Complete Guide to Hiking at Death Valley: Beginner to Advanced Hikers
July 20, 2021
Travel date April 2021
Most people don’t think of the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America as a premier hiking destination. Hiking is only advised in Death Valley for a few months of the year. If you love to hike, keep reading for details on all of the park trails and everything you need to know about hiking in Death Valley.
Hiking is fun at Death Valley but the most popular attractions in the park are easy walks from your car. Everything you need to know before visiting Death Valley can be found in our Complete Guide to Visit Death Valley.
The park covers over 3.4 million acres and driving from Father Crowley’s Viewpoint to Ubehebe Crater is almost 2 hours one way. Your itinerary will greatly depend on the length of your visit and your travel pace.
One half day visit to Death Valley is enough time to drive around the southern section of the park including Furnace Creek, Artist’s Palette Overlook and Artists Drive, Badwater Basin, Devils Golf course and Zabriskie Point. This is a great glimpse into the most popular spots. You’ll get a feel for the valley and probably get some pretty epic photographs. But if you have more time, you can explore further.
Full Day Death Valley Itinerary
One Full Day at Death Valley allows time to visit the places above plus the ability to add Dante’s View, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and Harmony Borax Works (Twenty Mule Team Drive).
Multiple Day Death Valley Itinerary
More than One Day at Death Valley allows more time to visit some of the more remote locations in the park. A few of the most popular are Ubehebe Crater, Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, and Father Crowley Vista Point. A longer trip also allows time to hike or relax depending upon your preference.
When is the best time to hike at Death Valley?
The best time for hiking at Death Valley is between November and March when temperatures are cooler. Daytime temps can still get warm but not as hot as summer in Death Valley. Due to extremely hot and dry weather, summer hiking is dangerous at Death Valley and should not be attempted.
During cooler winter months, the park offers 21 hiking trails ranging from 0.4 to 14 miles.
Tips for Hiking at Death Valley
NPS advises visitors to avoid hiking during summer months.
During warm shoulder seasons, it is advised to complete hikes before 10am to avoid midday heat.
Due to the dry conditions in Death Valley, hikers should drink more water than usual even in cool winter months. A minimum of 2 liters is recommended for short day hikes and a gallon or more for longer or warmer hikes. Springs are not common and shouldn’t be considered safe for drinking.
Pre-plan your route. Download offline maps before you visit because you will not be able to access the internet while in most of the park.
Death Valley is primarily wilderness so share your specific hiking plan in advance with a friend or family member for safety. It will be a lot easier for search and rescue teams if they know where you were headed and your overall hiking plan. Cellular service is not available in most of the park, so communicate your hiking plan before you get to Death Valley.
Prepare for survival. Death Valley is mostly wilderness and there is a possibility you may get lost or injured during your hike. Pack your daypack knowing this possibility. Bring supplies to survive overnight or longer if necessary. Be as self sufficient as possible.
We always hike with a first aid kit, a flashlight, waterproof matches, extra food and water, sunscreen and a multi-tool. Depending upon weather, we also pack extra clothing layers.
Hike with a partner for safety or if solo, consider an emergency GPS beacon.
Complete List of Hiking Trails at Death Valley
Death Valley has an abundance of hiking trails for all fitness and mobility levels. Below is a summary listed by the NPS difficulty rating.
There are five hiking trails in Death Valley with easy ratings. Some are paved paths and others are wide open areas where you can determine your own path.
Harmony Borax Works
The Harmony Borax trail is a short 0.4-mile paved loop that is ADA accessible. The educational panels on the walking path share information about the historic Borax mining and processing in Death Valley. It is located 1 mile west of Furnace Creek and has a large parking area with space for RVs.
Salt Creek Interpretative Trail
The Salt Creek Interpretative Trail is one of our 24 Amazing Things to do at Death Valley. The trail itself is a 0.5-mile wooden boardwalk loop. However, the main attraction is the Salt Creek pupfish. These tiny fish can be spotted frolicking in the Salt Creek along the trail.
Educational signs provide details about how these creatures have adapted to survive in the extreme conditions of Death Valley. No other aquatic species can survive the high salinity and temperatures of Death Valley. There are a few species of pupfish but Salt Creek is a great place to see them up close.
