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Death Valley National Park, CA

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Death Valley (DVNP) is the largest national park outside of Alaska, encompassing over 3.3 million acres. DVNP is a land of extremes: mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, 11,000 foot summits, summer temps exceeding 120°F/49°C and rainfall less than 2 inches/5 cm per year. But these extremes combine to form a beautiful environment year round... go high or go low and you'll find stunning vistas.

Titus Canyon Road

Of several possible entrance roads accessing Death Valley, the unpaved approach through narrow Titus Canyon remains the most dramatic. The 27-mile, one-way road offered spectacular scenery, a ghost town, narrow canyons, and countless other points of interest.

map of titus canyon death valley national park

Although not required, we rented a high-clearance 4WD truck for driving through DVNP. We felt safer driving the rocky, rutted, and canyon-hugging roads of Death Valley in a big-ass truck. Starting our adventure on Titus Canyon Road was without a doubt the right decision!

truck for driving titus canyon death valley national park

There were incredible views right from the start.

Leadfield Ghost Town

The short-lived town of Leadfield was built on one of the biggest schemes in Death Valley history. In 1926, people swarmed to the area inspired by advertising that greatly exaggerated the potential of ore in the region. The town quickly shut down; all that remains are a few rusty metal buildings.

Leadfield ghost town,death valley national park, driving titus canyon road

As we approached the end of the road, we saw several big-horn sheep climbing the hills of the canyon.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We took a leisurely walk through the sand dune areas. These dunes cover more than 14 square miles and although they're the smallest of the 5 major dunes in DVNP, they are the most easily accessible. We timed the drive just right so we could sit atop one of the dunes for sunset.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, death valley national park

Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop and Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriski Point 6.8 miles

The loop hike is one of the more popular hikes in DVNP. We decided to hike these trails to get familiar with the terrain before venturing into the more remote slot canyons.

As you enter Golden Canyon, layers of yellow/golden colored sediment with sand and large boulders lined the walls of what was once the bed of Lake Manly, which vanished over 10,000 years ago. Over time, pressure and geological forces fused these once loose materials into sold composites. The trail branched off to the bright red cliff of Red Cathedral. Scrambling up several rock piles and traversing a narrow ridge provided access to a great spot overlooking Golden Canyon and surrounding mountains.

The next section of trail passed directly in front of Manly Beacon. The trail traversed along the base of this monolith where it joined the Badlands Loop leading to Zabriski Point.

At the top of Badlands Loop we had a terrific view and could look back at Manly Beacon, the tall peak in the second picture below.

We hiked back into the canyon and then up 0.3 miles to Zabriski Point. Unfortunately, views from the Point were anticlimactic; hiking in the terrain was so much better than the views from this scenic overlook. After a short rest at Zabriski Point, we returned to the Badland Loop until it joined Gower Gulch, a wide, gravel-filled wash that drains into the salt flats. We followed the wash downhill until we returned to starting point of the hike.

Sidewinder Slot Canyon 4.3 miles

Sidewinder was our 'big' hike in DVNP; it's described as both physically and mentally demanding with climbs up vertical ledges over 6 ft high and squeezing or crawling through tight spaces 1.5 ft wide.

Not the typical starting point for one of our hikes. A sign stated, you are entering a designated wilderness zone.

dirt road leading to Sidewinder Slot Canyon, death valley national park

The directions to the trail set the stage for this adventure.... "an unmarked gravel access road is located on Badwater Road between mile markers 31 and 32. Travel on the access road for 0.3 miles until you reach a gravel pit. Park the car. The mouth of the canyon is located 0.5 miles south of the gravel pit". The silver speck in the bottom right corner was our big-ass truck.

Sidewinder Slot Canyon wash, death valley national park

Sidewinders Canyon started out as a wide wash but as you traveled further the canyon walls rose and constricted as you approached the end of the trail.

Unfortunately, we did not find the opening of the first slot canyon. But we easily found the second 'official' slot about 1.5 miles into Sidewinder. The walls were mostly conglomerates with boulders wedged into cement-like covered walls. Photography was difficult because of the lighting levels and narrow passage, but we did get a nice pic of a boulder lodged between the walls. We spent about 25 minutes exploring the slot and was it fun! Here's Dave standing in the slot opening.

Walls covered with conglomerates.

Stopping for a water break and picture since more light filtered into the slot.

After returning to the main canyon, we hiked another 0.25 miles to the opening of slot 3.

At the start, the slot had a mostly level and sandy floor with no obstructions and sunlight illuminating the path. Slowly the slot became more 'interesting' with a narrowing of the passageway and large boulders lodged overhead. The slot was at times less than shoulder-width. We needed our headlamps in several sections when the trail became dark with the rising walls and narrowing of the overhead opening.

Light filtering from 10-15 feet above our heads

As you can see, Dave likes 'action' pics with these rocks!

Our first big challenge required us to crawl on our hands and knees for 5-7 feet around the base of a boulder that was blocking the trail. Previous on-line reports stated that gravel had filled in this crawl space and prevented further access to the slot. Lucky us!

Another squeeze under a massive boulder and the slot opened wide.

The trail quickly narrowed again right before our next challenge....climbing a 10 feet high dryfall. Fortunately there were some great hand and foot holds to make it possible.

The trail continued past the dryfall. We hiked for a short distance then decided it was time to turn around. We had spent over 90 minutes exploring this slot.

Video highlighting a section of slot 3.

Side Trips: Badwater Basin and Artist Palette Drive

Badwater Basin the lowest point in North America - 282 feet below sea level.

The 9-mile Artist Drive meanders through canyons and mountains colored by the oxidation of metals and elements found in the ground here. Red and pink colors are the result of iron-rich hematite oxidation; golden and yellow colors are the result of iron oxidation; decomposing volcanic ash deposits add green color to the palette; and the purple color is from manganese, which produces everything from purple and blue to even a slight green.

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