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A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park

01.03.17

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A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
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  • Eroded rock formations are the main attraction at Zabriskie Point.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • The Red Cathedral on the Golden Canyon Trail.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Hiking on the salt flat on Badwater Basin.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Natural Bridge Canyon Trail in Death Valley National Park.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Hikers trace the ridge of a dune in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Clear night sky over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus).- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Wildflowers along the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail in Death Valley. - A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Sunrise over Ubehebe Crater.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Old rusted car on the Tie Canyon Trail.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Tea Kettle Junction on the way to the Racetrack.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • From the top of Eureka Mine looking down on Aguereberry Camp.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Darwin Falls.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • Mosaic Canyon Trail.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • The Artist's Palette at Death Valley National Park.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
  • A coyote at Death Valley National Park.- A First Timer's Guide to Hiking in Death Valley National Park
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On the first night of my first time visiting Death Valley we were hit by a deluge. It hadn't rained in the desert for over a year. After waking up with deep mud puddles under our tents, we were greeted by a warming sun and the incredible beauty of snow-capped peaks encircling the normally arid desert floor. In just a few hours our gear was dried out and the sun was beating down. We headed out (with ample water) to explore the trails, canyons and viewpoints of Death Valley, and we spent the next few days in awe of the desert's beauty. To get around, we drove to the various trailheads and viewpoints, and along the way we explored many places that I still love these many years later.

The desert is an incredible landscape, one that everyone should visit in their lifetime. Water is the defining element in a place overwhelmed with mineral, rock and sand. Plants, insects, and wildlife are more common than you'd expect, and water, although harder to find, seeps up through springs and out via cracks in the panoply of rock edifices. Where there's water, there's life. Along the wooden boardwalk at Salt Creek, a coyote sauntered along so close that you'd think it was someone's (prohibited) off-leash dog. Later, looking out at the ancient weather-eroded rocks at Zabriskie Point, our conversation took a more fantastic bent as we took turns identifying what appeared to be titan insects frozen into stone landmarks, just as kids we'd sought animals in the passing clouds.

Welcome sign at Death Valley National Park. Photo by John Cody.

Badwater Basin is a salt pan of 200 square miles. Walk along the boardwalks or head out exploring the larger salt flat.

Golden Canyon weaves through rock to Zabriskie Point. Don't miss the detour along the way to see the Red Cathedral.

The Gower Gulch Loop is a 4-mile hike through the canyons of the Amargosa Mountains. The hike can be combined with the Golden Canyon hike to Zabriskie Point.

Natural Bridge is a 50-foot-tall bridge caused by natural erosion. It's a short, easy and picturesque hike to see the bridge.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the largest sand dunes in Death Valley, 14 square miles to be exact.

Wildlife abounds off the boardwalks at Salt Creek. Wildflowers, pupfish and other flora and fauna are a welcome sight in the fragile desert ecosystem.

Ubehebe Crater is the largest of the Maar volcano craters found in Death Valley. The short but at times steep trail to the crater rim rewards with amazing views.

The short Tie Canyon Trail offers views of the Grapevine area of Death Valley and is highlighted by the piles of railroad ties and remnants of rusted vehicles.

The Racetrack is where you can walk along the 6-square-mile playa and follow the paths of the "moving rocks." The phenomenon was a mystery that was only solved in 2013.

The short hike to Eureka Mine offers amazing desert views and a chance to explore the ruins of Aguereberry Camp and stare down once operational mine shafts.

Mosaic Canyon weaves through marbleized canyons. Scramble up limestone walls and follow side trails into more canyon.

Darwin Falls, a mere 25-foot cascade, is majestic regardless, especially considering its location in the incredibly arid environment of the park.

Telescope Peak and Wildrose Peak loom high above the valley floor. These strenuous hikes are whole day trips, but they offer views of Death Valley from up on high. Telescope peak is the highest point in Death Valley National Park.

These hikes are just a few of the gems of Death Valley National Park, but there are many more places to explore beyond those listed here. Read our definitive guide to the park for more information. Death Valley is a free-hike area, meaning with a free-hiking permit you can hike and camp almost anywhere in the park. Keep in mind, however, that the desert is an unforgiving environment and proper preparation is essential. Water and sun protection are key, even during the winter months. Extended hiking during the summer months is ill-advised.

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