The panoramic view of Golden Canyon from Zabriskie Point is magnificent, but don't miss getting into the canyon itself-and that's possible only by hitting the trail. Sunrise and sunset, when the light is magical and hikers are few, are good times to walk the canyon.
Until the rainy winter of 1976, a road extended through Golden Canyon. A deluge washed it away, and it's been a trail ever since.
The first mile of Golden Canyon Trail is self-guided. Pick up a copy of the National Park Service's "Trail Guide to Golden Canyon," available for a small fee at the visitor center or the trail head. Stops in the guide are keyed to numbers along the trail and may tell you more about Miocene volcanic activity, Jurassic granite intrusion and Precambrian erosion than you wanted to know. But even a casual student of Earth science will appreciate the complex geology and the millions of years required to sculpt and color Golden Canyon.
At the end of the trail, the path branches. One fork heads for Red Cathedral, also called Red Cliffs, a natural amphitheater whose color is essentially iron oxide.
You can drive to Zabriskie Point, but you'll appreciate the view more if you sweat up those switchbacks on foot. A trail climbs through badlands to the point named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, one of the early heads of borax mining operations.
The memorable panorama from Zabriskie Point includes a grand view of the valley, framed by the badlands just below, and the Panamint Mountains to the west. A return by way of Gower Gulch offers another perspective on this colorful desert land and enables hikers to make a loop.
Directions to the trail head: From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, drive south on California Highway 190, forking right onto California Highway 178 (called Badwater Highway within the park). The signed Golden Canyon Trail is on your left, three miles from the visitor center. The walk through Golden Canyon shares a common trail head with the longer excursion to Zabriskie Point.
The hike: From the parking lot, hike up the alluvial fan into the canyon. Marvel at the tilted, faulted rock walls as they close in. Depending on the light, Golden Canyon can seem to glow gold, brass, yellow or orange.
Deeper and deeper into the badlands you ascend. Watch for white crystalline outcroppings of borax-the same stuff of Twenty Mule Team fame.
At the end of the nature trail, continue up the main canyon 1/4 mile to the old Golden Canyon parking lot. The trail narrows, and you have to squeeze past boulders to the base of Red Cathedral.
To Zabriskie Point: From Stop 10 on the Golden Canyon interpretive trail, take the signed fork toward Zabriskie Point. The path climbs into the badlands toward Manly Beacon, a pinnacle of gold sandstone. The trail crests at the shoulder of the beacon, then descends into the badlands and brings you to a junction. Go left (east) to Zabriskie Point. (The right fork is the return leg of your loop through Gower Gulch.)
Watch for park service signs to stay on the trail, which is a bit difficult to follow as it marches up and down the severely eroded silt-stone hills. After a mile, a final steep grade brings you to Zabriskie Point-or, more accurately, the parking lot. Step uphill to the point itself and savor the views of the eroded yellow hills below and mountains across the valley.
Retrace your steps to the trail fork. This time you'll descend west into a wash. Wide, gray and gravelly Gower Gulch has definitely felt the hand of man. The open mouths of tunnels and white smears on the walls are reminders of the borax miners who dug up these hills.
More than a mile down the trail, the gulch narrows and you'll suddenly encounter a 30-foot-high dry fall. Take the bypass footpath to the right. A final 11/4 miles of trail continue north along the base of the hills on a route paralleling the highway, and lead back to the trail head parking area at the mouth of Golden Canyon.