Four backpackers seem tiny as they venture between dark and polished towering canyon walls.
Backpackers in Marble Canyon

NPS Photo - Dan Kish


Backpacking in Death Valley National can be challenging, but the opportunities for experiencing solitude, sweeping vistas, dark night skies, and awesome geology abound within the three million acres of designated wilderness in the park. There are few established trails in the park, but hikers can follow canyon bottoms, open desert washes, alluvial fans, and abandoned dirt roads to get around.

  • Backpackers on the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop are required to obtain a free backcountry permit online, in person at Furnace Creek Visitor Center or the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station during business hours, or at the 24-hour self-service drop box outside Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.
  • Backpackers in other areas are recommended (but not required) to get a permit.
  • Leave No Trace guidelines should be followed to minimize impacts on the fragile desert environment.
  • Overnight group size is limited to 12 people and no more than 4 vehicles. Larger groups will need to split up and camp at least 1/2 mile apart.
  • Campfires are not allowed in the backcountry. Use a campstove instead.
  • Pets are not allowed on trails or in the wilderness. However, pets are allowed on the Furnace Creek bike path and hundreds of miles of backcountry dirt roads.
  • Water at springs can be dry or contaminated. These fragile, sensitive habitats are also vital to wildlife. Plan to carry your own water or stash it ahead of time. During hot spring, summer, and fall months, one gallon of water or more per person per day is needed.

Bighorn Gorge

  • Difficulty: strenuous

  • Type of hike: no trail; walk gravel wash and cross-country, some rock scrambling.

  • Distance: 10 miles from Scotty's Castle Road to upper dry fall

  • Elevation gain: 4000 feet

  • Water: no

  • Start: 3.9 miles south of Grapevine Ranger Station on Scotty's Castle Road.

  • Vehicle needed: all vehicles

  • Maps: Tin Mountain and Whitetop Mountain 7.5 minute topos

  • Comments: From the Scotty's Castle Road, hike down to Death Valley Wash then follow main drainage up alluvial fan to canyon. Several small dry falls are easily passed, but at upper end of gorge an 80 foot dry fall requires scrambling up talus slope on north side to continue beyond. No camping within 2 miles of the road.

Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop (permit required)

Fall Canyon

  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

  • Type of hike: informal path first mile, then gravel wash and rock scrambling.

  • Distance: 3 miles to first dry fall; 6 miles to second dry fall.

  • Elevation gain: 2,460 feet to first dry fall

  • Water: no

  • Start: parking area at mouth of Titus Canyon (west end)

  • Vehicle needed: all vehicles

  • Maps: Fall Canyon 7.5 minute topo

  • Comments: Narrow canyon with high walls, similar to Titus. From parking area, hike north along base of mountains ½ mile to large wash , then up into Fall Canyon. At 3 miles you reach a dry fall, which can be passed on the south side with moderate difficulty. Day -use is heavy below dry falls. Backpackers should plan on camping beyond that point. No camping within 2 miles of the road.

Red Amphitheater

  • Difficulty: moderate to strenuous

  • Type of hike: no trail; gravel wash and cross-country

  • Distance: 2 to 10 miles

  • Elevation gain: 300 to 1500 feet

  • Water: no

  • Start: Hole-in-the-Wall

  • Vehicle needed: high-clearance to Hole-in-the-Wall; 4x4 beyond

  • Maps: Echo Canyon 7.5 minute topo

  • Comments: Many variations possible. In the large "amphitheater" between Schwaub and Pyramid Peaks many small side canyons make good loop hikes by crossing low divides and returning via another canyon. Several rugged canyons in Funeral Mountains just above Hole-in-the-Wall can be explored depending on your climbing ability. No camping within 2 miles of the paved road.

Hungry Bill's Ranch

  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

  • Type of hike: informal path and cross-country.

  • Distance: 2 miles to ranch site from road end; 7 miles to Panamint City.

  • Elevation gain: 1100 feet to ranch site; 4100 feet to pass

  • Water: yes

  • Start: end of Johnson Canyon Road

  • Vehicle needed: high-clearance to canyon mouth; 4x4 on last 4 miles to road end

  • Maps: Panamint and Galena Canyon 7.5 minute topos

  • Comments: Historic ranch site from 1870's contains rock terraces, corral and orchard. It is possible to continue over pass (no trail) to ghost town of Panamint City.

