If you like your hiking challenging, adventurous, and physical, then Bighorn Gorge is the Death Valley hike for you. This twenty mile route will keep you on your toes with cross-country route finding, a bit of rock scrambling, lack of water, and sheer distance! But never fear, it’s accessible to anyone who puts in the effort to prepare, and it will reward you with solitude and a sense of exploration unparalleled on other Death Valley hikes.
Bighorn Gorge is my favorite hard hike in Death Valley National Park. Though it’s not exactly popular, it’s not unknown either, and there isn’t much information available online to help prospective hikers plan their trip. In this post I’ll explain how to hike Bighorn Gorge and what to expect from this special backpacking trip or epic day hike.
Bighorn Gorge Hike Overview
Distance: 20 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 4000 feet (~1350 to 5000 feet)
Type: out and back (overnight or long day hike)
Class: mostly class 2 cross-country hiking with a few easy class 3 scrambling moves
Start and finish: Free parking along Scotty’s Castle Road, ~13 miles north of Titus Canyon Road
When to hike: This route is best in spring or fall. Winter is usually snow free but chilly; pack warm layers! Summer would be quite hot at lower elevations, possibly dangerously so given the lack of water on this route.
Fees and permits: No permits required, but Bighorn Gorge hike lies within Death Valley National Park which requires an entrance fee.
Backpack or Day Hike?
Most people hike Bighorn Gorge as a backpacking trip, carrying camping gear and water into the lower gorge and setting up camp before it narrows into the canyon. This allows a more leisurely exploration of the canyon on day 2, followed by the hike out. Staying for a second night / third day would only be feasible if you pack in a LOT of water, so I don’t think it’s usually done.
Bighorn Gorge can certainly be done as a very long day hike as well, which is how we did it. Expect your pace to be slower than usual due to the route finding, rocky ground, and occasional scrambling. Plan to start and/or finish in the dark (bring headlamp and GPS track) if you do the whole thing.
If you’d like to do a day hike but 20 miles sounds too long, you could just turn around whenever you feel like it, or when you come to a dry fall you’d rather not climb. Keep in mind that it’s 4.5 miles just to the mouth of the gorge and another couple until the upper gorge, so you’ll have to do at least ~15 miles just to see the beginning of the most interesting part.
Here you can see the elevation profile and route map, including a little blip on the way back when we got a bit off track in the dark.
And here’s a a Gaia GPS track, which you can import into your own GPS navigation app:
From your parking spot on Scotty’s Castle Road (drop a pin or start tracking with your GPS app!), set off across the open desert toward the mouth of the gorge. It’s gentle downhill until you hit Death Valley Wash, which you’ll need to find your way across. Then the gentle uphill begins across the alluvial fan as you head toward the obvious mouth of the gorge. You’ll enter the gorge around 4.5 miles from the start.
Once you enter the lower gorge, the way is obvious (if a bit slow going) in the wide rocky wash. Gradually the gorge narrows until canyon walls begin to close in, and the interesting part of the hike begins. If you’re doing this hike as an overnight backpacking trip, look for a place to set up camp somewhere in the lower gorge.
Once you enter the upper gorge, the path becomes a beautiful canyon with smooth, curving walls and interesting passages. The surface is mainly rock and gravel as you wind between the walls. The main passage continues to be obvious, though you’ll come across several “dry falls” (waterfalls without water) that need to be climbed to continue your progress. Here are two examples:
As you explore the canyon and scramble up the dry falls, don’t forget to keep an eye out for beautiful swirling fossils in the walls, and perhaps the skeletons of some unlucky bighorn sheep.
Around ten miles in you’ll find progress blocked by a much taller dry fall. It looks impassible, but look closely for a faint use trail on the right / north side where you can scramble up the tallus and out the top of the gorge. It’s worth making this final effort before turning around. Appreciate the desert views and the fact that you just traversed the entire length of the gorge and popped out on the other side!
After enjoying the views, it’s time to turn around and head back. You’ve been hiking steadily uphill for about 4000 feet, so the way back will at least be downhill. You’ll need to negotiate the dry falls in reverse, often harder than climbing up, and make your way through the rocky lower gorge and across the open desert back to your car. For the final 4 miles or so, it helps to follow a GPS track to make sure you actually end up back at your car and not miles away down Scotty’s Castle Road.
There is NO WATER anywhere on this route. Pack in everything you plan to drink, keeping in mind that you may need quite a bit if camping overnight.
A GPS navigation app is highly recommended for this route. Though route finding is pretty straightforward on the way out (“walk toward the mouth of the gorge, follow the canyon…”) it’s much harder to find the path on the way back across the open desert section without the gorge as a visual guide. Though you’ll eventually end up at Scotty’s Castle Road, you could find yourself rather far from your car unless you can follow a GPS route or track and retrace your own steps.
The dry falls are fun to scramble and not particularly tall, but some parts are slippery. Take care to not climb up anything you don’t feel you can climb back down. A hiking partner can be helpful to lend a hand here or there, and it’s good to stay mentally prepared to turn back whenever you feel you’ve reached the end of what you can safely climb.
A SPOT or Garmin InReach would be appropriate for this remote route, since you’re not likely to meet any other hikers and the rock scrambling increases the possibility of a minor injury that might make it tough to get out on your own.
If attempting this hike as a long day hike, start very early and bring a headlamp! A GPS track will also help you cross the final stretch of open desert in the dark.
Don’t hike Bighorn Gorge when flash flood risk is high. I couldn’t find information about how often this particular canyon sees water, but it’s general best practice in deserts to not hike washes and canyons when it’s raining heavily upstream.
Steve Hall’s iconic Death Valley website has helpful route descriptions, pictures, and maps for both the lower gorge and upper gorge.
If you’re in the area and looking for more to do, consider linking up Death Valley with some of Southern California’s other gorgeous deserts, including another outdoor adventure playground: Joshua Tree National Park.
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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