Death Valley: Super Bloom and Stunning Hikes

death valleyMarch 25-28, 2016

A long weekend spent exploring Death Valley canyons, craters, mountaintops, and dunes amidst the super bloom with friends Steph, Adina, Krista, and Thibault.

our stay 
We spent the days hopping from spot to spot in the expansive park, hitting as many points as possible: Mosaic Canyon, Ubehebe Crater, Golden Canyon, Zibriskie Point, Badwater, Sidewinder Canyon, The Devil’s Golf Course, Artists’ Drive, Dante’s View, and the Mesquite Dunes. Each of our 3 nights in the park, we sought out dispersed camping along the dirt roads, finding spots on Death Valley Rd, Hole in the Wall Rd, and Furnace Creek Wash Rd. During the warm days we set off on amazing hikes and in the evenings we gazed at the countless stars in the dark, desert sky. Throughout it all, we were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the super bloom and all its colors, shapes, and beauty.

All of our campsites and hikes

day 1: Mosaic Canyon
On Thursday after work, Steph, Thibault and I escaped the Bay Area and drove through the evening to a roadside KOA in the small southern Sierra town of Weldon, CA. Arriving at 11:30pm, we did little more than pull up, stake out, and crash. In the morning, we quickly packed up and got back on the road, stopping briefly in the town of Ridgecrest to grab coffee and food. The surroundings quickly turned to expansive desert views and joshua tree forests. Not long after leaving Ridgecrest, a military jet flew low overhead, seemingly skimming the top of the car.

Finally arriving at the park boundary and making our way over the pass and descended toward Stovepipe Wells where Adina and Krista were waiting for us. Adina had spent the previous night in the Stovepipe Wells parking lot campground and based on her experience and our observations, we decided we’d definitely try to find dispersed camping.

mosaic canyon hike

Total distance: 3.62 mi

Our merry band together, we set off to explore the nearby Mosaic Canyon. The hike was a pleasant, slightly uphill affair. After a short distance we arrived at a small dry fall that we scrambled up to continue on. The mostly wide canyon was an enjoyable first taste of what Death Valley would offer us. There were colorful walls, a few flowers (announced by the first to spot them with a shout of “super bloom!”), scrambles, and plenty of desert views.

After hiking back down the canyons we got back in our cars and decided to head north to Ubehebe Crater. On the way we were awarded amazing views back toward the Mesquite Dunes and we started to tune our eyes to catch the small patches of color that were the vibrant signs of various desert blooms. Arriving at the crater, we realized we had precious little daylight left. Not wanting to try to find a campsite after dark, and already having stopped at the no-vacancy Mesquite Spring campsite, we decided to head back down the road to the Death Valley Rd turn off and come back to the crater in the morning.

campsite: Death Valley Road

Death Valley Road is a dirt road just south of Ubehebe Crater. The park allows dispersed, roadside camping on most dirt roads starting 1 mile from the paved road. After bouncing down the washboard for just over a mile, we spotted a great place to pull our vehicles over and a wide, flat area to pitch our tents. That night we were treated to our first desert night sky and the countless stars it has to offer. There were a few hours between sunset and moonrise during which we stargazed and pointed out constellations to each other before retiring to our tents to rest up for the next day.

In the middle of the night I awoke to a bright light coming down the road. It seemed much too late for campers to be driving down the road. After a moment of seeing that the light was not moving, I realized it was the bright, just barely waxing gibbous moon lighting up the desert like a spotlight.

day 2: Ubehebe Crater, Golden Canyon, Zibriskie Point

In the morning, we congregated in the flat area near our tents, had our breakfasts and planned our day. First stop was back to the crater. Ubehebe is a massive hole in the ground. As you approach on the road, the surrounding landscape changes dramatically from the brown and tan rocky terrain to a coating of dark black, pulverized rock. When we pulled up, no one else was there, so we had the craters, the view, and the morning to ourselves.

ubehebe crator

Total distance: 3.56 mi

The crater is a half mile wide and over 700 feet deep and is some 2,000 to 7,000 years old. It was created by geothermic activity during which, according to wikipedia, magma, “flashed groundwater into steam, throwing large quantities of pulverized old rock and new magma across the stony alluvial fan draped across the valley floor.”¹ The eastern side is a study in the sediment that makes up the earth we were walking on. We hiked south from the parking area along the edge of the massive crater toward Little Hebe, a smaller crater that sits nearby.

Walking around Little Hebe, we found more evidence of the super bloom(!) sprinkled on the dark, rocky soil. Splitting up and walking different ways around the area surrounding the crater, we each enjoyed the remarkable landscape, contemplating the geological forces that created such wonder.

We regrouped near the south eastern edge of the main crater and made our way around the far side of it back toward the parking area where a trail led down the gentler western edge to the belly of Ubehebe. It was a humbling to be surrounded by the massive walls, towering some 700 feet above us. Along the eastern edge, we explored the short, narrow slots made from years of erosion and water flow.

As it turned out, the hike down was much easier than the the hike back up. But back up we went and soon we were on our way to our next stop.

