and more interesting. There are old mine shafts, remnants of earlier basalt mines. There’s turquoise, red, white, pink, yellow, orange, black, and brown in the canyon walls. The colors are made by the oxidation of different components in the mud and rock (turquoise is copper, purple is manganese). The walls narrow more and more, the sides tower above you, and finally it becomes my kind of canyon. There are rocky dryfalls to scramble down. Too quickly, it all ends in a 25-foot dryfall (we thought it looked higher) that the trail guide says “may be uncomfortable for some hikers.” There’s a well-worn path around it, though, so no need to let the description scare you off. From this height, you get an amazing view over the valley and salt flat to the Panamint Range and the furious channel carved by the canyon’s runoff.

After the excitement of the canyon, the ¾ mile slog along the cliff base back to the parking lot would be a drag if it weren’t for the great views. If you still have leftover energy, you can explore the small gullies that come off the hills along the trail.

Back at the parking lot, it was a madhouse. A convertible Lexus circled impatiently, waiting for our space. A hot and unhappy group of visitors couldn’t bring themselves to use the pit toilet (just a 3 out of 10 in pit toilet scale, where 10 is the ultimate level of disgusting) and grumbled about what they had to do next (“oh, I guess we’ve got to do Artist’s Drive, ugh”). Why does the return to reality always have to be so rude?

So am I happy we gave this four mile loop trail a second chance? You bet. The Gower Gulch loop just cemented my love of this section of the park. It’s right in the middle of a sprawl of the most interesting, colorful, muddy badlands that stretch from Artist’s Drive to the south, Furnace Creek to the north, and Twenty Mule Team Canyon to the east. When it rains really hard, this mud melts and washes away. The beginning section of Golden Canyon had been paved at some point, some point that was a foot above the current floor of the canyon. The pavement didn’t look that old. It feels transitory, ever-changing. Luckily, it doesn’t rain really hard (or at all) very often. But one day, it will all have washed away.