How to hike Golden Canyon at Death Valley National Park (+ Red Cathedral & Gower Gulch)

Looking to hike into Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park? This hiking guide covers all of the details for the hike, including multiple route options!

Many of the best things to do in Death Valley National Park are quick stops and overlooks, but for those willing to put a bit of extra effort in, there are some incredible trails that get you more immersed in the park’s unique scenery.

And one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley National Park, if not the most popular, is a hike through Golden Canyon. This hike, as the name implies, takes you through golden canyon walls, across badlands, has great views of the park, and even some bonus features to check out. It is a great hike for most ability levels and can be done as a large loop or broken into different sections, depending on how much time you have or how strenuous you want the hike to be.

Watch our experience in Death Valley National Park, including visiting Badwater Basin, Artist Palette, going for hikes, and more! And to learn more about the park, check out our ULTIMATE guide to visiting Death Valley National Park!

In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike to Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park including all of the route options that can be added on, like Gower Gulch and Red Cathedral! 

Looking for more things to do in California? Check out our California guides and vlogs!

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. 

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Golden Canyon at Death Valley

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Located near the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley, Golden Canyon is a gorgeous section of the park and is a stark contrast from the park’s nearby salt flats. As mentioned above, this area is full of towering golden canyon walls, windy passageways, badlands, and unique features, like the shark fin shaped Manly Beacon and a Red Cathedral of rocks. 

It was also the filming location for Star Wars! In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, this canyon is where the Jawas hid when trying to capture R2–D2. As a Star Wars fan, it was pretty cool to see this spot in real life, as well as other filming locations around the park.

Note: Similar to the rest of the park, dogs are NOT allowed on this hike.

Where to start the hike into Golden Canyon at Death Valley

There are two main trailheads you can start at to hike into Golden Canyon, the Golden Canyon trailhead on Badwater Basin Road and Zabriskie Point, which are located across the canyon from each other and at much different elevations. 

Starting at the Golden Canyon trailhead will give you the shortest hike distances and also less elevation gain, but the parking lot is small and by 9 AM on a Friday in February it was already full. 

We suggest starting at Zabriskie Point, for a couple reasons. For one, the parking lot is much bigger and can also hold larger vans or small RVs. Also, since we suggest starting this hike very early, you can see the sunrise at Zabriskie Point and then hit the trail right away, beating both the heat and crowds. However, the downside of starting at Zabriskie Point is that it will make the hike longer and also steeper. 

The different routes to hike Golden Canyon in Death Valley 

One great thing about hiking Golden Canyon is that you have a lot of flexibility in how you choose to hike it. You can hike it as a loop or go out and back, with multiple routes to choose from, as well as the chance to hike other trails like Gower Gulch and Badlands, plus take a cool detour to Red Cathedral. 

Whether you just want a quick and relatively easy hike or you want to spend a few hours exploring, you have options! Below are three main routes to consider when choosing your route, with details on our experience, plus ways to customize these routes even further.

Option #1: Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop from Zabriskie Point (what we did!)

Miles (roundtrip): 6.4 (+ 1 mile for the Red Cathedral detour)
Elevation gain: 1,082 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
Where to start: You could technically start at either trailhead, but we suggest starting at Zabriskie Point (specifically at sunrise, more on that below!).

Start with sunrise at Zabriskie Point

In our opinion, the best way to do this hike is directly after enjoying the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. The point is perched above yellow and brown striped badlands, with the striking Manly Beacon (a shark fin shaped formation) rising above at an elevation of 823 feet. Seeing the Panamint Range light up in a gorgeous pink color as the sun began to rise and catching the first glimpse of light on the Manly Beacon was hands down the most beautiful sight we saw in the park! 

But keep in mind the viewpoint will be busy, so make sure to get there early to get a parking spot. There were 50+ people watching the sunrise during our visit. It’s the most popular viewpoint in the park for a reason! 

Hiking the Badlands Trail

Once you’ve had your fill of the sunrise, we suggest hitting the trail down into the canyon on the Badlands Loop Trail. This was the most quiet the trail was all day (we didn’t encounter anyone for a while) and it was still mostly shaded from the sun. 

The Badlands Loop Trail begins from Zabriskie Point and descends a few hundred feet into the badlands directly below the point. If you look to the right of Zabriskie Point from the parking area, you’ll see a notch in the hillside with a pathway going through it. That is the beginning of the trail. 

After about a half mile you’ll come to the first junction on the trail, you’ll want to go to the right here. Going left will take you further down the Badlands Loop Trail towards Gower Gulch, so it’s not technically wrong, but it will potentially add more miles in the end.

Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Hiking towards Manly Beacon

In another half mile you’ll reach another junction where you can go to the left and connect with the Gower Gulch trail or go towards the right to the Manly Beacon and eventually the Red Cathedral. Make sure to go right here! This was one of the best stretches of the hike, with awesome views of Manly Beacon, including walking along the base of it.

We loved this part of the trail and we think it makes going the extra miles from Zabriskie Point worth it!

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Detour to Red Cathedral

About 2 miles into the hike you’ll reach a turn off to make a detour to Red Cathedral. You’ll notice the cathedral from the main part of the trail, with its towering dark orange rock walls. In our opinion, this detour is a MUST! The detour is short, just half a mile each way, but it does require some minor rock scrambling in some tight spaces. 

Red Cathedral | Death Valley National Park

Once getting through the scramble section, you’ll enter the Red Cathedral, which will take you right up to the base of the dark orange (not really red) rock towers, which are curved, making it feel like a bit of an amphitheater. 

You can walk along the base and we also suggest climbing up a bit to the right (when you first enter) to a viewpoint of the park. You can also climb up a bit on the left side of the cathedral, but this climb looked a bit tougher!

