Death Valley: Golden Canyon

After seeing the badlands from Zabriskie Point, we hiked up Golden Canyon from the valley floor through the same badlands. The National Park Service provides a trail guide explaining the geologic features of Golden Canyon.

The above photo shows the hills at the mouth of the canyon, cars in the parking lot, the flat floor of Death Valley, and the mountains forming the other side of Death Valley. The distant mountains had snow in February.

We hiked up the canyon, which at times can be broad. This is the same sand-colored rock we saw at Zabriskie Point, a couple miles up the canyon. The canyon floor is flat from deposited sediments from rain and wind.

hiking up Golden Canyon
hiking up Golden Canyon

I hiked up the hill in the center of the photo to see the tops of these hills. The light-colored trace on the ridge line shows the trail.

From the hill top, see the view looking back at the valley floor. On the right are tilted bands of color from layers of sedimentary rock that were subsequently tilted by tectonic forces. This is a closer view of the same bands of colored rock we saw from Zabriskie Point.

tilted layers of colored rock
tilted layers of colored rock

The next photo looks across the hill tops to Red Cathedral, with hikers down on the Golden Canyon trail. The tiny hikers at the base on the yellow hill show the height of these hills.

hikers on the Golden Canyon trail
hikers on the Golden Canyon trail (click to enlarge)

The trail guide explains the steep hills and deep gullies of the badlands:

The story of these “badlands” begins and ends with water. These lakebed deposits contain impermeable clay, so any rainfall quickly moves downhill. In addition,
the combination of steep slopes and sporadic but intense storms increases rapid surface runoff. Nature’s way of efficiently removing so much water is the formation of the numerous gullies and ravines that characterize the badlands.

This photo shows the flat top and dark rock of the hill I climbed. The next set of hills doesn’t have a top coat of dark rock, and those sandstone hills are deeply furrowed with ridged tops. Perhaps the dark rock top provides some protection from erosion, permitting the flat hill top.

dark volcanic rock on top of sandstone hill
dark volcanic rock on top of sandstone hill (click to enlarge)

After carefully picking my way down the hill, we continued up Golden Canyon. A trail leads to at Red Cathedral, shown below.

Red Cathedral
Red Cathedral

Red Cathedral is composed of sedimentary rock colored by iron oxide. From the trail guide:

More resistant to erosion than the soft yellow mudstone, the rocks of Red Cathedral form steep cliffs. These cliffs are composed of conglomerate similar to that exposed near the mouth of Golden Canyon, and they are also the debris of a former alluvial fan. Oxidation of iron creates the red color, like the process that forms rust.

Heading back to Furnace Creek for lunch, we passed tilted layers of sedimentary rock that were horizontal when originally deposited. Death Valley has major faults that uplifted and tilted these layers. Dark rock is on top of lighter-colored rock. They seem to run together, and they’re all tilted at the same angle.

tilted layers
colored layers tilted at the same angle

Hiking Golden Canyon gave us a closer look at the badlands we saw from Zabriskie Point. The rocks and their stories deepen our appreciation of the forces of nature that shaped Death Valley.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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