Zabriskie Point Badland Loop Trail - Death Valley National Park

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This page last updated on 02097/2018
(Fig. 01)

Destination: Zabriskie Point Badlands Loop Trail - Death Valley National Park
Distance from Point of Origin: 120 miles.
Estimated (One Way) Travel Time: 2 hours.
Directions: The shortest route to Death Valley from Las Vegas is about 2 hours or 120 miles. From Interstate 15 South, EXIT on NV Hwy 160 West. Drive 60 miles to Pahrump, Nevada and turn left onto Bell Vista Road (3 miles north of Hwy 372). Drive 30 miles to Death Valley Junction, California and turn right onto CA Hwy 127. Drive about 300 feet and turn left onto CA Hwy 190 and drive 24 miles to the Zabriskie Point Parking area on the left side of CA Hwy 190. This route from the east is probably the most popular entry into Death Valley.
Area Description: Zabriskie Point is a part of Amargosa Range located east of Death Valley in Death Valley National Park in California, United States noted for its erosional landscape. It is composed of sediments from Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up 5 million years ago-long before Death Valley came into existence. (See section at the bottom of this post titled, "Furnace Creek Lake") Zabriskie Point itself is an elevated overlook of a colorful, undulating landscape of gullies and mud hills at the edge of the Black Mountains, just a few miles east of Death Valley. The overlook is named in recognition of Christian Brevoort Zabriskie (1864-1936), president of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who have been active in the Death Valley region since the 1890s. (See section at the bottom of this post titled, "Christian Brevoort Zabriskie")  The hard drought-plagued sun-baked slopes around Zabriskie Point support almost no vegetation and possess a start beauty. The rare rain that comes to Death Valley arrives in the form of downpours, which form the rills and gullies that reshape the landscape. The views from Zabriskie Point are impressive in every direction. To the northeast, Manly Beacon rises up behind waves of yellow and orange colored badlands. To the right of the beacon are the distinct cliffs of Red Cathedral (best seen from Golden Canyon).To the south stand dark multicolored mountains that tower behind the Artist’s Palette. Beneath Zabriskie Point are the upper reaches of Gower Gulch, which brings rainwater and eroded minerals to the salt flats below.               
Special Attraction or Points of Interest: Several hikes emanate from a trailhead at the Zabriskie parking lot. The main trail is the start of the 2.5 mile Badland Loop. It also acts as the trailhead of the 1.8 (one-way) trail to the Upper Golden Canyon and the Red Cathedral. It can also intersect with the 4 mile Gower Gulch Loop trail.
Primary Activity: Hiking and Photography.
Secondary Activities: None.

Elevation: The elevation of the trailhead parking lot is 653 feet above sea level. The second time the trail reaches Gower Gulch wash, the turnaround point for the Badlands Loop hike, the elevation is only 300 feet above sea level, a trail decent of 353 feet.
Best Time To Visit: During the cooler months of Fall, Winter and Spring
Hike Description: The Badlands Loop hike offers a great immersion into the terrain beneath Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park. This 2.5-mile hike is all badlands (Fig. 02). The trail starts down an obvious gully just north of the Zabriskie Point parking lot (Location marked (1) on (Fig. 02)). The gully expands as it descends, gradually leading you into a major artery of Gower Gulch. About half a mile in, a sign marks the start of the circular part of the loop (Location marked (2) on (Fig. 02)). To the right, the loop trail climbs out of the wash and up a steep badlands slope. The loop is easiest to follow by turning to the right. As you climb up the dried mudstone hill, the views of the badlands widen. Manly Beacon (Fig 04) and Red Cathedral (Fig. 05) appear over waves of orange mudstone. The trail puts hikers right in the center of this arid terrain. The well defined footpath continues down the badlands, eventually depositing you onto a large wash. At this junction (Location marked (3) on (Fig. 02)), there is a sign a marked with arrows noting Golden Canyon (to the right), and Gower Gulch Trail (to the left). The trail to the left is the continuation of the Badland Loop trail. To complete the second half of the Badlands Loop, turn left and follow the wash down to a merger with the wide gravely mega-drainage known as Gower Gulch (Location marked (4) on (Fig. 02)). At this point, turn left again and follow the main channel of Gower Gulch uphill towards Zabriskie Point. Its curves lead back to the sign marking the top of the loop (Location marked (2) on (Fig. 02)). From here, turn left out of the drainage and follow the same gully back up the hill, back to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Easy. Though you need to be careful some grades with loose gravel, the majority of the trail in well defined on hard packed soil. Even hiking up the Gower Gulch is a flat, easy walk.
Facilities: There are toilet facilities at the parking area
Estimated Round-trip Time: The total round trip distance of this hike is about 2.2 miles. Some backtracking in the upper portion of the wash, searching looking for an alternative way back to the trailhead, added an additional .5 miles to our hike. Because we made several stops for water and snacks, conversation, talking with other hikers, taking pictures, etc., this hike took us nearly 3 hours. I estimate that most younger people could complete the entire round trip hike in less than two hours. 

(Fig. 02)

(Fig. 03)

12/18/2015 Trip Notes: Today I hiked the Badlands Loop trail at Zabrinskie Point in Death Valley National Park with fellow hiking partners Robert Croke, Blake Smith and Ron Ziance. First, we walked to the observation area atop Zabrinskie Point. The view in (Fig. 01) looks northwest out across the badlands and death valley. Picture Fig 01 in the collage (Fig. 05) is a view from the top of Zabriskie Point looking back down to the parking lot and hike trailhead. The view in (Fig. 03) is a close-up of Manly Beacon (elevation 820 ft) and Red Cathedral (elevation 980 ft). I have divided this hike into four legs (refer to the map in (Fig. 02).