Indian Pass

  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

  • Type of hike: no trail; walk gravel wash and cross-country.

  • Distance: 6 miles to springs; 8 miles to pass.

  • Elevation gain: 3000 feet to pass

  • Water: yes, in canyon

  • Start: 6.5 miles north of Furnace Creek Visitor Center on Hwy 190.

  • Vehicle needed: all vehicles

  • Maps: Nevares Peak 7.5 minute topo

  • Comments: Follow wash bearing left (north) staying in drainage nearest ridge; head for low pass in mountains to the east. Last four miles in canyon. No camping within 2 miles of the road or 200 yards from springs.

Owlshead Mountains

  • Difficulty: moderate

  • Type of hike: cross-country and gravel wash

  • Distance: 7 miles to upper Through Cyn, 16 mile loop to return via Granite Canyon

  • Elevation gain: 1900 feet

  • Water: no

  • Start: Confidence Mill site, 6.6 miles from Ashford Junction on Harry Wade Road

  • Vehicle needed: high-clearance

  • Maps: Confidence Hills East and Confidence Hills West 7.5 minute topo.

  • Comments: The east side of the Owlshead Mountains have several nice canyons for hikers to explore. Through Canyon is one of the largest and passes through to a hidden basin at the heart of the mountains. A small stand of smoke trees are found here. A possible loop trip is return via Granite Canyon.

Panamint Dunes

  • Difficulty: moderate

  • Type of hike: no trail; cross-country

  • Distance: 3 miles to dunes

  • Elevation gain: 1000 feet

  • Water: no

  • Start: 5 miles north of Hwy 190 on unmarked dirt road leading past Lake Hill.

  • Vehicle needed: high-clearance

  • Maps: Dunes 7.5 minute topo or Trails Illustrated Map of Death Valley

  • Comments: Hike across the gently rising upper end of Panamint Valley to star-shaped dunes. These remote dunes are more impressive than they look from a distance. Military jets often use Panamint Valley to practice low elevation flight maneuvers, but are less likely on weekends

Surprise Canyon

  • Difficulty: strenuous

  • Type of hike: wet canyon with remnants of old jeep road, some rock scrambling.

  • Distance: 5 miles to ghost town

  • Elevation gain: 4000 feet to ghost town

  • Water: yes

  • Start: 6 miles northeast of Ballarat.

  • Vehicle needed: high-clearance; 4x4 final 2 miles to trailhead

  • Maps: Panamint and Ballarat 7.5 minute topos

  • Comments: Old jeep road washed out in 1980s and officially closed to vehicles but makes a great hiking trail. Ghost town of Panamint City is a good goal but mountain scenery, abundant springs and bighorn sheep all make it a worthy hike. Another 7 miles of mostly trailless hiking over pass leads to Johnson Canyon Road.

Telescope Peak

  • Difficulty: strenuous

  • Type of hike: maintained trail

  • Distance: 7 miles to summit

  • Elevation gain: 3000 feet

  • Water: no

  • Start: Mahogany Flat Campground

  • Vehicle needed: High-clearance

  • Maps: Telescope Peak 7.5 minute topo

  • Comments: Spectacular views of Death Valley and Sierra Nevada. Camping is good in Arcan Meadows between Rogers Peak and Telescope Peak. Grade is steep for last mile of ascent; ice axe and crampons are often necessary in winter. No camping within 2 miles of the road.

Titanothere Canyon

  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

  • Type of hike: no trail; walk gravel wash and cross-country.

  • Distance: 4.5 miles to Lostman Spring; 12 miles to Scotty's Castle Road.

  • Elevation loss: 1700 down to spring; 4700 feet down to road

  • Water: maybe, at Lostman Spring

  • Start: 11 miles from start of Titus Canyon Road (do not block road)

  • Vehicle needed: High-clearance

  • Maps: Thimble Peak 7.5 minute topo

  • Comments: With a 2-car shuttle you can hike all the way through to Scotty's Castle Road, but a more practical way is to hike to Lostman Spring and return to your car. No camping within 2 miles of the road or 100 yards from springs.

Last updated: May 4, 2024

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