An off-trail hike that is often backpacked into a desert canyon with dryfalls and short stretches of narrows.
|Total Distance: 20 miles out & back||Elevation Gain: 5,414ft. (1,456ft. to 5,056ft.)|
|Difficulty: Very Extremely Strenuous||10+ Mile Difficulty: Very Extremely Strenuous|
|View Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0 stars||Author’s Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0 stars|
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|Pets: No||Horses: Yes|
|Best Seasons: November-April||Special Permits: None|
|Water Availability: None||Overnight Options: Dispersed camping permitted at least 2.0 miles from Scotty’s Castle Road|
|Trailhead Amenities: None||Crowd Factor: Solitude|
|Trailhead Access: 0.6|
Mile-by-Mile: Bighorn Gorge Route
0.0 Unmarked Bighorn Gorge Trailhead on Scotty’s Castle Road (1,685ft.). Travel southwest toward the mouth of Bighorn Gorge. There is no trail, so you’ll be walking cross-country across the alluvial fan of the wash. (36.935531°, -117.321791°)
1.2 Death Valley Wash (1,456ft.). Cross over the wash and begin climbing the gravely drainage into Bighorn Gorge. Many people choose to walk up on the rim of the wash, as the footing is easier than in the wash bottom. (36.924762°, -117.336722°)
3.75 Wash on right (2,436ft.). Continue left (west) in the main wash. Shortly after this, the walls begin to rise to create the Lower Canyon of Bighorn Gorge. The canyon remains relatively wide even as the hills rise on either side. (36.900837°, -117.370425°)
7.2 First Dryfall (3,726ft.). Scramble up the dryfall and then continue in the first set of narrows. There are other sets of small dryfalls (some smooth and some rocky) to climb (Class 2 to Class 3). The narrows of Bighorn Gorge are often carved out of polished limestone and can be quite narrow. Keep your eyes open for fossils in the rocks. In general, the gorge is quite rough and rocky, so it’s not for the faint of heart. About mile 8, the canyon widens again before a few more short sets of narrows. Between mile 9 and mile 10, you will come to an 80ft. dryfall. It looks impassible, but a very faint social trail on the right (north/west) leads up the scree and back into the gorge above the fall. (36.865199°, -117.391714°)
10.0 Top of Bighorn Gorge (5,056ft.). Enjoy the views up the wash before returning back down the canyon (note that descending the dryfalls is often more difficult than climbing them; use caution). It is possible to continue up the wash above the gorge; however, few people do due to the hike’s length. (36.844049°, -117.409145°)
History & More
Bighorn Gorge is probably named for the bighorn sheep that frequent the area.
This is one of the more popular backpacking trips in Death Valley National Park, despite the lack of trail or markings and the difficulty of scrambling the narrows. Backpacking in Death Valley is made more difficult by the lack of reliable water sources.
Most people do not travel beyond the base of the upper dryfall, as doing so is not recommended by the NPS. There isn’t much to see in the upper canyon, so climbing the slope is up to your discretion.
Use care on the dryfalls, as some are slippery and/or difficult to maneuver, especially with a large pack. Remember that climbing down the dryfalls is often more difficult than climbing up them.
Be sure to keep your eyes open for fossils and other interesting marks and features in the rocks of the gorge.
Download Trail Map
From CA-190 east of Stovepipe Wells and north of Furnace Creek, take the Scotty’s Castle Road 28.2 miles to the unmarked trailhead. The trailhead is about 5 miles south of the Grapevine Ranger Station.
Camping in a canyon is discouraged due to the danger of flash floods.
Remember, it may be easier to climb up dryfalls than down them (or vice versa). Be sure you can climb in the other direction before climbing up or down a dryfall.
Camping is not allowed within one mile of a paved road, developed area, or dirt road that is closed to camping.
Camping is not permitted within 100 feet of a flowing stream, spring, or other natural body of open water.
No camping is permitted on the floor of Death Valley, within one mile of Darwin Falls and Greenwater Canyon, on the active/shifting sand dunes, and certain other canyons and backcountry areas.
Camping is also prohibited within one mile of the Ubehebe Lead Mine, Leadfield Mines, Keane Wonder Mill, and Skidoo Mill.
Camping is limited to 30 days per calendar year within the park.
Fires are permitted in NPS-provided fire grates or grills ONLY.
Leave No Trace Principles are enforced
Drones and model aircrafts are prohibited
Camping is permitted only in designated sites or in areas open to dispersed backcountry camping
All park rules and regulations
12 Month Pass: $55/Death Valley Annual Pass (valid at Death Valley National Park). $80/America the Beautiful Annual Pass (valid at all national park and federal fee areas). $20/Annual Senior Pass (62 years or older US citizens; valid at all national park and federal fee areas). Free/4th Grade Pass (Valid Sept. 1-August 31 of the child’s 4th Grade school year). Free/Military Pass (valid for all active military personel and their dependents with a CAC Card or DD Form 1173).
Lifetime Pass: $80/Lifetime Senior Pass (62 years or older US citizens; valid at all national park and federal fee areas). Free/Access Pass (available to all US citizens with perminent disabilities). Free/Access for Veterans and Gold Star Families Pass (valid for all military and veterans with a CAC card, Veteran HJealth Identification Card, Veteran ID Card, or veteran’s designation on state-issued drivers license or identification card.)