Trail Leg 1: From the Trailhead at the parking area, you head out north (Fig. 04). A few hundred feet out, the view to the left is looking to the top of Zabriskie Point (picture Fig. 2) in the collage. In this picture and (picture Fig. 3) you will see some of the only vegetation along this entire route. As you reach the hills in the distance of (Fig. 04) you pass through a narrow area as seen in (picture Fig. 04) in the collage. We hiked up and down the variegated dunes' eroded ridges and gully's, then down a ravine until we reached Gower Gulch. The picture (Fig. 05) in the collage is Bob turning on his GPS to eventually create the map of our hike as seen in (Fig. 02). (con't below)
(Fig. 04)

(Fig. 05)

Trail Leg 2: Reaching Gower Gulch was the beginning of the second leg of the trail; the actual beginning of the loop. From here we had a view back to the west side of Zabriskie Point. From the wide wash shown at the right middle of picture, we had to turn left and head up yet another steep incline. You can trace this trail we had to climb by going from the lower left corner of the picture, back down to the wash. The next .4 miles of the leg put us in the middle of the badlands. In the collage (Fig. 07): (picture Fig. 1) is Blake hiking up the hill out of the wash; (picture Fig. 2) was a "group" shot at the top of the hill; After reaching yet another hill, we had a great shot of Manly Beacon (picture Fig. 3); halfway up the first hill was a picture of observation point atop of Zabriskie Point (picture Fig. 4); the final shot was the wash at the end of this leg, which was an intersection where one trail led to Golden Canyon and the other to Gower Gulch (picture Fig. 5).

Trail Leg 3: This was the shortest leg of the hike. After turning left again at this intersection we followed the tributary wash for about 0.2 tenths of a mile until it "dumped" into the wide expanse of Gower Gulch. The picture in (Fig. 08) is looking west, down the wash; the picture in (Fig. 09) is where we once again turned left and headed east, up the wash. (con't below)


(Fig. 07)

(Fig. 08)

(Fig. 09)
Trail Leg 4: This hike following Gower Gulch uphill was by far the longest leg of the loop. The collage in (Fig. 10) show a grouping of pictures we captured along the way. It was obvious that the heavy rain storm last month had washed tons of rocks, silt and mud down the entire length of the wash. Much of the mud, some of which was more than three inches deep, was still in the process of cracking and drying out. this wash was the only other place along the whole hike where we found a few examples of vegetation. Instead of turning left at point 2 on the map (Fig. 02), we made it even longer by trying to follow it all the way back to the parking area. Unfortunately just a few hundred feet short of our goal, we ran into an area of very slippery boulders requiring some "bouldering" that was beyond our skills. Because we had to then backtrack back to the (2) intersection and then retrace Leg 1 back to the trailhead, this added nearly an additional mile to the total length of our hike.

(Fig. 10)

(Fig. 11)
(Fig. 12)
Furnace Creek LakeMillions of years prior to the actual sinking and widening of Death Valley and the existence of Lake Manly, another lake covered a large portion of Death Valley including the area around Zabriskie Point. This ancient lake was here approximately nine million years ago. During the several million years of the lake's existence, sediments were collecting at the bottom in the form of saline muds, gravels from nearby mountains, and ashfalls from the then active Black Mountain volcanic field. These sediments combined to form what we today call the Furnace Creek formation. The climate along Furnace Creek Lake was dry but not nearly as dry as today's. Camels, mastadons, horses, carnivores, and birds left tracks in the lakeshore muds along with fossilized grass and reeds. Borates which made up a large degree of Death Valley's historical past were concentrated in the lakebeds from hot spring waters and alteration of rhyolite in the nearby volcanic field. Weathering and alteration by thermal waters are also responsible for the variety of colors represented here.

Regional mountains building to the west influenced the climate to become more and more arid, causing the lake to dry up - creating a playa. Subsequent widening and sinking of Death Valley and the additional uplift of today's Black Mountains tilted the area. This provided the necessary relief to accomplish the erosion that produced the badlands we see today. The dark-colored material capping the nearby badland ridges is lava from eruptions that occurred three to five million years ago. This hard lava cap has retarded erosion in many places and possibly explains why Manly Beacon, the high outcrop, is much higher than other portions of the badlands. Manly Beacon was named in honor of William L. Manly, who, along with John Rogers, guided members of the ill-fated Forty-niners out of Death Valley during the gold rush of 1849.

Christian Brevoort Zabriskie: Christian Brevoort Zabriskie was born October 16, 1864, at Fort Bridger, Wyoming territory where his father, E.B. Zabriskie was stationed. "Chris" attended various schools while growing up and at a very early age went to work as a telegrapher for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad at Carson City, Nevada. He was too restless and ambitious to stay in one place for very long and soon moved to Candelaria, Nevada, (now a site) and worked for the Esmeralda County Bank. Being an active young man, one job was not enough to keep him occupied and he soon branched out into other ventures, one of which was a partnership with a local cabinetmaker to establish a mortuary. Neither of the two knew how to embalm, but it wasn't considered necessary in a mining town - prompt burial was! Zabriskie's life took on new meaning in 1885 when F.M. "Borax" Smith hired him to supervise several hundred Chinese coolies at the Columbus marsh area of the Pacific Coast Borax Company near Candelaria. This was the beginning of a lifelong career in the field of borax. He ultimately became vice president and general manager of the company and served in that capacity for thirty-six years until his retirement in 1933. During this time, the Pacific Coast Borax Company had phased out most of its borax operations in the Candelaria vicinity but had moved on to greater production in the Death Valley area. All this occurred long before 1933, when the area became Death Valley National Monument, but Zabriskie point remains to honor a man who devoted many years of dedicated service to the Pacific Coast Borax Company. On February 8, 1936, just three years after retirement, Christian Brevoort Zabriskie died.