We drove south passing back the way we came and stopped to eat lunch at Furnace Creek with its stores, visitor center, massive RV park, and, ahem, golf course. From there we continued south toward Golden Canyon to do the loop that brings you to Zibriskie Point and back.

golden canyon loop to zibriskie point

Total distance: 8.22 mi
Max elevation: 791 ft
Min elevation: -46 ft
Total climbing: 1719 ft

The canyon was truly impressive. Bright, sun-bleached walls rose from either side of the canyon floor. We twisted around corners and looked up side canyons that joined the main canyon. We marveled at the forces that could create such a place and shuddered at the thought of those forces suddenly changing the bone dry conditions we walked in. When the trail split, Adina scouted ahead toward Zibriskie while Steph, Krista, Thibault and I went on to check out the sights Red Cathedral.

There was a great view back toward the valley from Red Cathedral. The canyon we’d hiked up twisted out of view. The rounded out spines of other side canyons pierced the surrounding rock. Slanted tones of brown and tan streaked through the formations. And behind us rose the towering wall of the Red Cathedral.

After getting our fill of the view, the 4 of us bounded back down the trail toward the Zibriskie Point turn off. From there, we had to climb out of the canyon as we made our way east. The oppressive heat of the late afternoon sun made the climb up Manly Beacon tough, but the views of the rolling hills, eroded canyons, and smattering of colors made it worth it. Before the final part of the trail up to Zibriskie, we met back up with Adina, who was taking a quick break in the precious shade of a small cliff.

Up at the point, we had a remarkable view of the hills and canyons. The brown palette decorated the undulating hills all around us, lighter at the lower points and becoming darker as the more severe peaks rose up.

From Zibriskie Point, we took the large wash of Gower Gulch back down toward the valley. The slowly dropping sun lit up the canyon walls in golden tones as we made our way down. Finally out of the canyons, we hiked north along the edge where the hills meet the valley toward the vehicles and set off to find our campsite for the night.

campsite: Hole in the Wall Road

Driving first north then turning back south along the opposite side of the Black Mountains, we passed the turn off for Zibriskie (where those who do not want to make the hike from Golden Canyon can easily access it from a parking lot). Not far past that, we turned left onto Hole in the Wall road. The light was swiftly failing as the sun had set just about the same time we’d made it back to the cars. With just enough light to see, we found a decent spot and made camp in the hard, rocky ground. The countless stars shone above us as we collected to have dinner and plan for the next day’s adventures.

day 3: Badwater, Sidewinder Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course, Artists’ Drive
After getting up, breaking camp, and having breakfast, we set off to loop back around the mountains where we’d been the afternoon before and head further south to explore that end of the valley and eventually Sidewinder Canyon.

On the way, we stopped at Badwater. Since the hour was still relatively early, the air was cooler and the crowd was thinner. Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America. Interestingly, it’s only about 85 miles from Mt Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, where I had been just 8 months earlier and where Steph and I will be in 5 months’ time.

The ground is blindingly white, coated in a crust of salt. It’s in the heart of the valley and its flat expanse extends out for quite a distance before the ground rises sharply to form the snowcapped peaks of the Panamint range on the western edge. It’s something to see the hot, white salt underfoot contrasted with the cold, white snow on Telescope Peak looming on the far side of the valley. We empathized for the plight of the poor settlers and their pack animals who made their way across this “valley of death” many years ago. “Thinking of the settlers” had become a theme at this point.

After our excursion in Badwater, we headed back to the car, noting the “Sea Level” sign perched high on the rock wall above us. From there, we headed south through another sea of golden desert sunflowers on our way to Sidewinder Canyon.

Arriving at the Sidewinder parking area, we noticed we were once again alone. The cars thinned as we headed south from Badwater, the last main tourist stop along the road. After loading up our packs, slathering on sunscreen, and filling up our water bottles, we were ready to head off. Unfortunately, I took us into the wrong canyon at first, but we hadn’t gone far before I realized my mistake. Back out toward the valley and along the edge of the canyon mouths we went.

sidewinder canyon and slot canyons (the slot canyons confused my gps device)

Total distance: 10.99 mi

Sidewinder is a large, relatively unremarkable wash that cuts through the hills toward the valley. The canyon itself wasn’t the draw, though. It was the slot canyons that cut off the side of Sidewinder that brought us there. On our way to the first one we’d marked on the map, we took a short detour to explore a side canyon. It took us all the way to the top of the Sidewinder Canyon wall where we had some impressive views back toward the valley. We could also see the entrance to the first slot. Unfortunately, the walls were too steep for us to find a safe way down, so we headed back out the canyon we’d come up and continued up the main canyon.

Arriving at the first slot, we realized we’d have to scramble a little to get in. The entrance was nearly completely blocked by huge boulders. A little scramble up and a squeeze through a tight spot and we were inside the slot. The hike was quite the experience. The narrow canyon was bordered by towering walls. At places it was so narrow and the walls so high that the sunlight was completely blocked and we had to break out our headlamps to continue on. In one of these dark sections we ran into a wall and initially thought our exploration of that canyon was over. However, Kirsta handily climbed up and scouted ahead, finding that the canyon did, in fact, continue on. We all followed her up and ended up climbing up a few more walls before we emerged back into the daylight. After several more twists and turns of the narrow path, Thibault scouted ahead while the rest of us took a breather. He announced that the way ended a bit ahead and we decided to make our way back down to check out the next slot canyon further up.