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Hiking through Golden Canyon

Once back on the main trail from the Red Cathedral detour, you will enter the main part of Golden Canyon. This part of the hike fully demonstrates why it is named Golden Canyon, with light tan and golden walls on either side of you. This is one of the easiest parts of the hike, as it is downhill the entire way.

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Making it to the Golden Canyon Trailhead

Once making it through Golden Canyon, you will pop out at the Golden Canyon trailhead. You could turn around here and hike back the same way you came, but for this route, we suggest going back a different way through Gower Gulch, so you can see some different scenery.

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

From the Golden Canyon Trailhead to Gower Gulch

To continue to Gower Gulch, you’ll turn left at the Golden Canyon trailhead and begin hiking on a flat path that hugs the side of the canyon walls, with the park road on your right. While this part is easy and flat, it is fully exposed to the sun and gets a bit tedious. However, enjoy this flatness while you can, because once entering Gower Gulch, it’s all uphill!

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Gower Gulch 

This part of the hike is when starting early is key. The sun will start to be a bit more brutal, peeking over the canyon walls, and you’ll be going uphill the rest of the way, gaining about 750 feet. Through this area you’ll get to do some minor rock scrambling, as well as walk through some open area, with large walls surrounding you. We ran into few people through this part, as it seemed most were still either in the Golden Canyon area or not hiking this section, so it’s great for solitude!

How to hike Golden Canyon Trail at Death Valley National Park | Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Hiking back up to Zabriskie Point

You’ll eventually reach a junction, where you technically could go either direction, as both will connect to the Badlands Loop Trail, which will take you back to Zabriskie Point. However, we suggest going to the right, as it’s a tad shorter than if you were to go to the left. This part continues to be a nice incline and you’ll likely be feeling very ready to get off the trail, but you’re almost back!

Option #2: Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop from the Golden Canyon Trailhead

Miles (roundtrip): 4.2 (+ 1 mile for the Red Cathedral detour)
Elevation gain: 715 feet 
Reviews & Current Conditions
Where to start: For this option, you’ll want to start at the Golden Canyon trailhead.

This route is very similar to the one above, but with the Zabriskie Point and Badlands trail portion removed, which reduces the elevation gain and mileage. So if you plan to visit Zabriskie Point a different day and don’t care to see it at sunrise, this is probably the route you’d want to do. You’ll be missing Zabriskie Point, plus some of the badlands at the beginning, but still will get to see some of the best features of this hike.

When going this route, you can go either direction. A couple things to know about each direction:

Counter-clockwise: This option will knock out the less exciting, very exposed portion that goes alongside the road first and then end in Golden Canyon. This direction will be a longer uphill climb, but less steep, and then a shorter, steeper downhill hike, which may be harder on the knees.

Clockwise: This will give you the chance to see Golden Canyon and Red Cathedral first, before crowds, but you’ll have a steeper hike to get there and will end the hike on the longer, less exciting portion.

Regardless of which direction you choose, if you choose this route, make sure to still start early, as this parking lot fills up! And we still highly suggest adding on the Red Cathedral detour (not included on the AllTrails map above), which will add an additional 1 mile to the mileage listed!

Option #3: Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral

Miles (roundtrip): 2.9
Elevation gain: 574 feet 
Reviews & Current Conditions
Where to start: For this option, you’ll want to start at the Golden Canyon trailhead.

This is the shortest and easiest route option, but will also have the least amount of varied scenery. You will start at the Golden Canyon trailhead and hike to Red Cathedral (the detour is included in this mileage) and then back out the same way you came! 

When to hike Golden Canyon in Death Valley

We suggest hiking Golden Canyon at sunrise or a couple hours before sunset. The earlier you start, the better chance you’ll have of beating the crowds and the heat. Even in the winter, the sun can feel pretty hot here and this trail doesn’t have a ton of cover. 

We highly suggest NOT hiking this trail in the summer or if you do, going VERY early and carrying tons of water. You may have heard of the extremely hot temperatures in Death Valley National Park and they are no joke. The highest temperature ever recorded of 134 degrees Fahrenheit was here in Death Valley and temperatures above 110 degrees is not uncommon during the summer, with it even being 100+ degrees after midnight. To avoid this heat and have an enjoyable time at the park, the best time to visit is November through March

During the late fall through spring, the park will experience chilly nights, with temperatures in the 30s-40s depending on the month, but the daytime temperatures will be a lot more manageable, in the 60s and 70s.

We visited the park and hiked this trail in late February and had moderate days, with temperatures in the upper 60s, plus lots of sunshine, which made it feel warmer. We ended up having to modify the days we visited last minute because the original week we planned to visit, just days after we ended up going, was going to be in the 80s, which was too hot to leave our pup during our hikes. So even in the winter, it can get toasty!

What to Bring to hike Golden Canyon in Death Valley

Things to do in Death Valley National Park

As always, we recommend having the 10 essentials on you when doing any hike, but here are a few key items we want to point out that will especially help you during this hike!

Water

With likely very high temperatures in the park and lots of sunshine, you’ll want to have lots of water on you for all of your adventures. Even if it’s not super hot, the air is very dry and you’re likely to get extra thirsty. We like to carry our 3L Camelbak bladders while on any hike, which makes it easy to store a lot of water and drink while on the go.

Sun protection

This trail is entirely exposed as soon as the sun rises over the mountains. You’ll want a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

Flashlight or headlamp

If you start before sunrise or plan to finish after sunset, you will want to have some sort of light source. The night skies are dark out in Death Valley!

AllTrails Map

Cell service is very sparse in the park and we highly suggest downloading the offline AllTrails map for this hike. With a handful of trail junctions in this area, it may be easy to get turned around, so it will be an extra safety measure to ensure you go the right way.

Other things to do near Golden Canyon in Death Valley

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about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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