Craving some trail time that doesn’t involve skis or snowshoes this winter? Head to Southern California’s Death Valley National Park, home of the lowest point in North America, and knock yourself out with these beautiful and challenging winter hiking, backpacking, trail running and mountain biking ideas.
Stovepipe Wells: Set Up Camp
There are many great opportunities for camping in Death Valley National Park, but Stovepipe Wells Campground makes a great base camp for the rest of the activities in this list.
Mesquite Spring Campground is another nearby option. It’s closer to the start of Bighorn Gorge but further from Cottonwood Canyon. It has fewer sites and is almost 2000 feet higher in elevation than Stovepipe Wells, meaning it will probably be colder in the winter. My husband and I camped at Stovepipe Wells in December and found it already cold enough! So if Mesquite Springs is full, you’re feeling chilly, or you’re focusing on Cottonwood Canyon, head to Stovepipe Wells.
Both options have flush toilets, and some sites have picnic tables and fire pits. As of early 2019 the cost for both is $14 per night. Stovepipe Wells Campground is across the street from the town of the same name, which has a gas station, general store, “saloon” (restaurant), gift shop, and ranger station. Mesquite Spring is more isolated.
None of the campgrounds in Death Valley take reservations in winter, so you’ll need to show up and claim your spot. We had a little trouble with this during the busy period between Christmas and New Years but eventually found a site for our tent. The good news is that with so many campgrounds, you should be able to find space somewhere, but leave yourself enough time to do so if visiting during a popular time. There’s also always the option of backcountry camping for free too – just be sure to bring enough water and leave no trace as always.
For more information, check out this helpful overview of campgrounds at Death Valley National Park.
Bighorn Gorge: Hike and Scramble
There’s nothing like a bit of rock climbing to make a hike feel like a true adventure. If you’re looking for that little something extra, you’ll probably have fun hiking Bighorn Gorge. It’s a relatively popular Death Valley hike, though you still won’t run into too many people there as it’s not an easy one.
The full out-and-back hike from the road to the top of the gorge is about 20 miles round trip, so most people will not want to tackle the full distance as a day hike. Even if 20 miles seems doable to you, keep in mind that there is route finding, scrambling, and lots of rocky sand to slow you down. Many people do it as an overnight, setting up camp near the top of the sandy lower gorge, but you’ll need to bring your own water.
Another fun option is to set out early on a day hike and simply turn around when you get tired, run out of time, or don’t feel like you can safely negotiate a dry fall (more on that below). Note that it’s nearly 5 miles from the road just to reach the mouth of the gorge, and then another 2 or 3 miles before the first of the dry falls, which is where things start to get interesting. So you’re looking at minimum 15ish miles of hiking if you want to enjoy this route properly.
For more detail on how to hike this unique route, see the Bighorn Gorge hiking guide.
Cottonwood and Marble Canyon: Choose Your Adventure
If Bighorn Gorge wasn’t enough desert for you, or you’re looking for a more traditional backpacking route or loop hike, Cottonwood and Marble Canyon is the most popular backpacking route in Death Valley. A 26 mile loop (longer if your car can’t make it all the way up the rough approach road) with route finding challenges and sparse water sources, it’s not for the inexperienced hiker. But, it is beautiful and remote, and better attempted in winter or fall than the perilously sweltering hotter months.
Typical: Backpack the Loop
Most people do this loop as a two or three day backpacking trip. Starting from Stovepipe Wells Campground, it’s a ten mile drive up the sandy, rocky Cottonwood Canyon Road. You’ll probably need a solid 4wd car, and even then you may need to park a couple miles away from the official start, where Cottonwood Canyon Road intersects Marble Canyon Road. Most people hike clockwise, starting with Cottonwood Canyon Road which is on the left from the junction.
You’ll need to pay careful attention to water sources, depending on the season and year, and may need to dry camp. You should also research the route finding challenges of the middle section, where you transition from one canyon to the other, and consider bringing a GPS navigation app just in case. You’ll want a warm sleeping bag and plenty of toasty layers for the cold desert nights.