We visited in early April and were able to see them spawning. The educational signs explained what this looked like. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recognize pupfish spawning. Pupfish spawn between February and April so that is the best time for hiking the Salt Creek Interpretative Trail.
Badwater Salt Flats
You cannot visit Death Valley without going to Badwater Basin. I wouldn’t consider this a hiking location.
The hike is more of a path from the parking area across the flats. Many families walk a portion and turn around once they get too hot or too bored. But you have to walk about a mile from the parking area to get to the white crusty salt flats that are undeniably Death Valley.
The first mile of the walk is on cracked and dry ground similar to the flats. However, the salt accumulation is too thin to create a white crust. Watch your footing. It is really easy to trip if you aren’t paying attention.
This is my favorite picture from Death Valley. Outside of the frame are others posing for pictures that also look “all alone”.
Natural Bridge is a popular hiking location at Death Valley but it wasn’t my favorite. It is only one mile out and back but I struggled in the midday heat. The trail is located near Badwater Basin and Devils Golf course.
The dirt road to the trailhead was a bit washed out in spots and not a fun drive in a sedan. It is absolutely possible to make this drive in a low clearance vehicle but you might have to wait for oncoming cars to pass so you can drive on the better side of the road.
If you have never seen a natural arch or bridge, you should definitely take the walk. But prepare to walk up a gravel road for most of the way out. There is a nice view over the valley along the way but it is behind you on the way out.
The walk to Natural Bridge was hot and uphill but I don’t remember much more than I didn’t enjoy it. The bridge is pretty but doesn’t compare to the numerous arches and bridges we saw in Utah’s National Parks. Check out How to Avoid Crowds at Arches National Park to plan your trip to the land of endless Arches.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
The National Park Service lists the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes as an easy hiking trail in Death Valley. The trail is listed as 2 miles out and back to reach the highest sand dune.
Mesquite Flats is a section of natural sand dunes. It is located in the Stovepipe Wells Village which is 30 miles from Furnace Creek. The parking area is large with spots for buses and RVs.
There is no marked hiking trail. You are trekking across sand dunes. Visitors just leave their car and walk wherever they like over the dunes.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes is a great location to enjoy sunset or sunrise.
Death Valley Moderate Hiking Trail Details
We only did a few of the moderate hikes at Death Valley. The Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch combination is a great hiking option if you only have time for one trail.
We stayed in Death Valley for 3 days during the first week of April but hiking midday was not an option due to heat. Instead, we woke up early while at Death Valley and did our hiking before the temperatures got too hot.
Ubehebe Crater Loop
Ubehebe has several trail options including the 3-mile Ubehebe Crater Loop, the shorter Little Hebe trail, and the steep walk into the crater. I wouldn’t recommend these walks for anyone with a fear of heights as you walk on the rim of the crater. The steep drop-off warning signs got my heart pumping.
We visited Ubehebe Crater but only walked to Little Hebe Crater and back. The trail continues around Little Hebe but we only went about 0.5-mile out and 0.5-mile back. It was enough for me.
We visited on an extremely windy day and the cinder ash covering the ground wasn’t easy walking. Kevin held my hand as I had a mild freak out about falling into the crater. We were safe but being pushed towards a steep drop-off warning sign by strong winds wasn’t a comforting feeling.
The most adventurous hikers can go down a very steep path to the base of the crater. But they have to make the equally steep climb back out afterward. We saw people of all ages hiking to the base of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley but we opted out.
Darwin Falls is accessed by a rough dirt road near Panamint Springs. A high clearance vehicle is recommended but not necessary.
Darwin Falls is the only year-round waterfall in Death Valley accessible by established park hiking trails. The trail is 2 miles out and back with only 450 feet of elevation gain. Swimming is not allowed at Darwin Falls.
Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop, Gower Gulch Loop
The Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Badlands are a series of trails that can be combined in a variety of ways ranging from 3 to 8 miles.
The maze of canyons and trails can be accessed by two trailheads. Both have large parking areas with toilets. Golden Canyon trailhead is located on Badwater Road. Zabriskie Point trailhead is located on CA-190 (to the right of the observation point).
We started at the Golden Canyon trailhead and combined with the Red Cathedral offshoot and Gower Gulch for a total of 5.62 miles. To avoid the midday heat, we started hiking at 7:30 am after watching the sunrise at Zabriskie Point.
