The northern half of Death Valley National Park is much less visited than the Badwater – Furnace Creek area further south since there are fewer points of interest and not many facilities.
From the main road junction near Stovepipe Wells it is 38 miles along CA 190 to Ubehebe Crater, a deep depression formed by volcanic eruptions about 2,000 years ago.
The long drive (on the ‘North Highway’) serves to emphasise just how much land is contained within the National Park, passing a seemingly never-ending sequence of dark, twisted, rocky hills on one side and vast sandy plains on the other.
The only signposted feature en route is Titus Canyon – a steep limestone gorge with a rough, rocky track (sometimes partly closed in winter) running through it towards road 374.
Apart from a short section leading to the canyon entrance, the route is one-way; the direction of travel is east to west.
Fall Canyon is one of many colorful ravines in the hills surrounding Death Valley in California; shaped by occasional flash floods that flow from the higher mountains beyond, the canyon is remote and little-visited; deep and moderately narrow for many miles, with occasional shaded, cave-like passageways of great beauty.
Some of these narrow, twisting sections are enclosed by smooth granitic walls with an unusual bluish tint. As with most other Southwest canyons, the rocks are layered, but quite differently to the orderly slot canyons of Utah – here the strata are multi-colored, buckled, twisted and eroded, the result of ancient geological forces.
Fall Canyon is easily reached and offers a perfect wilderness experience, though it should be avoided during the summer months when the weather becomes too extreme.
Fall Canyon is located in the Grapevine Mountains, towards the less-traveled north end of Death Valley National Park.
It is close to Titus Canyon, another colorful ravine that is popular because of the rough one-way track that extends through it – this is a 4WD route that starts from road NV 374 in Nevada, crosses the flat Amargosa Valley into California and then winds through the hills and down the canyon, finally emerging into Death Valley after 26 miles where it joins the main park road CA 267.
Two-way traffic is permitted from CA 267 to the mouth of Titus Canyon, and this also provides access to Fall Canyon.
There is a parking area and a short footpath that leads north across sandy hills to the point where the usually dry streamway exits from the enclosing cliffs and spreads out into a wide, stony wash, beyond which the flood waters disperse into the valley.
The streamway at the mouth of Fall Canyon is quite deep and many yards across – larger than that of nearby Titus Canyon, and powerful evidence of the great floods that sometimes rush out following rains over the Amargosa Mountains many miles away.
Upstream the canyon soon narrows and becomes several hundred feet deep. The rock walls are stark, eroded and crumbling, colored variously black, brown and grey, with tints of red and green – often near vertical, but the canyon is not yet particularly narrow despite occasional sections only around 15 feet wide.
The rock strata may be horizontal, vertical or any orientation in between and have an appearance of great age, telling of extensive geological changes.
The character of the ravine remains similar for 3 miles. There are some features of interest such as narrowish side canyons and tight curves in the streamway with channels of smooth rock.
The main canyon becomes deeper – up to 2,000 feet in places – with stepped cliffs and plateaus of increasing height towering above. At the 3 mile point, progress is interrupted by a 20 foot dryfall but this is quite easy to overcome, by scrambling up a slope on the south side.
Thereafter the canyon becomes quite different, forming unusual narrows with sharp bends through smooth, dark, marble-like rock.
Sometimes the channel runs between strata while in other places it cuts through, resulting in contrasting colors and textures.
The streamway opens out after about a quarter of a mile and becomes similar to the lower stretches, but with more frequent narrow passageways.
Fall Canyon extends for at least another 6 miles and could be explored more fully on an overnight backpacking trip; camping is allowed beyond the 2 mile point.
The vegetation changes gradually up the canyon and wildlife becomes more apparent, as the climate becomes slightly more moist; large fero cacti and yucca grow after a few miles, and bighorn sheep inhabit lands above the dryfall.
Walking conditions are generally easy although the surface is mostly composed of small, shifting pebbles, and the walk can become tiring after a while.
This is certainly not a hike for summer – the canyon offers no shade or water and the trip is sufficiently strenuous to become too difficult in the prevailing temperatures of well over 100°F.
Grey Wall Canyon
Another long ravine through the Grapevine Mountains of northeast Death Valley, Grey Wall bears no official name but is surrounded by crumbling, twisted, layered rocks similar to those found around more well known canyons like Titus, Fall and Red Wall, and which here are predominantly grey-blue in color.
It is not quite as deep or narrow as these other canyons further south and is a little more difficult to reach, yet is equal in tranquility and the stark beauty of the surroundings.
Grey Wall Canyon is the first major drainage south of Grapevine Canyon, which is home to Scotty’s Castle and provides the northern entrance route into Death Valley National Park, via road CA 267.
This turns southeast after the ranger station, staying level for 1.5 miles then bends to the south and descends towards the middle of the valley, crossing the dry wash that emerges from the end of Grey Wall Canyon about 3.5 miles after the side road to the Mesquite Spring Campground.
A hike to the narrows can start either by walking directly up the streamway – the longest but easiest option – or walking cross-country beginning from the bend in the road.
This is about a mile shorter though the terrain is quite uneven, with several steep, branched ravines to be crossed.