We scrambled back down the walls we’d climbed and through the dark, claustrophobic passage toward the mouth of the canyon. The next slot is not far up Sidewinder, so within a few minutes we were climbing our way into its narrow halls. This one did not get as dark as the first one and the dry falls to climb, while more numerous, were not as tall. Eventually we emerged into a wider area, closer to the top of the canyon walls. The ground here was much looser than the walls of the canyon, though still made of the same conglomerate rock. Here, though, the pieces that made it up, easily broke free and tumbled down the hill as we scrambled higher. This didn’t deter Thibault and I from making our way up the treacherous, crumbling wall to the canyon lip. From there we could see back down the canyon-riddled hills to the expansive salt flat of the valley and the peaks beyond.

The way down from the lip was a little more difficult than the way up. Taking turns, so as not to dislodge large boulders on each other, we crab walked down the the steepest, crumbliest part of the course while the ladies watched from a safe distance below. Rocks broke free underneath us and careened down the steep slope, but luckily they didn’t take either of us with them. When we reached the area where the ladies were patiently waiting for us to finish our (probably foolish) adventure, Thibault and I took a break. Adina, Krista and Steph headed up a more sensible route to get to a high point to see the view.

After their return, we made our way back down the narrow slot canyon and eventually back to Sidewinder. While there was one more slot canyon marked on the map, we decided we’d better not risk the time it would take to explore it, as it was already well past lunch time and we’d only brought snacks with us. So, saving that adventure for another trip, we made our way back toward the cars.

After a quick lunch break in the parking area for Natural Bridge, we decided to make use of the remaining daylight to check out Devil’s Golf Course and drive through Artists’ Drive near sunset before getting ourselves to the road where we planned to camp.

Devil’s Golf Course is an area of severe, sharp, brown salt formations on the valley floor. Its alien landscape is as compelling to behold as it is difficult to traverse. The view of the eastern edge of the canyon from that area is a mosaic of browns and tans in watercolor smears and bold strata.

Next was a leisurely trip through Artists’ Drive to end our day. The colors of the rock formations here are impressive. Patterns and colors decorated the rock walls around us as we made our way through this scenic drive and the low, golden sun amplified the effect. It was a beautiful ending to a great day.

campsite: Furnace Creek Wash Road

We’d hoped to make it to Dante’s View before the sun got too low, but on our way, we realized that might not be possible. Deciding to put it off until morning, we cut off the road onto Furnace Creek Wash road where we’d planned to camp that night. The floor here was nearly carpeted with different varieties of flowers. It was the most beautiful camping spot yet, and fitting for our final night. During dinner and star gazing, we were joined by some friendly ants that particularly liked Krista. We agreed to try to wake up early to get up to Dante’s as the sun started to light the sky.

day 4: Dante’s View, Mesquite Dunes
We woke a little later than we’d planned, but still early enough to catch some impressive views from Dante’s. The valley stretched out in either direction and the mountains on the western side rose up from it. The sky was lightly cloudy, and the dappled sunlight slowly crawled down the sides of the mountains toward the valley floor. This vista, at nearly 5,500 feet, is perched directly above the -282′ Badwater Basin below. As such, it was much cooler and the wind was absolutely whipping. That didn’t deter any of us from heading out on the trails to gain different views of the desert laid out below.

We collected back at the cars and Steph, Thibault and I said our goodbyes to Adina and Krista. Adina, having spent a day in the park before we arrived, had already explored our next destination. So, she was taking Krista back to where her car was parked at Stovepipe Wells. The three of us were headed to make a stop at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes on our way out of the park.

The sun was fully up by the time we made it to the dunes but since it was still early, the heat had not yet set in. We were thankful for that as we trudged up and down across the sand dunes, our eyes set on the furthest, tallest dune. The crowd of people thinned as we made our way further into the dunes and before we knew it, we were making the final climb up to the tallest dune. The view all around was an iconic desert scene. Rolling dunes, small patches of sandstone, scrubby bushes here and there fighting to survive.

As we turned to head back, the wind started to pick up. Before long it was sandblasting our exposed skin and clouding the air above the tips of the dunes. With nothing to do but endure the stinging sand and fight our way through the wind, we progressed back to where we’d come from. Covered in sand and feeling accomplished, we finally made it back to the car and thus ended our Death Valley adventure.

From crater to canyon to peak to dune, we covered a large area of the impressive park. Finding the dispersed sites along the dirt roads made for a much better camping experience than what we’d seen in the campgrounds and we were happily surprised each night by our campsite discovery. Our little band of old and new friends made for great companions as we explored this selection of the many adventures Death Valley has to offer.

Death Valley Super Bloom Wildflowers

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