Death Valley Hiking Away From the Crowds

 

Death Valley Hiking Away From Crowds - Nemo Canyon

Hiking in Nemo Canyon

By Kimberly Wilkes, Author of Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy

Sure, there are spots we all want to see in Death Valley, like the Mesquite Dunes or Mosaic Canyon. But sometimes it’s nice to get away from the crowds and immerse yourself in the desert silence. Here are some of Death Valley’s less traveled hiking trails.

Nemo Canyon

It was the Saturday of Easter weekend when we explored this canyon and we never saw a soul. The only living things around (besides plants) were two mama bighorn sheep and their two babies, crossing the road near the picnic area on our way back from the hike.

We started the hike on the most impressive side of the canyon, where it spills out into Wildrose Canyon Road, but that road near the trailhead has been closed due to flood damage. Until it opens you will have to start at the other trailhead on the other side of the canyon, which is on Emigrant Canyon Road below Wildrose Campground. The closure of Wildrose Canyon Road also eliminates the possibility of making this a car shuttle hike.

What makes this hike magnificent? First, there’s the 100-foot tall conglomerate pillars reaching up toward the sapphire blue sky. Giant boulders teeter on some of these pillars. It looked like that next big gust of wind would blow the boulders off but somehow they manage to cling to their precarious perches.

Another reason this canyon stands out as one of the most spectacular in Death Valley is the multi-hued badlands, which you’ll reach about 2.2 miles into the hike if you start from the Emigrant Canyon Road trailhead.

As you start on the last mile of the hike, watch for the beavertail cacti clinging to the cliffs.

This hike starts at over 4,000 feet above sea level, so it’s cooler here and a good choice in the spring and fall when temperatures at Furnace Creek are in the 90s and 100s. In the summer, it will be in the 90s at Nemo Canyon, but it’s still an option for an early morning hike.

Reaching the Trailhead: From Wildrose Campground, follow Emigrant Canyon Road for 2.2 miles north (back toward Stovepipe Wells) and turn left on an unsigned gravel road. Travel 0.7 miles to the trailhead at road’s end. There will be a gravel pit and a USGS benchmark here. Start walking into the canyon. Like many hikes in Death Valley canyons there is no trail. You simply follow the wash.

Nearest Campgrounds: Wildrose Campground, Thorndike Campground, Mahogany Flat Campground. To find out which of these campgrounds are the best if you like privacy while camping, read our new book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Hummingbird Spring

This hike up in Death Valley’s high country down the road from the Charcoal Kilns is a good option when it’s hot at Furnace Creek. I will warn you, though, that when my husband Patrick and I hiked this trail in early April 2013 Hummingbird Spring was dry. But it was still a beautiful hike.

Drive as far as you feel comfortable on the dirt road.  But if you park your vehicle about a half mile along the road, as we did, and start walking from there, you’ll notice things you won’t see from a car. As we hiked along the road through the desert vegetation, scarlet red paintbrush added splashes of color here and there.

The author hiking the road to Hummingbird Spring Trail

The author hiking the road to Hummingbird Spring Trail

As the road climbs, look over your shoulder where you’ll see Mount Whitney and the other surrounding peaks far in the distance to the west. The south flank of Wildrose Peak looms up much closer to your left.

1.7 miles up the road, take a right on to a south-traveling trail that leads into the pinyon pines and junipers. The trail is an old road that is now blocked by boulders. The road shortly fizzles out and turns into a rocky path.

The trail continues up the hill. A few birds may squawk at you along the way. Pine cones from the pinyon trees are scattered on the ground and here and there you’ll see a cactus. Eventually, you’ll see the ravine where the stream from the spring once flowed. During our visit, there was still a lot of greenery in the ravine, so there was enough water to make the ground damp. Near the top of the ravine, cliffs of burnt orange and tan soar up toward the sky.

A lot of history left over from when the Charcoal Kilns were being built and the town of Skidoo once thrived is evident on this trail. Watch for rusty cans, barrel hoops, and lumber. Ax cuts mark the pine trees.

