Golden Canyon is one of the most popular hiking trails in Death Valley, not just because it is the location of several scenes from the Star Wars movies, but because the golden hills in the heart of the Death Valley Badlands are incredibly gorgeous, especially at sunrise.
We spent our first few days exploring Death Valley National Park alone and the last couple with Brian’s parents for Thanksgiving, so we hit the more challenging trails and remote activities before they arrived. The plan was to start with the items farthest from our hotel, the Ranch at Death Valley in Furnace Creek, and work out way back toward the hotel:
- Day 1: We visited Father Crowley Vista, hiked to Darwin Falls, and drove out to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.
- Day 2: We drove out to Aguereberry Point, explored Eureka Mile, Cashier Mill, and Aguereberry Camp, hiked Mosaic Canyon, and traversed the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
- Day 3: We walked the Salt Creek Trail and the Harmony Borax Works Trail, visited the Borax Museum, drove through Mustard Canyon, hiked around the Keane Wonder Mine, stopped at Zabriskie Point, explored Twenty Mule Team Canyon, drove up to Dante’s View, and then looped back to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset with Grandma and Grandpa.
We had two days to adventure through the park with my in-laws, and we definitely made the most of it! Hiking the Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral was our first stop of the day, followed by Devil’s Golf Course, the Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Natural Bridge, Artists Palette, and Dante’s View for sunset.
Hiking The Golden Canyon Trail
We arrived at the Golden Canyon trailhead around 7:30 am and our vehicles were the only ones in the parking area, which meant we had most of the trail to ourselves! There is a box at the trailhead where you can purchase a trail guide for 25 cents that provides information corresponding numbered markers along the trail about the canyon’s landscape, but the box was empty when we arrived.
When we began the hike, down on the canyon floor it was mostly shady and cool enough that we all wore sweatshirts and fleece jackets, but the top of the surrounding badlands were glowing a bright golden color in early morning sun.
As we made our way uphill through the twisting and turning canyon, we found a couple locations where the original George Lucas Star Wars movies were filmed, took in the majestic desert landscape, and stopped often to let the kids explore the many side canyons and trails and drink lots of water.
The main Golden Canyon Trail is an out and back trail that has two different end points and you get to choose which one to hike or you can hike both. The first mile of the trail is the same for both options, then you reach a split: one direction takes you a half mile to the Red Cathedral rock formation, and the other takes you 2 miles to Zabriskie Point.
- If you hike to Red Cathedral, the hike is a 1.5 mile out and back hike, totaling three miles.
- If you hike to Zabriskie Point, the hike is a three mile out and back hike, totaling six miles.
- If you have two cars and all of your fit in one car, you can leave a vehicle at the Golden Canyon Trailhead off Badwater Road, then drive to Zabriskie Point and hike back — with this approach, your entire hike will be three miles all downhill, or 4 miles if you also visit Red Cathedral.
We did the 3 mile out and back hike to Red Cathedral. Even though the hike to Red Cathedral is half a mile from the split, at this point on the trail, you can see the towering red cliffs rise above the golden badlands. You may be tempted to turn around, but don’t do it! The red color of the cliffs looks more and more amazing as you get closer, and the trail takes you through a short, small rock cave all the way to the base of the cliffs, which is a pretty remarkable experience.
On the way back to our vehicles, we enjoyed incredible views of the Panamint Mountains, dry lake beds, flood washouts, and huge boulders — and because the sun was higher in the sky, the canyon floor was still shady, the the entire canyon was glowing a gorgeous bright, brilliant golden color.
Know Before You Go
- With the Golden Canyon Trail, Gower Gulch Trail, and the Badlands Loop Trail, Golden Canyon is a choose your own adventure trail that can be as short as 8 miles and as long as eight miles, depending on your route.
- The primary Golden Canyon Trailhead is located just south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road in Death Valley National Park, California, 92328. We started here and hiked in to Red Cathedral and back out.
- If you want a longer, more strenuous hike, you can also hike the trail down from Zabriskie Point off CA-190.
- There is a paved parking lot and a vault toilet at each end of the Golden Canyon Trail.
- Golden Canyon close to other Death Valley attractions like Devil’s Golf Course, the Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Natural Bridge, and Artists Palette.
- The best time to hike Golden Canyon is early in the morning because the canyon walls provide shade. Be sure to bring and drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration.