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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: 

bullet General Hiking Information
bullet Flash Floods
bullet Hiking Difficulty Chart
bullet Wild Animals
bullet Extreme Heat
bullet Mine Hazards

 

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 References).

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 unique climate.

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 40F 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 100F 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 temperatures 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 75F 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.

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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 area.

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 guideline. 

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 instead.

Hiking Difficulty Chart

Rating

Description

  1 - Very Easy 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 not required.
  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. 

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Extreme Heat
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 136F!   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, common-sense rules. 

bullet   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 drink often! 

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.

Illness

Causes Signs & Symptoms Treatment

Dehydration

Loss of fluids faster than they are being replenished.

Persistent thirst; dark urine.

Immediately increase your water intake.

Heat Exhaustion

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 104F. 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.

Heat Stroke
(also called "Sun Stroke")

Warning!
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 104F.  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 or Emergencyhandbook.com

bullet Rule #2: 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. 

bullet Rule #3:  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.

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Flash Floods
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:

bullet As you hike, be aware of higher areas, such as a ridge or ledge, and other possible escape routes.
bullet If a storm is threatening, walk on higher ground whenever possible.
bullet 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.
bullet Listen for the "sound of an approaching freight train".  If you hear this, get to higher ground immediately.
bullet Get at least 10 feet above the canyon floor to be above most flash flood water levels; 20 feet is even better.
bullet 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.

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,  see the 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.

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Wild Animals
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 sources. 

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.

bullet Snakes
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:
 

Learn 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.

bullet Mountain Lions
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:

bullet Do not turn around and run - this will trigger the lion to chase you;
bullet Do not approach it - stand your ground;
bullet Appear to look as large as possible: raise your arms, open and spread your jacket, etc.
bullet If you have smaller people (children) with you, stand them right next to you.
bullet Speak aggressively towards it using a low tone of voice;
bullet Throw rocks at it;
bullet If attacked, fight back by punching, kicking or biting it.

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:
 

bullet Coyotes
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:
 

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Mine Hazards
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.

Conclusion
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.

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Last updated March 03, 2007.


June 2005 Version
 Copyright 2005, BackRoadsWest.com