Hiking Death Valley
Please read this section before doing any
hiking in Death Valley. It contains important
information about the potential
dangers that exist when hiking here.
It also has some
good background information that you should know. We believe in
being responsible hikers and part of that responsibility is taking the time to
familiarize yourself with the area where you will be hiking.
After reading this section, you will have the basic knowledge you'll need to be
a well-prepared, responsible hiker in Death Valley. We want you to be safe
and enjoy these hikes as much as we do!
If you have already read this chapter or are already
familiar with the Death Valley area, click the Hike
List button (above) to see the list of hikes
available in this Guide.
This chapter is divided into 6 sections:
General Hiking Information
Death Valley is a beautiful and awe-inspiring
place to hike but it can also be very inhospitable and
downright dangerous if you are not prepared. Especially being
exposed to the elements as you are when hiking. Our intention with these
statements is not to scare you out of hiking but, rather, to make you aware of
the potential dangers that exist. With common sense and knowledge of some
basic facts, you can stay out of trouble and have an enjoyable experience.
The information we list here is by no means all-inclusive and is meant as a
general guide. If you are
a serious hiker and would like a more in-depth guide for hiking the Death Valley
area, we recommend reading Hiking Death Valley (see
For most people, the best season for hiking is mid-October
to mid-May with October and March being the most ideal months. These two
months typically offer the most comfortable temperatures and longer days.
March probably has a slight edge over October because the mountains will still
have snow and the desert blooming season is at its peak. Click
here to read more about Death Valley's
However, there are hikes you can enjoy at any time of the
year and each season has something different to offer. In winter, the
lower elevations are mild during the day but temperatures drop to below 40°F at night. The higher elevations are just like any other
mountains in winter with snow and ice. Winter days are short and, in
December, the sun sets at around 4 p.m. so take a flashlight if you plan a long
trip. In summer, while the valley is sizzling under triple digit heat
during the day, the higher elevations (above 4,000 or 5,000 feet) are quite
pleasant. Summer days are long and hot and temperatures commonly do not dip
below 100°F for many days in a row.
Always remember where you are - a place where weather
conditions can change rapidly. Extreme heat, flash floods and freezing
are all normal events within the different climates. We strongly recommend that,
before beginning any hike in Death Valley, you know the weather
conditions. And, if possible, stop in at a Ranger Station or the
Visitor's Center to find
out if any particular conditions exist in the area you will be visiting.
Also, the environment of Death Valley is quite different
for most people and your body may not be used to it. So, whenever you set out on a hike, even if it's
a comfortable 75°F and even if it's just a short walk, remember to take plenty of
water and drink it! Don't save it for later.
We strongly recommend that you do not hike alone. As
you read below about the genuine dangers that exist in Death Valley, you will
see that being alone in any of these situations would make them that much more
dangerous. If, however, you choose to "go solo", be sure
that someone (friend, ranger, etc.) knows where are going and when you expect to be back.
Actually, telling someone where you are going and when you
expect to return is not just for those who hike alone. It is always a good
idea, whether hiking or taking a Road Trip, to let someone know where you will
be because, if you do run into trouble, you'll know that someone will miss you
and will know where to come looking for you.
And, lastly, know where the closest place to get help is
located in relationship to where you will be hiking.
General Hiking Information or
Back to top of page
Our Hiking Difficulty Chart
Our chart is broken down into 5 levels of difficulty and is intended as a
general guide only. You will have to assess your own physical condition
before attempting any of the hikes we talk about. The chart is based on
how difficult we found the trail to be and/or what we feel a person of average
physical health could do in a particular hiking situation. As stated in
About Us, we are physically active and
consider ourselves to be in above-average physical condition for our age. We are not
hard-core hikers who carry 50 lb. packs and enjoy "the challenge" of hiking.
For us, hiking is the best way to really see an area and is the means-to-an-end.
Many times, hiking is the only way to get to that spectacular view or isolated mine
The best way to compare your level of fitness to ours is
to take one of the hikes. You may find that our levels are similar or you
may need to adjust for your level one way or another. Use the chart as a
Disclaimer: Be aware that trails
change constantly. Every rainstorm, every season can change the trail
conditions, and therefore the ratings, we describe. Trail ratings are based
on how we found conditions at the time we were there - as of the date of the
pictures. As a general rule, trail conditions are likely to get worse, not better.