Creative: Mountain Bike to Hike or Trail Run
Here’s an alternative idea! If you don’t have time for a multi-day hike, don’t have a 4wd car or don’t feel like carrying all your overnight gear, try this instead.
Ride your mountain bike the ten miles up Cottonwood Canyon Road from Stovepipe Wells. I’d be lying if I said this was excellent biking – it’s gradually uphill, sandy, and washboarded – but hey, it’s faster than walking.
Stash your bike out of sight near the start of the loop. Then, explore Cottonwood and/or Marble canyons on foot as an out and back. If you’re a trail runner, the flat terrain here is an excellent place to cruise. When you’ve had enough, return to your bike and roll back to Stovepipe Wells (the bike ride is easier going down than up), enjoying the sunset over the valley as you go (bring a headlamp).
If you’re an experienced ultrarunner, you could probably manage the full loop in a single day, plus the bike ride to and from the start. My husband and I were tempted, but opted to be lazy instead and enjoy a sunny 10 mile out and back in Cottonwood Canyon. Still, there was something about this multisport adventure – riding mountain bikes to and from a trail run – that made us feel like outdoorsy badasses.
Badwater Basin: Relax and Wander
After all that hiking, running and biking, your legs are probably ready for a rest. It’s a bit out of the way (a 45 minute drive south), but no trip to Death Valley is complete without tagging the lowest elevation point in North America at Badwater Basin.
If you’ve been out on the peaceful trails you may be surprised by the number of people at Badwater Basin, since it’s popular with hikers and non-hikers alike. But if you’re craving some space, all you need to do is walk a mile or so out onto the salt flats and you’ll be surrounded by empty space and the otherworldly cracks of salt flats stretching in all directions. It’s a great place to quietly wander or simply sit and enjoy the open space.
It’s possible to cross the entire salt flat on foot, a distance about about 6 miles, but the footing gets gnarly and less flat than you might expect based on the beginning. Still, if you’re going to attempt this, winter is definitely the time to do it; summer would be downright dangerous for all but the best prepared and hardiest of adventurers.
Depending on where you’re headed, the drive south to Badwater from Stovepipe Wells can feel out of the way. But it’s possible to circle down through Barstow and back up highway 5 if you’re returning to somewhere north in California. Be aware that Tehachapi, on highway 395, can get snow in the winter. Another option is to keep heading south and extend your winter desert adventure in Mojave or Red Rock Canyon, where you’ll find plenty more hiking, biking, and climbing to keep you busy.
Tips and Warnings
Most visits to Death Valley go smoothly despite the park’s intimidating name. However, there are a few dangers in Death Valley that are worth watching out for.
A few tips especially relevant for hiking and camping in Death Valley in winter:
- Prepare for cold. Death Valley is known for its heat in the summer, but don’t underestimate the chill of the desert in the winter. Temperatures can fall below freezing and there can be snow and ice even in the mid-elevation canyons.
- Drink plenty of water. Even though you may not feel hot in the winder, the air is very dry and it’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re being active.
- Prepare for route finding. Most routes are not on marked trails. A GPS navigation app is super handy, but also consider a backup plan for if your battery dies (paper map and compass). You don’t want to be stuck overnight in the freezing desert if you’re not carrying the gear for it.
- Watch out for flash floods if it rains. Normally dry desert canyons and washes can turn into rivers very quickly in rainy weather, even if the storm is elsewhere. This can close roads, flood washes and, most dangerously, turn canyons into rivers. Never camp in washes and canyons where this is a risk, and prepare to move to higher ground if it starts pouring. If in doubt, check with rangers before venturing out, as it’s even possible to get stranded on the roads if a section floods severely.
Other Death Valley Resources
Death Valley National Park official website, with current updates and lots of useful information.
Steve Hall’s Death Valley Adventures, an impressively comprehensive list of guides and trip reports for more hikes in Death Valley than you could ever hope for.
For some of the more classic (i.e. less strenuous) things to do in Death Valley, check out these lists geared toward sightseers:
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