Willow Canyon (Death Valley NP) 12-Feb-2017

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As wave after wave of wet storms swept across Southern Oregon, we began to yearn for sunnier climes. Eventually it occurred to us that we hadn’t been back to Death Valley National Park since 2013. As few places say “sunnier” than Death Valley, we made some arrangements, and were soon heading south. As luck would have it, our five days in the Park coincided with a spell of utterly clear, cool, dry weather wedged in between storms (to even out this good karma, we got to drive home in one of the worst rainstorms to hit California in a decade). For this visit, we decided to do hikes we hadn’t done before, rather than reprise old favorites like Darwin Falls.  After pouring through Michel Digonnet’s excellent guide (Hiking Death Valley, Second Edition, 2016), we settled on four hikes, the first of which was to the seasonal waterfall in Willow Canyon.


After a drive down under cloudy skies, we awoke to a day that was – except for some dust kicked-up by strong winds – totally clear. The parking for the Willow and Sidewinder Canyon trailheads is in an old gravel pit just off the paved road 14.6 miles south of Badwater – there’s no sign but the short dirt road to the pit isn’t hard to find. Ours was the only car there when we arrived at 0830, so we decided to hike Willow Canyon first and maybe Sidewinder Canyon after that.  The unsigned use trail to Willow heads northeast out of the pit and swings around a low ridge into the outwash gulch of Willow Creek.

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Rounding the ridge into Willow Creek gulch

The gulch is wide at first,

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Hiking up Willow Creek gulch

but soon begins to narrow,

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Willow Creek gulch starts to neck down and get more interesting

and offer up some unusual formations in the cliff walls on one side.  Patience is often rquired to traverse the less interesting wider parts enroute to the more interesting narrower parts.

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Erosion pockets in the wall of Willow Creek gulch

About 1.4 miles up the gulch, what looks like the main canyon (but isn’t) goes to the right but the path to the waterfall is actually to the left (currently marked with a tall – yet not that obvious – rock cairn). Judging by the number of tracks up the wrong canyon, a great many people miss the turn here.

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Starting in to the canyon with the waterfall

The canyon to the left quickly narrowed between high walls composed of diorite and we spent the rest of the hike in the shade.

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Narrow, high walls define the canyon enroute to the waterfall

Very soon, however, we heard water and then saw it, coursing – on and off – down the middle of the narrow canyon,

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Running water suddenly appears on the canyon floor

over a small outcrop,

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Running water in Willow Creek

then over a slightly larger drop,

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A climb-over blockage in the canyon

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Running water in Willow Creek

and then through some small pools.

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Pools of water and grass along Willow Creek

A short distance beyond the pools, we came to the base of the 40-foot tall, split-level waterfall, now running thanks to this year’s wet winter. Climbing it was not part of our program today (or ever), so we spent some time just marveling at the uniqueness of running water deep in Death Valley. You’d never know this water was here just by looking at the bone dry outwash gulch leading up to it.

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The two-part, 40-foot waterfall in Willow Canyon

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Closer to the 40-foot waterfall

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Close-up of the lower part of the waterfall

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Close-up of the lower part of the waterfall

After a snack, we headed back down the canyon,

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Descending the canyon

with its highly restricted view of Telescope Peak to the west.

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Telescope Peak from deep in the canyon

After getting back to the junction marked by the rock cairn, we decided to explore up the other side canyon, with a vague idea of crossing the divide into Sidewinder Canyon.

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Up the other canyon

We worked our way up on to the slopes above this canyon and got up to just below Point 981 before deciding that we weren’t the Big Horn Sheep these slopes were designed for. We probably could have made it to the divide between Sidewinder and Willow but there was no guarantee that the path down into Sidewinder from the divide didn’t involve some insurmountable drop-off. So we went back to Willow Canyon, seeing along the way an orange-capped rock formation that looked eerily and disturbingly familiar.

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A “yuge” rock face with orange “hair”

A little further down-canyon, we found another side canyon to explore, this time with the idea of getting high enough for a big view out across the valley.

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Climbing up yet another side canyon

This time our bet was rewarded with a great huge view westward across the valley toward Telescope Peak.

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Looking west toward Telescope Peak

After that it was an easy walk on “desert pavement” back down to the gravel pit.

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An easy walk back down to the car

We got back to the gravel pit to find a dozen cars there. Since we didn’t see anyone on the Willow Creek trail, we assumed they all went to Sidewinder Canyon. Oh, well, maybe we can visit it some other time. A short (6.2 miles round-trip; 600 feet of elevation gain) but wonderful hike to the miracle of a seasonal waterfall, topped off with expansive views out across the valley!

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Our meandering out-and-back path to the waterfall in Willow Canyon

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