So if the Hiking Difficulty Chart suggests to you that your ability to
complete that Hike is questionable, then don't attempt it.
Choose another Hike or try taking a Road Trip
Hiking Difficulty Chart
||A level, paved or graded dirt surface.
More like a stroll than a hike. Sandals or walking shoes are fine. No hiking boots required.
2 - Easy
||Relatively short distances, gentle
grades, no obstacles. Good walking shoes required but not
necessarily hiking boots.
3 - Moderate
||The first true "hike" level, steeper
grades and possibly some rock scrambling. Hiking boots preferred but
4 - Difficult
||Longer distance, steep grades, uneven
or rough terrain, considerable rock scrambling or dry-falls bypassing.
Sometimes the trail may be unclear, unmarked or non-existent and you'll
have to "find your own way". Hiking boots a must.
5 - Strenuous
||This level requires above-average
physical condition and is at the limit of our ability. Steep grades,
long distances, falls to climb or bypass, large rocks to navigate.
We stop to rest often. Good hiking boots a necessity.
Because Mother Nature isn't as precise as our
chart, not all hikes will fit neatly into one of the categories above.
That's when you'll see a "+" sign next to the number. For example, a hike
rated "2+" means that most of the hike is a "2" (Easy) but there may be some
spots that are a little more difficult. These rough spots are described (and
there are probably pictures, too) as you read about the hike.
The Length given
for each hike is always an approximate round-trip mileage. The
Elevation Gain is also approximate but is a one-way
figure. Of course,
both length and elevation gain are based on the route we describe.
Our Hiking Difficulty Chart or Back to top of page
Death Valley's reputation for summer heat is justified. It holds the
record for having one of the highest temperatures recorded on Earth - a sizzling
136°F! Every year, at least one person dies from the extreme heat.
Maybe that's why one of the local mountain ranges is called the Funeral Range.
And these deaths could have been so easily prevented by following some simple,
Rule #1: Drink lots of water
Dehydration is always a threat in Death Valley, especially
during the hotter, summer months. In hot weather, drink every 15-30
minutes and NEVER walk out into the desert without water; even if it's just for
a short walk. Pay attention to your body and watch for signs that you are
not drinking enough water (see Signs & Symptoms below). The most important thing
you can do to battle the heat is
We have listed some of the dangers and their warning signs
below so that you will be aware of them and will know what to do if you
experience them. But remember, all these problems can be avoided by simply
drinking enough water. Drink before you are thirsty.
Signs & Symptoms
Loss of fluids faster than they are being
Persistent thirst; dark urine.
Immediately increase your water intake.
|Excessive loss of fluids
and the ignoring of the signs for dehydration.
|Headache; total body
weakness; shallow breathing; weak and rapid pulse; nausea; excessive
sweating with pale and clammy skin and dizziness that may lead to fainting.
Temperature is still below 104°F.
||Have the victim rest in a
cool location, drink water or a sports drink, spray them with water and fan.
Untreated heat exhaustion may lead to heat stroke.
(also called "Sun Stroke")
This is a very serious situation!
Very high body temperatures can damage muscle and brain tissue and may lead
to permanent disability or death!
|The body's cooling mechanism
has shut down. Heat stroke may or may not be preceded by heat exhaustion and
may come on suddenly.
|Victim's skin is hot, dry
and flushed with little or no sweating and temperature may now be above
104°F. They may develop seizures; be confused; have a rapid, weak
pulse; lose consciousness and have shallow breathing.
|It is vital to get the
victim's body temperature down by whatever means available! Remove
their clothing, get them into a cool place, pour water from your cooler over
them, fan them, get them into the closest air conditioning (car?). If
you have ice, place it under the armpits, in the groin, behind the knees,
around the neck. Call for emergency help immediately!
The information given above is intended to
guide you and is certainly not meant as medical advice. For more
information about heat-related illness, we suggest your local library, the internet
Know your limits
Most people are not used to the heat and dryness of a
desert. Both factors increase the amount of water loss to your body.
