Desolation Canyon is a miniature version of the larger canyons found in the badlands of the Black Mountains of Death Valley. It deserves it's name; there is little vegitation in the area and few people visit this canyon. Perhaps this is because there is no sign on the turn off to the parking area. The canyon itself cuts through the sedimentary rocks of the Artist Drive Formation, which were deposited in a lake during the late Miocene. Volcanic ashes reacted with the trace chemicals dissolved in the water of the lake, producing new compounds which now color the hills of the canyon. From the parking area and trailhead, you follow the trail east around the toe of a low hill. After a quarter of a mile, you enter a broad wash that leads to the canyon. The canyon narrows very quickly, with the walls being a few feet apart in places. They are not high and resemble nothing more than congealed mud. But the walls are not just mud, but are thin layers of mudstones and shales, in many colors: yellow, gray, brown, blue-gray, greenish. There are several small pour overs to scramble over as the canyon meanders, twisting and turing. The tallest pour over, 8 to 10 feet, is easy to climb, although it is harder to climb back down on your return. There are several side canyons which are fun to check out. After 1.8 miles, you reach a 18 foot fall, which marks the end of the route unless you want to scramble up a steep, loose sandy gully to a promontory that overlooks the falls.
From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, drive south on Highway 190 for 1.25 miles. Turn South on Badwater Road (Highway 178). Drive 3.7 miles to a unmakred dirt road. Turn east towards the Black Mountains and drive half a mile to the parking area. The road is not hard to miss as it is the first road after Badwater. The mouth of the canyon is a wide opening about half a mile to the east.
No red tape. The usual cautions about hiking in the desert apply. Bring lots of water and stay out of the canyon if it is raining or might rain, due to flash floods. As the canyon and surrounding hills are fragile, stay in the washes and ravines where your passage will not cause any damage. One last warning: unlike many of the shorter canyons in Death Valley, few people walk up Desolation Canyon, perhaps because it is unsigned. While I think that is one of it's attractions, I will let someone know when to expect me back if I go there again.
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"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe