Desolation Canyon Hike in Death Valley
We’ve all heard how remote and desolate Death Valley is with its stark and lifeless landscapes but often it is difficult to really experience it in that way because of all of the tourists. Desolation Canyon is a place where you can get that remote feeling and it’s only a few miles from the Death Valley Visitors Center and just off of busy Badwater Road.
Desolation Canyon is not well known but offers a fairly short and easy hike into one of the Park’s more colorful and oddly eroded canyons where plant life has still not been able to gain a foothold.
Getting to the trailhead for Desolation Canyon is straightforward. From the Furnace Creek Ranch area, which is the center of the park with its visitor’s center, campgrounds and hotels, take Hwy 190 to Badwater Road. Reset your odometer to zero and then turn south onto Badwater Road. Continue down Badwater Road for 3.7 miles, past the popular Golden Canyon trailhead. Turn left (east) onto a lonely dirt road and in about half a mile you’ll reach a small parking area. There is no sign, official trailhead, or even an improved trail here so just start hiking east and then southeast (uphill and in the wash) towards the obviously narrowing canyon. That is Desolation Canyon. Watch the virtual video tour (below) to get a visual on how the area around the hike looks.
The Death Valley – Star Wars Connection
Back around 1976, the sense of remoteness and desolation of this canyon, along with its unworldly scenery, brought a then little-known filmmaker here. George Lucas was finishing up a movie that told an epic story he had written a few years earlier. That movie was Star Wars (now known as Episode IV: A New Hope).
After filming in England and Tunisia, Lucas was back in Hollywood and needed to shoot a few more scenes. Along with neighboring Artists Palette and Golden Canyon, Lucas used Desolation Canyon for several scenes which appear in the first 20 minutes of A New Hope. Remember when R2D2 and C3PO were roaming through a “desolate” canyon and the sequences of the alien Tusken Raiders? In one scene, a Tusken Raider is riding a large animal and Desolation Canyon is clearly visible in the background.
Although you won’t find any droids or Tusken Raiders there now, hiking into Desolation Canyon is still fun. It has many twists and turns and the views are constantly changing, causing you to wonder “what’s around the next corner?” In some places, the canyon narrows down to only six feet wide and there are a few places where you’ll have to scramble up a five to eight foot rise (see video). But don’t let that stop you. Look for the carved out steps in the rock. There are also many small side canyons that are ripe for further exploration.
This is a great canyon for children to explore on their own. It would be even more fun if they have just recently watched Episode IV of Star Wars. After making the rather ordinary hike from the parking lot, they (and you) will be rewarded with this intriguing little canyon. Except for a few side canyons, there is nowhere else they can go and the only way out is the way you came in.
Below are some pictures of what you will see along the way.
Panoramic view of the Black Mountains and entrance to Desolation Canyon
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Virtual Tour on YouTube
Make sure to watch video in full screen mode and HD 1080p quality!
If you hike the entire canyon, the total roundtrip mileage is about 3 miles. After leaving the parking lot, you’ll reach the mouth of Desolation Canyon in about three quarters of a mile. Once in the canyon, it progressively narrows. The first obstacle to climb, along with a narrow section, occurs in about one mile. This first scramble might scare a few people into turning back, but it’s well worth the effort to climb over and continue on. After that, the canyon widens up again. Then, at about 1.2 miles, it narrows again and there are two more places to scramble over. Again, the canyon widens up and gives you sweeping views of the colorful and heavily eroded, etched hillsides all around you. The canyon finally ends at an impassible dry waterfall at about 1.6 miles from the parking lot.
In the canyon, there are a few forks along the way so always bear right. As mentioned, the side canyons are also fun to explore with most of them ending at a steep, high and impassable dry waterfall.
About 1.3 miles in from the parking lot, Desolation Canyon is less than 0.2 mile from Artists Palette Drive. Artists Palette is a popular attraction in Death Valley and as the name implies, this area is a literal pinwheel of geologic colors. A diverse smattering of oxidized minerals in the twisted geologic sediments here gives the surrounding hills a multitude of colors and hues. Those same colors can be found along the walls in most of Desolation Canyon, adding to the lure of this enchanting place.
With all the chaotic and colorful landscape you’ll find in Desolation Canyon, be sure to stop and look up occasionally. The lighting and views are constantly changing and the return hike offers a whole different perspective. Desolation Canyon is a very enjoyable and fulfilling hike.
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