Avoid hiking in the middle of the day. If you start a hike and find that
you didn't bring enough water, turn around and go back. Don't risk
dehydration or worse.
Wear appropriate clothing
Wearing the appropriate clothing is a very important
factor in helping your body handle the heat. Wear a wide brimmed hat to
reduce the water loss through your head and protect you from the suns' harmful
ultraviolet radiation. Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt that are
light-colored and lightweight. Keeping your skin covered will help to
reduce water loss and the dampness from your sweat-soaked clothes will act like
an evaporative cooler to make you more comfortable. Use a strong sunscreen
and chapstick (preferably with sunscreen) and apply both often and liberally.
Back to Extreme
Heat or Back to top of page
The canyons of Death Valley are some of the most beautiful and fascinating
places in the park. Much of their beauty is created by one of Mother
Nature's most powerful forces: water. And, as with most deserts, it is the
fast-moving power of flash flood water that carves the shape and polishes the
rock of a canyon [see picture].
Flash floods [glossary]
occur mostly in the summer as a result of sudden, violent cloud bursts.
Because the water does not have time to be absorbed into the ground, it runs off
and quickly picks up speed. As it finds the path of least resistance, the
canyons act like funnels and concentrate the water into powerful, raging
torrents that gather not only speed but debris as it heads downstream.
This debris can contain anything that is in the floods' path including rocks
from the size of gravel to large boulders.
Death Valley has a long history of violent rainstorms that
have caused death and destruction. Do not underestimate the power of these
flash floods. If you are planning a hike into one
of the canyons, check the weather conditions by calling or stopping by one of
the ranger stations or the Visitor Center. Most ranger stations have daily
weather updates by 10am along with any predictions for afternoon thunderstorms.
Remember that weather conditions can change rapidly in the
desert so, even with an updated weather report, you must always rely on your own
common sense. That morning weather report can be completely different
within a few hours. Stay alert and aware of the weather conditions as you
hike. Before starting into a canyon, look at the mountains above the
canyon, as well as all around, and gauge the situation. What type of clouds are in the sky?
If you see any thunderheads [see picture], you might be risking an encounter
with a flash flood and you would be wise to hike somewhere else that day. If you
see white puffy cumulus clouds, it is probably safe to proceed, but stay alert.
If the possibility of a flash flood develops while hiking
in a canyon, here are some things to watch/listen for:
||As you hike, be aware of higher areas,
such as a ridge or ledge, and other possible escape routes.
||If a storm is threatening, walk on higher ground
||Listen for thunder up-canyon. Even though you can't
see a thunderstorm (because it is behind a mountain), it could still be
generating a flash flood.
||Listen for the "sound of an approaching freight train".
If you hear this, get to higher ground immediately.
||Get at least 10 feet above the canyon floor to be above
most flash flood water levels;
20 feet is even better.
||Never camp in a canyon narrows and always camp at least 20 feet
above a wash or canyon floor. Many campers have been killed by nighttime
Flash floods are a genuine danger in Death Valley and should not be taken
lightly. For an example of the power and damage a flash flood can do,
pictures of what happened at the junction of S.R. 190 and Badwater Road
(near Furnace Creek Inn) in
August of 2004 during a flash flood. Two people were killed.
Back to Flash
Floods or Back to top of page
At first glance, Death Valley seems like a place
too desolate for any animal life but many creatures do live here and some of
them do pose a danger to humans. However, as with all activities in Death
Valley, by being aware of your surroundings and using common sense, you can
avoid possible trouble. A good, general rule to use whenever you are out
exploring is to always treat any animal you encounter as a wild creature that
can bite. Some of them also carry diseases. Do not feed or disturb
them even if they look harmless. Unfortunately, many people ignore this
rule and, besides being bitten, are actually harming the animals by teaching
them to depend on humans for food instead of relying upon their natural food
The two most potentially dangerous animals of the Death
Valley area are poisonous snakes and mountain lions. An encounter with
either of these is rare but it does happen.
Contrary to what some people think about deserts being
infested with vicious snakes, encountering any snake in Death Valley is
unlikely. First of all, most snakes are nocturnal and, even if you see
one in the daytime, it is likely to be non-venomous and harmless to you.
