IMO, Death Valley is the most underrated national park I have ever been to. It is the largest outside of Alaska, and covers more different topographies than anywhere I have seen, at least out of 20 so far. This was our first trip to the park, and despite the 5-6 hour drive each way, we have been there at least four times since, and still have barely repeated any hikes. You are able to go to the lowest point in the western hemisphere at less than -200 feet and then up to 11000 feet in only a few hours. You can see sand dunes, craters, marbled canyons, and waterfalls in the same day. It's truly breathtaking, and almost every time we are there, the place feels deserted.
Each day of this trip report can be used as a separate set of activities, as they are all grouped geographically.
Friday: The major attractions south of Furnace Creek
1. Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail w/ Gower Gulch loop: 4.0 mi RT. This was the first hike, and by far the most exposed to heat and sun. The canyon walls were interesting, and there is a side trip about 1.0 mi in that leads 0.25 mi to the "red cathedral" with really tall walls and and nice colors. Towards 3.0 mi or so, there are a lot of old mines in the hillsides, where they reach down to within 6 feet of the wash. One of them that was larger, sturdy and actually went through a hill 20 ft to the other side, and had a junction that went further in as well. If you end up doing this trail, make sure to take a map or GPS as some of the trail signs were literally torn out of their holes and scattered along the wash.
2. Natural Bridge Canyon: 1.5 mi RT to natural bridge. This was neat to see the giant natural bridge, but only do it if you feel like you have plenty of time. There is not much else to see aside from it and some dry falls, the path is uphill and sandy/gravelly, and the dirt road access is one of the more severe ones.
3. Devil's Golf Course: Nice little detour along a dirt road to some interesting salt formations.
4. Badwater EL -282 ft.: Took the short walk into the salt flats, and if you bear right you can find formations that are incredibly well preserved and untouched by tourists. I never would have thought you could have so much fun with macro settings and a piece of salt. Look closely at the photo of the hillside and you'll see the sign indicating where sea level is....
5. Artist's Palette 1-way drive: Desert beauty and fun in many places. Has pulloffs where you can get shots of green, orange, purple, white, and black boulders all next to each other. Worth the 30 minute drive.
6. Dante's View: Had 40 minutes to sunset, so drove all the way over to this lookout point that is actually directly above Badwater on a huge cliff, and provided an incredible view of the valley. Unfortunately the sunset had very little cloud interference to make it truly spectacular.
Saturday: Heading North from Furnace Creek.
1. Harmony Borax Works Intrepretive Trail: <1.0 mi RT.
Interesting to see the preserved machinery and operations from the Borax site; quick walk.2. Salt Creek Interpretive Trail: 1.0 mi RT.
Would have been a lot better if there was actually some wildlife in the below sea level creek, but it was still nice to learn about what pupfish and coyotes do there, even though we didn't see any.3. Falls Canyon Narrows: 7.0 mi RT.
This trail goes 0.5 miles along an exposed edge of the mountains, and then up into the Falls Canyon wash through some incredible areas including the "amphitheater" which is a huge bowl of rock at the junction of two washes. After 3.0 mi in, there is a 35 ft dryfall that you can bypass on the south side with some basic climbing or a longer path up some deer trails. If you bypass it you get into a 0.5 mi section of beautiful marble narrows that was one of the highlights of the trip. Most of this section is where the cover shots for guide books on death valley are taken. Warning: the 3.0 miles in are deep gravel, and at a slight uphill grade, which make it seem like 7 miles in and 2 miles out. Saw a big tarantula on this trip, luckily it didn't throw any hairs in our eyes
4. Ubehebe Crater to Little Hebe Crater Trail: 1.5 mi RT. This was not the most exciting trip, since Little Hebe was wimpy and it took too much hiking up huge volcanic hills to get there. I would just pull off, snap some photos of the big crater, and be done with it. The only real reason to specifically come here in my opinion is if you are taking the road to Racetrack Valley and Ubehebe Peak, which are both on the long unpaved road that goes past the crater. (EDIT: In retrospect, it did make for some colorful photos - see photo at beginning of post)
Sunday: Heading West out of the park.
1. Death Valley Sand Dunes (the set by Stovepipe Wells): 3.0 mi RT. Pretty incredible. Then again, I have never seen dunes of this scale and magnitude, so even though there were only a few that were tall, their 80 ft height was enough to entice Marie and I to hike through the real desert of sand dunes to that peak. It was definitely a lot of fun. The park ranger said that the best time to see this is at night because of the surreal experience it provides. That's for next time. There were lots of animal tracks, including coyotes, but no Sidewinders (un)fortunately.
2. Darwin Falls: 4.0 mi RT. One of the favorite hikes of the park. First you have to get there, which involves 3 or so miles on a very rutted and rocky road. The Corolla made it, but I probably wouldn't take it again. It starts in a desert wash, and then you start seeing hints of greenery and creekwater, until you actually start hiking around mud puddles and along rocks to avoid the stream. There are a few crossings, and then you get to the lower falls. If you are really interested, there is some Class 3 climbing (mostly Class 2, but a few crevices that are 3), which takes you to an incredible vantage point of the 80 ft waterfall, the highest in the park. This one cuts through the rock with 45 degree turns, which made it interesting.