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Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


Solitary hiker in Golden Canyon
A walk up Golden Canyon.

Death Valley field trip buttonDeath Valley geology field trip

A Walk up Golden Canyon

You'll have to put on your virtual walking shoes for this field trip as we'll be venturing about a mile into Golden Canyon. This trail provides a beautiful window into the heart of Death Valley. We'll start the mouth of the canyon at 160 feet (49m) below sea level, and gradually climb uphill about 300 feet (91m) within the first mile.

To use a clickable topographic trail map of our hike, click here.

A View from the Canyon Mouth

At the entrance to Golden Canyon you have a sweeping view across Death Valley toward the Panamint Mountains. Rising nearly halfway up the steep mountain front of the Panamints are great aprons of rocky debris that spread out toward the valley floor, partially burying this majestic range in its own sediment.

Panamint alluvial apron
An apron of rocky debris drapes across the front of the Panamint Mountains. Photo by Marli Miller.

If you look closely, you‘ll notice that this apron of sediment is actually composed of many individual, fan-shaped deposits, each radiating from a deep canyon cut into the mountain front. Death Valley is world-famous for the incredible size, shape, and exposure of these alluvial fans.

At the mouth of Golden Canyon, you are standing on another alluvial fan. Here you can see evidence of how past floods have shaped this fan. Look closely at the rocks nearby, including those that you are standing on. What do you notice about their size? You may notice that large boulders and cobbles have been deposited near the entrance of the canyon. Try to imagine the force of the floods required to move some of these larger boulders!

Panamint alluvial apron
Boulders litter the entrance to Golden Canyon after a flash flood. Photo by Gerry Wolfe, NPS.

Flash floods emerging from the narrow, confining walls of Golden Canyon suddenly spread out at the canyon mouth into the open valley below. As the torrent slows down, the water is no longer able to carry its load of sediment, and rapidly deposits a chaotic mixture of poorly sorted debris on the alluvial fan. Farther downslope toward the valley floor, the sediment becomes progressively smaller.

Continue hiking up Golden Canyon

Furnace Creek Formation in time
geologic time scale
Continue up canyon... On to next stop If you're going... Golden Canyon image gallery
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