Golden Canyon, Red Cathedral, and Gower Gulch Trails – Death Valley National Park, California

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When I first told my father we were going to visit Death Valley, his response was, “You know the clue is in the name, right?” He’s not wrong. Death Valley is the hottest place in North America. The world record for highest air temperature was recorded in Furnace Creek at a scorching 134 degrees Fahrenheit. The National Park Service warns visitors against hiking at lower elevations during summer months due to dangerous conditions. During our visits, we frequently saw signs advising on safety tips such as never traveling outside the view of your car.

We visited in February, when hiking at lower elevations is actually quite pleasant. Temperatures were in the mid-70’s without any humidity. It was warm in the sun but the temperature dropped significantly as soon as we stepped into the shade.

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Our only safety concern was avoiding dehydration. The National Park Service recommends at least 2 liters for a short winter hike. Mona and I carried 4 liters each (1 liter for each hour we planned to be out). During our hike in Golden Canyon, Mona was glad for the extra liters because she tends to drink a lot of water while hiking in the desert. Personally, it was more than I needed and I would have been more comfortable with just the 2 liters and less weight. So when planning how much water to bring for a winter hike, start at 2 liters and increase if you know you’re someone who needs extra hydration in the desert.

Our first day of hiking was in Golden Canyon. When we arrived at the trailhead, our Trail Mavens  leader distributed topographic maps and taught us how to read them. From the parking lot at the trailhead, we passed into the canyon. The namesake is clear because there really is no other word that can accurately convey the color of the rocky walls that rise around us at all sides. Under a clear blue sky, the yellow rock and sand are bright and yellow. For those interested in the geological features of the hike, there is an interpretive guide available online that provides some history of how the canyon was formed. 

It is an easy incline for about a mile. The trail has been rated as moderate, probably due to the uneven terrain, but we were able to talk and walk without much effort. We then reached the Red Cathedral Spur Trail, a half-mile out and back strenuous trail. The first portion requires some rock scrambling, which I really enjoyed. After a physical injury, I had spent a lot of time in the gym training and rehabilitating my body with the expectation of these scrambles. Pulling myself over the rocks we reached the very steep incline that curves around the rock walls to the end of the trail. I had some immediate flashbacks to all the calf-building exercises I had been doing for months. Towards the end, I was using my hands as well as my feet to guide myself around the sharp turn to the right avoiding the steep drop down the canyon wall and to the top of the Red Cathedral spur trail.

At the top of Red Cathedral, I had a profound moment of peace. In the hiking community I hear a lot of people talk about conquering mountains or crushing miles. But I’ve never felt like I was in any kind of battle against nature. It’s only ever been a fight against my physical body. I want to walk in the desert and climb mountains, but there have been so many times that my body has let me down and left me sitting in the valley while others reach the summit. Standing at the top, looking down, I felt powerful and unburdened. I was unencumbered by my fears. My fear of failure, weakness, and even heights were somewhere at the bottom of the canyon. They were waiting for me there and I knew would catch up with me again eventually, but for the moment I was my purest self.

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After some celebratory beef jerky and water, we descended. This proved to be a lot more difficult. Loose rocks, dirt over smooth stone, and steep inclines made it a perilous balancing act. Since I have one weak knee, I was grateful I had brought a trekking pole to help me steady myself. I was also grateful to be hiking with a group. More than once someone stumbled or slipped, no matter how careful they were, and it was good to have others there to grab a hand and offer assistance.   

We returned to the Golden Canyon trail and walked out of the valley and up over the hills. Again, there is no other word for the mountains and hills but golden. They were shimmering bright and yellow in the sun underneath a clear blue sky. It was the most beautiful desert hiking I had experienced. It was easy to forget about the heat and become lost staring at the landscape.

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After finding a high, flat point large enough to accommodate our group, we sat down to enjoy our packed lunches and chat about our experiences. Mostly we talked about our fears, those weird phobias all of us. I think this is one of the things I appreciated most about being on a Trail Mavens (http://www.trailmavens.com) trip. It was an opportunity to communicate honestly with other women on the trail, removed from the usual pressures we might have faced that create such a barrier between people. I have long had a fear of heights that has affected my abilities to hike, fly in a plane, even cope with balconies and staircases on some occasions. It has gotten much better over time, mostly by forcing myself to do things that make me uncomfortable. Talking with women who struggle with their own fears and how they cope made me feel much more positive about mine. I felt very connected with myself and with my new friends.

Finishing lunch and packing things away (always pack it out!), we continued to Gower Gulch. As we descended, the rocks changed to grey and blue.  After hiking over shining hills, there was something calming about descending into the shadier, cooler narrows of the gulch. I also enjoyed the change in the scenery and a chance to hike over varying terrain. The final half-mile took us out of the gulch and to a dry fall, where we followed a bypass trail into the wash. During a flash flood, the water would pour over the rocks and down into the wash where we walked back to the parking lot. 

Without the Red Cathedral spur trail, Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch loop is 4 miles round trip with elevation gains of about 500 feet. The hike itself is easy with a gradual incline and descent so the only slight difficulties being the rocky trail and dry heat. With covered shoes and sufficient water, there isn’t a challenge. The Red Cathedral spur trail adds another mile (half a mile out, half a mile back) and provides a much more strenuous hike with steep inclines and much more challenging terrain that I described above. The combination of the trails was a perfect hike for me, easy enough to enjoy the scenery but technical enough in aspects to present a physical challenge.

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