Sunset on Wildrose Peak from the Hummingbird Springs road.

Sunset on Wildrose Peak from the Hummingbird Springs road.

If you time the hike right, on the way back you can watch the sunset light up Wildrose Peak.

Reaching the Trailhead: From Highway 190, turn on Emigrant Canyon Road and drive 20.9 miles south to the junction with Wildrose Canyon Road. Continue straight (east) on Mahogany Flat Road for four miles to a dirt road on the right. It’s not marked—at least as far as we could see–but there is a sign saying 4WD vehicles recommended. Passenger cars, with careful driving, could make it 1.5 miles up the road, but drive as far as you feel comfortable and park the car.  If you park at the 1.5-mile point, you will need to walk 0.2 miles to where the trail begins (where the boulders block off the trail to the south). The trail is located where the road begins swerving to the Northwest on its way to a picnic area up the hill.

Nearest Campgrounds: Wildrose Campground, Thorndike Campground, Mahogany Flat Campground. To find out which of these campgrounds are the best if you like privacy while camping, read our new book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Grotto Canyon

The sand dunes from the road to Grotto Canyon

The sand dunes from the road to Grotto Canyon

I hiked to Grotto Canyon in December on my way back from a business trip in Las Vegas. The popularity of its neighbor up the road—Mosaic Canyon—leaves this geologic wonder virtually ignored. Plus, the dirt road leading to Grotto Canyon is across the main highway from the Mesquite Dunes, so most people’s gaze is riveted in that direction.

I parked my car near the beginning of the dirt road, even though it’s possible even for passenger cars to make it to where it dead ends at the wash about a mile up.  If you have a high clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can venture another mile farther through the wash to the canyon entrance. I enjoyed stopping as I strolled up the road to the wash and turning around to admire the cloud shadows drifting over the mountains to the east of the sand dunes. To the sides of the road, creosote bushes here were loaded with yellow blossoms. I thought they only bloomed in the spring so this was a pleasant surprise.

I soon reached the wash at the base of Tucki Mountain. There was no hint of other human beings. I might as well have been the only person on earth it was so quiet as I stepped into the wash. All around me grew these puffy bushes that had donned their tan winter garb.

Looking into Grotto Canyon from the wash.

Looking into Grotto Canyon from the wash.

Above the far end of the canyon, I saw a sight that stopped me. Dark clouds looking like they were ready to let loose a downpour gathered there. Disappointment washed over me. Flash floods are a danger in the canyons of Death Valley. I would have to turn back.

I had really wanted to explore the narrow passageways that wiggle their way through the canyon. But that would have to wait. Another good excuse to return to the park.

If you are able to make it farther than I did, you’ll walk up the wash for a mile (or drive if you have a suitable 4WD with high clearance) to the mouth of the canyon. An eighth of a mile in you’ll reach the narrows with its sinuous passageways cut into the rock. You’ll reach a dry fall, where a cairned trail points the way around the barrier to allow you to explore a little more of the canyon above. But soon, unless you’re a rock climber, your path is blocked again by another dry fall. This is where the return trip begins.

If you run into anybody at all here, it’s likely to be rock climbers, who like to maneuver their way up the rock falls and go deeper into the canyon.

Reaching the Trailhead: From Highway 190, drive 2.4 miles south of Stovepipe Wells. Look for the dirt road on the opposite side of Highway 190 from the sand dunes. Supposedly, there is sign for Grotto Canyon but I never saw it. Turn right on the dirt road and drive up as far as you feel comfortable.

Nearest Campgrounds: Stovepipe Wells Campground and Emigrant Campground are closest, but Furnace Creek, Texas Springs, and Sunset Campgrounds are all a manageable 25-minute drive away. If you like privacy while camping, some of these campgrounds aren’t right for you. To find out which of these campgrounds are the best if you like privacy while camping, read our new book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

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