As our Death Valley National Park trip continued, so did our journey to complete 52 in 52! Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral was the first destination for our second day of exploring Death Valley National Park. As a 3-mile round-trip trail, we decided that this will be hike number Four of the 52 Hike Challenge!
I was inspired by the incredible photos of the massive red-rock formations at the end of the Golden Canyon Trail, so it was decided that we had to see them for ourselves. And so, that is the reason why we decided that we will take the Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral for our fourth hike of the 52 Hike Challenge. Keep reading if you are planning on taking this particular route as well, as I take you along this journey with us. As always, at the end you will also find a little added bonus of taking the off-the-beaten-path for even more awe-inspiring scenery!
Getting a Proper Start
Waking up early on the second day, I emerged out of our tent into the darkness before dawn, sleepily craving the compulsory cup of morning coffee. Desperately trying to keep myself warm, I started putting my beanie on and, when I looked up in front of me, I stood astonished by one of the most magnificent sunrises I have ever seen. A thin line of colours, burning in shades of yellow and orange, lighting the sky above the rocky mountain silhouettes! The slowly emerging sunlight was illuminating the fluffy clouds in red and pink. The campground was still and quiet as I took a seat in one of our camping chairs to savour the beauty of the rising sun – coffee could wait! We took the morning slow and spent time enjoying a hot breakfast while admiring the skyline. I knew it would be a good day – a morning like this could not disappoint!
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Getting to Golden Canyon Trailhead
Situated just 4 miles away from Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Golden Canyon Trail is conveniently located for an early morning hike. Follow highway CA-190 for about a mile East, before taking a right along Badwater Basin Road. As this route takes tourists to the vast majority of popular sights across Death Valley National Park, you will be pleasantly surprised by the smooth paved road. Continue for another 2 miles, before reaching the small parking area to the left. The parking spots are not enough for the attention that the Golden Canyon Trail receives, so if you are not an early bird – be prepared to park along the main road.
When to Visit Golden Canyon Trail
If you have been following me for a while, you would have noticed that I am a huge believer in early morning hikes! The Golden Canyon Trail is not an exception – you want to start as early as possible to beat the crowds and avoid the heat! Especially during the warmer months. The trail might be following the bottom of the canyon, but you will still find yourself exposed to the direct sunlight for a big portion of the hike.
As a maze of narrow winding canyon slots, Golden Canyon offers hikers a wide list of trail options to choose from. Gower Gulch Loop, Badlands Loop and Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral are some of the most popular routes. Keep in mind though that the Badlands Loop starts from Zabriskie Point and not the trailhead along Badwater Basin Road.
As previously mentioned we decided on Golden Canyon Trail to Read Catherdral, so the information below will be about this particular route.
Distance: 3 miles round trip
Duration: 1.5 hours round trip
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Access: Access is free once you have paid the $30.00 entrance fee to Death Valley National Park
Dogs: Not Allowed
Starting Point: 36.4207027, -116.8467738
A board map and a small trail sign mark the beginning of the Golden Canyon Trail at the end of the parking lot. The colorful canyon walls surround you immediately as you enter the trail. For this first short part, a wide and flat path will point you in the right direction. It takes just a few steps before the Red Cathedral comes into sight! It is still far in the distance but, peeking behind the golden canyon walls, it serves as a reminder and inspiration to keep up the pace!
One of my most essential hiking tips is to maintain a good steady pace, however, I would not blame you if you want to take this section of the trail a bit slow. Many would consider it a bit monotonous and not as exciting as what is to come, but it is a good spot to admire the incredible geological features. Even though the primary color is yellow, you are able to find shades of red, green, pink and brown layers in between the rock formations.
The canyon slowly starts to narrow while the path begins a steady incline and a section of remarkably-formed badlands follows next. Continue scrambling and climbing over the inclines as you gradually work up to the Red Cathedral. The last section requires a bit of squatting down and squeezing in between the canyon walls, but it is well worth it.
As you are standing at the bottom of the Red Cathedral, you would have a few options to choose from. Continue to the left to reach the base and admire the breathtaking views of the rock formations rising tall in the sky. A small path to the right, on other hand, will take you on a steady scramble before reaching the top of the cliffs. An awe-inspiring panoramic vista opens up before your eyes. While the Red Cathedral remains behind your back, a sea of undulating golden badlands will reward you for your efforts of hiking all the way through the canyon. As we were visiting during the winter, we caught sight of the snow-capped Telescope Peak as well. This jaw-dropping vista is not only the highlight of Golden Canyon, but also, in my opinion, the best in Death Valley National Park!
We definitely spent a few minutes just soaking in the spectacular views, but a winding narrow path along one of the mudstone cliffs kept catching our attention. It would not be a real hiking adventure for my husband and I if we do not follow a small footpath, with which we have absolutely no idea where it leads to! As we continued along this path, we were able to take a closer look at the smooth, wavy golden badlands lying in front of us. I kept taking glimpses behind my back as well, as the tremendous majesty of the Red Cathedral continued to loom behind us!
The path kept getting smaller and narrower until it almost disappeared, however, a small, steep cliff (with a path) is not something that would break our adventure souls! We kept following the way back down along the steep, crumbling terrain. We were lucky we had brought hiking poles with us on this hike since they absolutely came in handy as we made our way back down to the bottom of the canyon. I do not recommend this if you are not wearing good hiking shoes, have bad knees, or are uncertain on your feet!
Once we made it back to the bottom, we had to follow a narrow passage in between the canyon walls to the right before we made it back on the main trail. From here you can take the same way back to the parking lot.
Along the way back, we found a canyon slot that caught our attention and we took a little detour. We ventured away on our own little adventure once again for some more scrambling over more mudstone cliffs. These passages might not take you far, but they are interesting if you want to do a bit of climbing and exploring on your own!
The unique, unconventional beauty of Death Valley National Park kept astonishing me along the way. I had never even considered Death Valley to be high on my bucket list – though it convinced me I had it wrong. Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral was a true example of how extraordinary Death Valley is! Thanks for reading and be sure to come back next week where we explore our final hike of Death Valley: Darwin Falls! Keep following along for our journey to complete 52 in 52! In the meantime, you may also want to JOIN THE 52 HIKE CHALLENGE!