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Elizabeth Dengler | 03.21.2022

When you think of exploring Death Valley National Park, your brain may not immediately jump to the prospect of backpacking. Known for scorching and record-breaking temperatures in the summer, it’s not necessarily the first place people consider when planning a backpacking trip. However, if you’re looking for a warm winter getaway, the park is an excellent option. The best time to visit is late fall to early spring. Even in May, temperatures can reach into the 90s, and there isn’t much water around to beat the heat. 

Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park. Photo Credit: John Cody.

Most of the backpacking options in the park are remote and don’t follow a designated trail; instead, winding up washes and through canyons. If you’re going to backpack in the park, you’ll need to complete a permit in detail. Water is sparse out here, so you should plan accordingly, and you’ll likely have to pack all the water you’ll need for your trip. Keep in mind there are some logistics with limiting group size and knowing where camping is and isn’t allowed. It’s best to familiarize yourself with all of the park's rules when planning your trip. 

Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop

Distance: 26-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 4,032 feet

Difficulty: Difficult

A well-known route, the trek through the canyons is generally easy to follow and an incredibly rewarding experience. Even highlighted by the national park, the loop is probably the most popular backpacking route. Typically done in a clockwise direction, the route starts in Cottonwood Canyon, winding up the old jeep track. A grove of Cottonwood trees and a seasonal spring at the end of the jeep road makes a great first camp. From there, the route is pretty easy to follow, but one section party way through the heavily forested canyon might make you have to backtrack. Keep on the lookout for wild horses and burros who navigate to Cottonwood Spring at the end of the canyon—they can help guide the way. At the spring, you MUST fill up your water; though there is one more spring in Deadhorse Canyon, it's seasonal at best. The last leg takes you through Deadhorse Canyon and then into Marble Canyon. This second stage, in Marble Canyon, is why this route is so popular. With massive narrow marble walls pinching into narrow slots, this is an epic section of trail to explore.

Telescope Peak

Distance: 11.7-mile out-and-back

Elevation Gain: 3,101 feet

Difficulty: Difficult

The tallest peak in Death Valley National Park, Telescope Peak, is worth a hike and is easily done as a backpacking trip. Unlike most other options on this list, the hike to Telescope Peak follows a designated trail the entire way. Up in the mountains, this trail stays cooler than many of the other backpacking routes in the park. As such, it's a much more pleasant hike if you happen to make it here in the summertime. However, a visit in the winter might yield a snowy and icy ascent and potentially a road closure. You’ll gradually get better views of Panamint Valley and the Argus Range as you climb. The best camping on the route is on Arcan Meadows between Rogers Peak and Telescope Peak. After a good night's sleep in the cool mountain air, you can enjoy summiting the mountain with a fresh set of legs. The trail climbs earnestly over the last mile, so be ready for a bit of a grind. However, 360-degree views from the summit are worth it! After enjoying the peak, you can either return to camp and spend another night or head down and camp in Mahogany Flats Campground.

Telescope Peak Trail. Photo Credit: Lani Advocat.



Panamint Dunes

Distance: 8-mile out-and-back

Elevation Gain: 100  feet

Difficulty: Moderate

You might not think about backpacking into the dune fields, but the moderate nature of the route makes it an excellent option for a quick overnight among the sand and stars. Navigating this route is generally pretty straightforward. Just keep in mind that this spot is relatively unvisited compared to other parts of the park. While that means you’ll have fewer footprints and people in your photos, it also means you’re a bit farther from help, should you need it. There is no water or shade along this route, so you’ll need to pack accordingly—sunhat, sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen, and all the water you will need the ENTIRE time you’re out. From the parking area off the dirt road, the hike into the heart of the dunes is just under four miles, if you’re an expert and sand dune navigation. There are no designated campsites, so set up camp wherever looks cozy. On a moonless night, you will be treated to one of the most spectacular views of the night sky imaginable. The next morning, enjoy your coffee while watching the sunrise over the mountains of sand.

Fall Canyon

Distance: 6 to 12-mile out-and-back

Elevation Gain: 3,600 feet

Difficulty: Moderately difficult

A popular backpack option is from Titus Canyon to the two dry falls in Fall Canyon. To reach the start of the hike, you’ll need to travel on Titus Canyon Road, which you can make into its own mini-adventure. Travel from east to west on the one-way section of road—the rough road demands a high clearance vehicle, but the sites along the way are worth it. You’ll pass a ghost town, petroglyphs, and stunning multicolor canyon views—and that’s just the drive to the trailhead. The first three miles of the hiking route are very well-tracked and follow a set path. You’ll hike a dry wash through stunning narrowing canyons until you reach a dry fall, which is the turnaround point for most day-hikers. To continue up the canyon, you’ll need to backtrack slightly to find a path that leads around the dry fall. It can be an awkward and challenging scramble, especially with a pack on. Follow the wash about a mile further through slot canyons to reach a well-defined campsite. From here, it is only another 2-miles to a second dry fall which is the turnaround point for this backpacking route. This upper section is a wonderful place to spend a day and potentially a second night. As long as you have packed enough water, enjoy your time here and the solitude this remote canyon brings. 

Overlooking mining buildings of Panamint City. Photo Credit: Shaun Hunter.

Hungry Bill's Ranch to Panamint City

Distance: 14-mile out-and-back

Elevation Gain: 6,326 feet

Difficulty: Difficult

This route begins off a dirt road, and you’ll need 4x4 to reach the end—keep in mind it is a rough and exposed 10-mile drive-in, so even getting to the end of the road is an adventure. You can camp here at Wilson Spring if you don’t want to start your hike just yet. The hike into Hungry Bill’s Ranch is pretty easy and follows a verdant wash all the way up. There is a fair bit of shade from the trees. The ranch is a historic site that dates to the 1870s with plenty to explore, including an orchard, corral, and rock terraces. William Johnson established the ranch despite the simultaneous occupation by Shoshone tribes. He developed a farm to sell fruit and vegetables to the nearby Panamint City. When inhabitants of Panamint City left after a flood destroyed the road, Johnson abandoned the ranch, and a Shoshone man known as Hungry Bill, returned to his tribe's former lands to expand the ranch until 1919. Hungry Bill’s would be a great place to end your hike. However, if you’re looking to explore a bit more history, and have a knack for navigation, continuing to the ghost town of Panamint City is worth the effort. You’ll need to do a bit of wayfinding until you reach Panamint Pass, but with gorgeous mountain scenery, springs, and the potential to spot wildlife such as bighorn sheep, the exploration is worth it.


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