For 4 miles upstream from the park road, the creek bed is wide and stony, filled with large banks of pebbles and boulders washed down from the mountains above, and bordered by low dusty hills dotted with straggly bushes and occasional cacti.
Then the cliffs begin to rise, forming a canyon, as the creek penetrates further into the Grapevine Mountains after having gained just over 1,000 feet in elevation since the road.
The streamway continues to ascend steadily but gently, with no dryfalls, and eventually constricts, becomes more rocky and enters the first of several short slot-like passages, shallow though quite pretty, formed of alternating whitish grey and brown layers.
Some of the walls are worn smooth by the seasonal floods, and in places the canyon floor contains ‘chutes’ where the waters have polished a course down bare rock.
The cliffs and hillsides above are also mainly greyish and contain strata at various angles, all rather worn and weathered – in fact the whole scene has a distinct air of tiredness, the colors rather muted, as if in response to the harsh desert environment
The canyon splits after half a mile of narrows; the right branch seems not so interesting while the left is still initially narrow then widens soon after. It takes between 2 and 3 hours to reach this fork in the drainage.
Red Wall Canyon
Red Wall is the next major ravine beyond Fall Canyon, in the quieter northern half of Death Valley National Park but unlike its neighbour there is no road to the entrance nor even a signpost and this canyon is much less often explored despite having comparable scenery.
The streamway passes dryfalls, narrow channels, twisted igneous rock formations and variously textured walls with red the dominant colour.
As it progresses far into the Grapevine Mountains on the east side of the main valley the surrounding slopes, initially barren, become covered by fine cacti and yucca as the elevation increases, and the course can be followed for many miles once past the sole major obstacle, a 15 foot chokestone quite near the start.
The canyon is situated in the eastern mountains along CA 267, half way between the CA 190 junction and the northern park entrance station near Scotty’s Castle.
It begins 2.5 miles from the road and may be identified from a distance by a conspicuous change in color of the rocks at edge of the foothills, from red to black.
There is no obvious trailhead or starting point; parking is anywhere along the edge of the road about 4.3 miles north of the side track to Fall Canyon.
CA 267 climbs slowly from below sea level around Stovepipe Wells and by this point has reached an elevation of 400 feet, enough to look back south over a great expanse of the valley which is visible for over 20 miles towards Tucki Mountain.
Red Wall Canyon exits the edge of the mountains 1,000 feet above the main road, and is separated from it by a vast, gently sloping alluvial fan that takes an hour of quite tedious hiking to traverse – over loose gravel, rocks and boulders, past spiky plants and bushes, and across many flood channels and piles of pebbles.
When finally the hills are reached the canyon begins abruptly and is soon deep and impressive, as crumbling, weathered cliffs rise high above. Walking is still quite tiring at first, over shifting gravel and soft sand, but these are replaced by bare, red layered rocks when around a few bends the canyon narrows and the walls become sheer.
Titus Canyon is the largest of many ravines that cut through the Grapevine Mountains, on the east side of Death Valley, and unlike some of the others (such as Fall Canyon, Grey Wall Canyonand Red Wall Canyon), it contains no significant obstructions, allowing an unpaved road to follow nearly the full length; a one-way, 26 mile route starting in the east along Hwy 374 (in Nevada), rising gently to 5,250 foot Red Pass then descending along the canyon.
The narrowest, deepest and most spectacular part of the drainage is the lower two miles, and this is also suitable for hiking; starting at the mouth of the canyon, reachable by a less rough, two way track forking off the main park drive, 15 miles north of the Hwy 190 junction; the same track used for hikes to adjacent Fall Canyon.
Traffic on the road is usually light, with maybe one vehicle every ten minutes at the busiest times, despite this being the most popular backcountry drive in the national park, so for most of the day the peace of the canyon is undisturbed.
The floor is nearly all covered by large, often loose pebbles, with just a few patches of sand or bare rock, and although periodic floods can cause brief closures, for most of the year all is completely dry.
High walls around the lower section create some shade, extending the hiking season, but the place is still not advisable for visits on foot during the hot summer months.
The enclosing rocks are limestone and dolomite (the Bonanza King Formation), in thick layers which are angled, folded and partly metamorphosed, and quite photogenic.
A few minor tributaries join, and at one point the canyon floor drops by around 20 feet in a series of low falls, bypassed by the road. Another attraction is the plant life – the canyon is home to several rare species including Death Valley sage and rock lady (holmgrenanthe petrophila).
The name of the canyon refers to Edgar Titus, an engineer who died somewhere in the vicinity, in 1905.
The gravel road to the parking area at the mouth of Titus Canyon is 2.7 miles long, climbing 800 feet, and is bumpy but not too difficult, suitable for most vehicles including small RVs.
The slopes around the parking area are stony and barren though scattered flowers do grow here including desert five-spot. A ‘No Entry’ sign beside the continuation of the road marks the lower end of the one-way section.
The canyon starts abruptly, as the cliffs right up, soon over one thousand feet above the floor.
The lowest are light grey in color, worn smooth by the occasional water, while higher up the rocks are brown or dark grey, jagged and weathered.
