Of all the seemingly countless trails through canyons and washes in the million-plus acre Death Valley National Park, the Golden Canyon Trail is the one of the most popular, and with good reason. A brightly colored land of chaotic geology that defies the imagination — yet possessing a feeling of openness and ease — it’s both imposing and inviting. What’s more, the trail is doable for all skill levels, ranging from easy hiking to more advanced explorations.
If you have time, the best way to enjoy Golden Canyon is via the Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch Loop. This four-mile hike leads one mile up the aptly named Golden Canyon toward the deceptively tall Manly Beacon, then back down to the gnarled, rocky walls of Gower Gulch. The trail is largely interpretive, and you may make your own way at your own leisure. There are plenty of side canyons, nooks, and crannies to explore; let your spirit guide you.
A set of tall canyon walls greet you at the entrance, their bizarre beauty only fully comprehendible once you can look back at them. These walls soon give way to grand alluvial fans of clay and mud as the canyon widens. Within the first mile, a well-marked spur leads to Red Cathedral, a monument of carnelian cliffs composed partly of oxidized iron, giving them their color. They tower over badlands carved over millennia by the emptying of a prehistoric lake and many flash floods thereafter.
In this landscape, sunken more than ten thousand feet below Death Valley’s highest rim, hikers are quite apparently small, both relative to the rocks surrounding and to the mighty expanse of time that composed them. A strange feeling of resignation followed all the hikers on a recent MLK Day weekend, as if people had accepted their fate to carry up that quiet canyon, in a valley named Death. Because the canyon can be busy, it can be good to post up in the shade and watch people go by, or escape into a side canyon altogether. Out of earshot and eyesight of other trekkers, you feel the barrenness of the land, ancient, timeless, and silent, as it has been for centuries.
At about a mile, the trail rises up the slopes of Manly Beacon, a spire of golden-white rock that looms much larger as you get closer. Named after William J. Manly, who helped save the nearly-doomed party of 49ers (a member of whom famously coined the valley’s present-day name), this roost affords astounding views of all the colorful badlands, with their subtle rainbows of cinnamon and tan-colored striations, plus the salt flats beyond, and the towering Panamint Range. This is where many hikers stop before turning around.
Keep going, and you’ll begin a gradual descent through the no less fascinating Gower Gulch, a stupefying canyon of rocky walls and contorted cliffs, displaying surprising colors like green and purple. “Death Valley is the Grand Canyon put into a juicer and minced,” said geologist, author, and guide Wayne Ranney, and the crazed beauty of this gulch exemplifies his statement. There’s not really a trail here, you just continue down the wash. You may come across an old borax mine opening, perilous to enter and most likely barred off by the National Park Service, but very exciting to witness.
The trail descends through a narrow wash, and you may wonder if you’ve lost the track. Shortly, the walls widen, and you once again can see the valley floor open up before you, with tiny cars crisscrossing its surface. Their dainty presence is a reminder that you haven’t left the planet altogether, but on your hike back to your own car, you may wonder. There’s hardly a place on Earth as spectacularly spacey as this landscape, so seemingly unearthly and yet so very earthly, a graceful expression of nature’s abstract art.