It is a great plan but next time we’d likely start our walk at Zabriskie Point rather than driving to Golden Canyon. We just didn’t realize it was all connected at the time.
This area of Death Valley is a popular hiking destination because it offers a variety of landscapes and terrain to explore. If you only have time for one hike in Death Valley, Golden Canyon is it.
Mosaic Canyon is a 4 mile out and back hiking trail in Death Valley. After a short walk thru a wash, hikers enter narrow smooth marble canyons. Mosaic canyon breccia can be spotted along the trail. It is comprised of a variety of parent rocks locked into natural cement stone. The colorful rock pieces look like an artist-created mosaic.
Many hikers turn around after the first few miles when boulders start blocking the canyon floor. More adventurous visitors crawl over or under the rocks to continue on the trail.
Both Willow Canyon and Sidewinder Canyon trails are accessible via a 0.5-mile dirt road located at mile marker 31.5 on Badwater Road.
The Willow Canyon trail is 4.2 miles out and back with 442 feet of elevation gain. The route is not physically demanding but requires backcountry navigation experience. The canyon and seasonal waterfall are not designated by any signage.
Sidewinder Canyon is 5 miles out and back with 1,580 feet of elevation gain. It is rated as extremely difficult. The trail requires climbing over vertical ledges and squeezing into tiny slot canyons. It should only be attempted by Death Valley visitors with a wilderness hiking experience.
The ridge trail starts at Dante’s View scenic overlook at 5,457 feet above sea level and keeps climbing to Dante’s Peak at 5,704 feet.
The trail starts at the north end of the parking area and continues along ridgelines in the Black Mountains. Many hikers follow the ridge out for a mile or two for the views. The complete trail is 4 miles out and 4 miles back for a total of 8 miles.
Hiking Dante’s Ridge is not recommended if you have vertigo since the majority of the hike has dramatic sweeping views of Badwater Basin (more than 5,500 feet below) and the Valley.
Death Valley Difficult Hiking Trail Details
Death Valley has six hiking trails designated as difficult including Sidewinder Canyon above.
Panamint Dunes is located 4.5 miles east of Panamint Springs. Trailhead access requires a high clearance vehicle.
The unmarked route is sandy, partially rock and uneven. The 8-mile trail has 1,028 feet of elevation gain which doesn’t begin until around mile 3 when you reach the dunes. Afterward, the trail is sandy and strenuous as you cross over the top of four different dunes.
Little Bridge Canyon
Little Bridge Canyon is 7 miles out and back with 1,900 feet of elevation gain. It is unmarked and located at eastbound mile marker 89 on CA-190.
Corkscrew Peak is a peak in the Grapevine Mountains of Death Valley. The shape loosely resembles a corkscrew. The trail is a 7 mile out and back with 3,093 feet of elevation gain.
The scenic views attract only the most dedicated hikers. Inclines after the first 2.5 miles are steep with loose rocks.
Wildrose Peak is located in the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley. The trailhead for Wildrose Peak is located near the Charcoal Kilns and Wildrose campground. To learn more about both the charcoal kilns and the campground, check out our Complete Guide to Death Valley.
Wildrose Peak is 8.4 miles out and back with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. The trailhead and campground are only accessible to vehicles under 25 feet in total length due to steep grades and curves.
This is a great hike for when the valley is hot. We left 90-degree temps in the valley and arrived at a cool 70-degree day at Wildrose due to the elevation difference. Winter can bring snow to this area.
Telescope Peak trail is a 14 mile out and back with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It is the longest hiking trail at Death Valley. The hike is a steady climb through the Panamint Mountains offering a variety of narrow ridges, pine forests and sweeping views of Death Valley. On a clear day, hikers can see the highest peak in the lower 48, Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The trailhead is 1.5 miles past the Charcoal Kilns at the Mahogany Flats campground.
High clearance and 4×4 are recommended for the road beyond the Charcoal Kilns. Those with low clearance vehicles can park at the Charcoal Kilns and walk along the road to reach the trailhead.
Hiking at Death Valley
Although hiking is not the primary attraction at Death Valley, its vast wilderness offers something for everyone. From a short half-mile stroll on a paved path to a double-digit mileage with steep elevation gains.