The most abundant large-flowered plants include Mojave aster and desert rock nettle, but the majority of the species are much smaller, growing in sheltered alcoves.
The first part of the canyon has a few tight bends, creating shadowy corners, then the drainage is straight for a while and more open, up to another narrow part, notable for intricate, marbled, grey and white patterns on the walls – dark breccia and whitish calcite.
This is followed by a longer straight, leading to some more bends and then the rocky section where the road climbs a small hill on the right side to avoid the dryfalls.
Just beyond is a narrow tributary, also on the right side, soon leading to a chute and unclimbable fall, this approximately at the end of the most enclosed part of the canyon, and so a suitable endpoint for the hike.
Ahead the gorge is wider, enclosed by noticeably less steep slopes for half a mile, before a second confined section, similar to though less dramatic than the first.
An unusual addition to the great variety of geological features in Death Valley National Park, the Ubehebe Cratersystem contains several volcanic craters, cinder cones and ash hills, all relics from an explosive steam eruption about 2,000 years ago, when rising magma met an underground lake.
Ubehebe is by far the largest crater, 2,400 feet in diameter and 500 feet deep, and presents a very colorful spectacle with variegated, buckled strata around its sides and grey-black ash on the rim – especially pretty at sunset or sunrise.
The region is located in the far north end of Death Valley, reached by a spur road off CA 190, just before the highway turns east and exits the park near Scotty’s Castle.
The paved road to the crater ends at a parking area on the north rim, though an unpaved road continues, bending back south and heading towards various remote back country areas including the Racetrack, where large rocks roll seemingly unaided across a dry lake bed.
Ubehebe Crater has a trail around the rim and a steep path down, though this does not look too exciting and certainly photography is best done from rim level. The crater is even more colorful in spring, when yellow and purple micro flowers grow amongst the jet black ash on the upper slopes.
Other paths wind through more cinder cones and craters, such as the much smaller Little Hebe Crater, which cover an area of several square miles to the south.
One location well-worth visiting is Mesquite Flat, just north of Stovepipe Wells village – here is found the largest collection of sand dunes in the valley.
They can be explored on foot or by driving along an unpaved road that crosses the southeast corner, though this has been closed in recent years.
The colours and contours are especially spectacular at sunrise or sunset, and when seen from along entrance road 374, which is high enough for a good overall perspective view.
There are plenty of active lizards in the dunes including the fast running zebra tailed species as well as many sidewinder rattlesnakes which are primarily nocturnal and spend most of the daylight hours hiding from the hot sun.
35 miles to the north along the main park drive, an unpaved track branches off the paved side road to Ubehebe Crater, leading to the northernmost reaches of Death Valley, where the land begins to rise steeply.
The track climbs to over 1,600 meters across the Last Chance Mountains, a remote area that became part of the National Park following the boundary extension in 1995. Nearby, in the adjacent Eureka Valley, the Eureka Sand Dunes rise to 700 feet, the highest in the park, and comparable in size to the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado.
The valley is completely enclosed by mountains and has no outlet, so the sand continues to accumulate. The dunes were formerly designated a National Natural Landmark, but they remain little visited due to their isolated location and the poor quality of the approach roads.
The northern entrance road to Death Valley (NV 267) climbs up Grapevine Canyon shortly before Ubehebe Crater. Along here, explorer and mineral prospector Walter E. Scott built a replica Spanish manor house in 1922, now known as Scotty’s Castle and owned by the National Park Service.
The relatively high elevation (3,000 feet) made this quite a comfortable place to live, and nearby springs provided a reliable year-round water supply.
Today, there is a petrol station, a restaurant and an expensive hotel. Tours of the castle are available for $8, and Scotty’s tomb can be visited, on a hill behind the buildings.
The Grapevine Springs provide a year round water source from a collection of streams, pools, cascades and springs stretching several hundred feet along the cliffs that line the valley a mile northwest of the entrance station near Scotty’s Castle.
Some of the water is piped away by the NPS and the site is not an official attraction but is easily reached, either by walking along the access track or hiking half a mile across the desert from the park road.
The streams flowing from the springs are lined by densely growing bushes and reeds between which the ground is more open, though shaded by large cottonwood trees that provide shelter for various ruined wooden shacks and modern NPS buildings.
The most interesting area is where the waters emerge from the cliffs, amidst layered travertine formations, colorful mineralised rocks, palm trees and barrel cacti.
Bonnie Claire Flat
Beyond Scotty’s Castle, a few miles into Nevada on the north side of the road is the Bonnie Claire Flat, a dried lake bed that was featured in the film Delusion (1991).
The road is mostly unfenced and it is easy to drive onto the mud flats, to rest or to camp. This is one of the most eerie and evocative places I have ever spent the night in the US.
In the baking heat of an August evening, only 2 other cars passed by in five hours after sundown; the sky was completely clear with innumerable brilliant stars yet a fierce, hot wind blew for most of the night, often rocking the RV by an alarming degree.
The sense of isolation was heightened by the stark, black outlines of the barren hills that seemed to enclose the lake flats in all directions.