There are three venomous snakes found in Death Valley; the desert night
snake, the California lyre and the rattlesnake. Of these, only the
rattlesnake has a strong enough poison to cause serious harm and, possibly,
death. Snakes, in general, prefer to stay away from well traveled paths.
Hear rattlesnake sound:
to identify a rattlesnake (play sound above). Their head is usually
wider than their body and is the shape of an arrowhead. Rattlesnakes are,
by nature, not aggressive and will not strike unless provoked. If they do
not feel harassed or cornered, they will not feel the need to coil up and defend
themselves. Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before striking so it is
important to let them know you are around and give them a chance to get away
from you. Clap your hands or stomp your feet from time to time - make some
noise. Snakes can both hear and feel ground movement and would rather run
away than fight. The Mojave Green rattlesnake pictured at right is the most venomous
of all rattlers. Notice its green tint. This photograph was taken as
the snake crossed in front of us on a dirt road south of Death Valley.
Most snakes, including
rattlers, cannot take temperatures above 90° and seek out the shade until
temperatures cool down. So on a hot, summer day, you would be safest by
hiking in an open area. If you are hiking in a rocky or shady area, be
aware that they might be in those shady spots. Try to avoid stepping or
putting your hands into any dark, shady spot that you cannot see into.
Rattlers blend in well if coiled up near a bush [see
picture], so watch where you put your foot. Hopefully, you will
encounter one when it is not coiled up [see
picture] when it is on the move.
In the unlikely event that you are bitten by a snake, try
not to panic. Because most hikes in Death Valley are far from
civilization, you will probably not be able to walk far enough to get help.
We suggest you carry a snake bite kit and know how to use it.
The chances of you encountering a mountain lion in
Death Valley is extremely low. You are more likely to see a rattlesnake
but there have been sightings so we want to make you aware of them. These
rare predators [see
picture] can roam anywhere but are more likely to be found in the high
country; such as the Panamint Mountains.
Hear mountain lion sound:
In the unlikely event that you encounter a mountain lion
and it is behaving in a hostile manner,
here are some things to remember:
||Do not turn around and run - this will trigger the lion
to chase you;
||Do not approach it - stand your ground;
||Appear to look as large as possible: raise your arms,
open and spread your jacket, etc.
||If you have smaller people (children) with you, stand
them right next to you.
||Speak aggressively towards it using a low tone of
||Throw rocks at it;
||If attacked, fight back by punching, kicking or biting
Bobcats, which are smaller then a mountain lion, but about
2-3 times as big as the common
house cat, will also pack quite a punch. Their sound is a bit different
than a mountain lion.
Hear bobcat sound:
Coyotes are common in the more settled areas such as Stovepipe
Wells, Furnace Creek and Scotty's Castle [see
picture]. They are scavengers by nature
and come in close contact with man as they search for food in the trash cans and other
places people frequent. Remember that, although they may look like a
friendly dog, they are wild animals and should be treated as such. They
will attack and bite if provoked.
Hear coyote sound:
Back to Wild
Animals or Back to top of page
The old mining areas of Death Valley are, for many
people, the main reason to go hiking here. Exploring around the mines is
interesting on many levels and they are some of our favorite places to visit.
But you must be cautious and watch where you step! There are many
potential dangers. Besides the crumbling, unstable edges of vertical
shafts, there may be sharp, rusty objects, hidden pits, mine tunnels with
decaying support beams or no support beams at all that can give-way at any time,
pockets of carbon monoxide gas, etc. They still find forgotten cashes of
explosives, too. Unless you are an experienced mine
explorer, our best advice is to simply stay out
of the tunnels. The NPS has posted
warning signs at some of the more popular mine locations but, even if there is
no sign, consider all mine areas hazardous.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this chapter,
our intention is not to scare you out of hiking but, rather, to make you aware
of the potential dangers. Now that you have read about the Death Valley area and
know what you might encounter, you are a well-informed, responsible hiker.
Relax and enjoy your hike with the confidence of knowing that you will be safe
and are well prepared for your adventure! Click on the link below to
see the list of hikes available in this Guide.
Home or Back to
top of page or Back to
The Hikes of
March 03, 2007.