The Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park is probably the most famous hike in the park, and for good reason.
As you hike along these gorgeous badlands, layers of color begin to unfold that change dramatically throughout the day’s different lighting conditions. It’s one of the most unique hikes I’ve ever done and having hiked it twice, I’ve got lots of tips to share with you on how to have an amazing Golden Canyon hike:
1. When to Hike the Golden Canyon
Death Valley National Park is not a summertime destination, at least in my opinion. The hottest temperature ever officially recorded was in Death Valley at 134°F, or 56.7°C.
I’ve only ever hiked it in January and December, and even then it felt warm.
Each time I’ve started with several layers and shed all but the base throughout the day as it went from sunrise to midday, so if you will be hiking in the warmer months, make it a full moon hike or a sunrise hike -anything to avoid putting yourself in the danger zone!
2. It’s Hot AF Even in the Winter
Even though nighttime and sunrise can feel frigid, the desert experiences 20-30° temperature swings between night and day. Both times I hiked the Golden Canyon I was amazed by how hot I felt by midday. It wasn’t even 70°, but it felt like 90°.
Perhaps it’s that the hike is uncovered, or maybe it’s just the way that the rock absorbs and reflects the heat, but it feels a lot hotter than it actually is!
3. There’s No Water Available
That brings me to my next pointer. Bring the water that you’re going to need! There’s no running water on the trail, so you’re not going to be able to refill.
Even at the trail heads, there’s no running water, though there are bathrooms. However those are pit toilets, so don’t plan on refilling water bottles at trailheads.
When traveling in the desert, I always have several gallons of water in the car, just in case. Be sure to bring at least a liter and a half of water per person for this hike if you plan to do the whole loop.
4. It’s Completely Exposed
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but there aren’t any trees or vegetation on this trail, and it’s completely exposed. So bring some protection, wear sunscreen, and plan for sunshine, unless it’s a rare day when there is cloud cover in Death Valley.
Even then, keep in mind that UV rays can still get through cloud cover!
I don’t say any of this to deter you, but rather to help you prep adequately for what you’ll experience on the trail. If you’re prepared and have timed it right, then it’ll be an amazing, beautiful hike.
5. There are Several Access Points for the Golden Canyon
Now let’s talk about the fun part – there are many different ways to access this hike, and my favorite actually isn’t at the Golden Canyon trailhead. I much prefer to add on the Zabriskie point trail, the most beautiful part of the hike, at least to me.
This provides beautiful undulating mountain view after mountain view that doesn’t get old.
6. There are Many Important Turnoffs and Junctions
Speaking of Zabriskie point, it’s not the only turn off that’s worth checking out.
The best viewpoint on the trail other than Zabriskie is the Red Cathedral. The trail junctions are well-marked, so you’ll see the turn off at the end of the Zabriskie point trail. Definitely take this short detour, and keep following it to the end.
It gets a bit narrow, and you’ll have to duck under a boulder on the trail, but keep going until the trail veers to the left, then you can follow that up to a viewpoint, or to the right where you can follow it up to another viewpoint.
These viewpoint access trails are pretty easy, so if you end up going up a social trail that’s getting sketchy, turn back around because it’s not the right one. The two viewpoint trails are at the very end, right at the red cathedral. Once you’re there you’ll know what I mean.
7. Upgrade Your Hike with a Zabriskie Sunrise
If you’re going to be catching the sunset or sunrise at Zabriskie point, then you might as well do the hike right after, or before.
The lighting throughout the Golden Canyon is just amazing around sunrise, plus it’s much less hot than it will be later in the day.
Also, the earlier you get going, the fewer people there will be on the trail with you should you prefer a more secluded experience. That said, I didn’t encounter the kind of crowds you’d find and see in Yosemite or Mount Rainier in the Golden Canyon hike. I don’t think people think of Death Valley as much of a hiking destination, but rather a drive-up-and-take-pictures destination.
8. Route Options: Point to Point, Out and Back, or Loop
Like I mentioned earlier, you can add on side trails, which I 100% recommend. Here are your options:
Point to point: If you have two cars, park one at Zabriskie point and one at the Golden Canyon Trailhead. I would start at Zabriskie and walk down to Golden Canyon, as you’ll be going downhill that way.
Loop: My guess is most people doing this trip won’t have two cars in order to make it a point to point trail, so if you want to make it a full loop, add on the Gower Gulch! You can start at either Zabriskie or Golden Canyon this way.
Out and Back: There are several ways to approach this. You can just do the Golden Canyon out and back, you can do the Golden Canyon and add on the Red Cathedral and/or Zabriskie Point, or you can make it a loop with all of them, beginning and ending at Zabriskie point, which is shown in the image above.
The two times I’ve done it, I did it as loop hitting all of the things. Although I would rate this as an easy hike, once it gets hot it can feel pretty brutal heading back up to the Zabriskie point.
If I were to cut out anything, it would be the Gower Gulch as I didn’t find that part particularly impressive, but that’s just one girl’s opinion!
9. There are Many Social Trails
As you hike you may notice that there are lots of “social trails” branching off from the main trail.
These cause erosion and are a good way to get lost, so do your best to stick to the trail. There’s always the temptation to go off trail to get a better view or photo, but over time this causes issues with the vulnerable badlands, so please be a good steward of the outdoors and stick to the trail. You can track it on the maps.me app. Just make sure that you download the off-line map before you go to Death Valley where you likely won’t have signal.
I’m proud to say that all of the photos featured in this post were taken from and on the trail, evidence that you don’t need to stray for awesome photos!
I hope this guide helps you to have an amazing Golden Canyon experience in Death Valley. It’s a trail I’d happily do again and again.