Death Valley Discoveries
One of the special opportunities for long-time hikers who have spent many years visiting Death Valley National Park is being able to make new discoveries. While most newer visitors to the park enjoy visiting popular tourist destinations and carrying out established hikes, long-time hikers often end up becoming modern day explorers. To this day, there continues to be areas of the park which are unexplored (or undocumented). Seeing these areas can be done by hiking unnamed canyons, creating new routes to peaks, and checking out other locations not covered in any guidebooks. To find unexplored areas, we study topo maps, satellite imagery, and other hiking reports shared online. If an area looks interesting enough to check out or expand upon, then we will plan a hike to see it in person and find out what is there. Every once in a while, in the course of doing this exploring, major discoveries are made. And just to clarify, when we say somebody has discovered something, that doesn't mean that they claim to be the first person in ancient or even modern times to pass through an area. But they are the first to publicly document their findings and share them with others. Thus, it only seems fair to credit someone with a discovery in such cases. Some of my personal major discoveries (and co-discoveries) within Death Valley National Park have been reported on by the Sierra Club, The Weather Channel, and the Death Valley Natural History Association. Before I discuss details about these discoveries, let me share some background information about what led up to searching for and finding such special places. Keep in mind as you read through some of my personal highlights in exploring the park that most of the time fellow hikers were with me, and they receive equal credit for the exploration and discoveries. This is the story of how my hiking changed from doing established hikes (from 1997 to 2008) to doing exploratory hikes (from 2009 to present) into unknown areas of Death Valley.
For me personally, the hike that changed my life and got me on the path to discovery was visiting Trellis Canyon on March 12, 2009. That was the first hike where I set out fully on my own to find out what was there without following in anybody else's footsteps. While Trellis Canyon had been mentioned in passing in a few references, nobody had ever reported on the canyon. It was a long, challenging day spent exploring Trellis Canyon, but in the end I could come back and report on an area that nobody had ever seen photographs of before. Four years later, I returned to the same area with my friend Tobin and did something even more challenging. We became the first hikers to explore the major canyon west of Trellis, which we named Forbidden Canyon. You can see a picture here of me standing at the base of the stunning 2nd major dry fall of Forbidden Canyon. Both of these canyons are part of Tucki Mountain. But there was much more to be done over the course of the next decade.
Although I did not discover it, I spent four long days fully exploring and documenting for the first time Hidden Bridge Canyon (pictured here) and Big Fall Canyon, two of the most incredible places in Death Valley. Other highlights included being the first to publicly document Nova Canyon, Grave Canyon, Upper Moonlight Canyon, Valley Spring, Lee Wash Main Side Canyon, Mill Canyon, a through hike of Rainbow Canyon (divided into sections due to major dry falls), Skookum Mine & Peak 6980, Grand View Canyon, Room Canyon, Kaleidoscope Canyon, the front face route of Sugarloaf Peak, the Surprise Canyon to Hall Canyon crossover route, Bighorn North, Rockfall Canyon, the Buckwheat Sand Dunes, the challenging route from Dantes View to Badwater, and most of the major canyons of the Owlsheads. There were also minor discoveries such as The Crack, Upper Little Arches Canyon, Rosy Canyon and the Rosy Amphitheater, Mud Drip Canyon, Nemo Slot, and the Nova Slots.
2009-2019 was truly a decade of exploration and discovery for me personally. But it couldn't have been done without the help of others. A special word of thanks goes to Charlie Callagan, the former Wilderness Coordinator for Death Valley, who shared many of the special places with me that he had either personally discovered or heard about over the years. And he allowed me to share those places with the world through this site. I sincerely appreciate all of his help through the years. I would also like to make special mention of Kauri Jacob and her parents. Kauri has accomplished a huge amount of exploration and made some tremendous discoveries during her hikes. And she shares most of her discoveries with very detailed and well-written reports. Kauri and her family discovered such amazing places as Rock Nettle Canyon, Moonlight Bridge, Crown Bridge, and Turret Bridge. Some of the discoveries made by other long-time Death Valley hikers and park rangers (including Charlie) that I find to be truly impressive include Chuckwalla Canyon Crater, Tucki Bridge, Grave Canyon, Lost Canyon (also known as Heart of Stone Canyon), Hidden Bridge Canyon, Big Fall Canyon, Crescent Bridge, the Red Wall Canyon bypass (by Talus Jack), the real Red Amphitheater, Kaleidoscope Canyon, Room Canyon, and Sand Canyon. Truly, the Death Valley hiking community has accomplished a lot in recent history. Below, I will now share with you what I consider to be the 10 most important discoveries that my friends and I have made in Death Valley National Park.
#1 - Tunnel Bridge (March 13, 2010) - Charlie, Alan, and Steve
When Charlie suggested that we explore an unnamed canyon in the Grapevine Mountains, it caught my attention and greatly interested me. The canyon started out really nice with some narrows but we were surprised when we turned a corner and found a lengthy tunnel-like natural bridge in the middle of the canyon. We instantly knew that we had found something really special and named it Tunnel Bridge. Tunnel Bridge ended up being the longest major natural bridge in length within the park. It really is something to walk through it and get that sense that you are passing through a short tunnel. Little did we know that our discovery would begin a decade of searching to find other previously unknown natural bridges in Death Valley, not just by us but other hikers as well. This hike is frozen in my mind as a special day that I will never forget. Some time later, Charlie let me know that he and Alan had looked through some old pictures and realized that they had hiked the canyon many years earlier but somehow forgotten about it. They allowed me to keep co-credit for the discovery along with them since without our hike, Tunnel Bridge would have remained forgotten. With this hike, Charlie played a critical role in demonstrating to me what it takes to make an important discovery. It is necessary to hike into canyons and places that are so remote, they don't even have established names. This was another important step on the path to discovery one year after my hike of Trellis Canyon.
#2 - White Slickenside (March 13, 2010) - Charlie and Steve
After (re)discovering Tunnel Bridge, Charlie and I continued up canyon to see what else was there. We reached a challenging area where progress was stopped by the 3rd major dry fall of the canyon. However, we found a way to get past it with considerable effort and continue farther up canyon. Our reward for doing so was discovering the largest known slickenside in Death Valley. A slickenside is a rock wall with a polished or especially smooth surface, sometimes with beautiful designs. The smooth surfaces are created by the friction of two large rock surfaces moving against each other along a fault. The most well-known slickenside in Death Valley is probably found in Red Wall Canyon. But there are many others. Slickenside Canyon (informal name) in the Owlshead Mountains also has a very impressive slickenside. The massive slickenside that we discovered in Tunnel Bridge Canyon has a whitish-pink appearance and takes up a large section of the right side canyon wall. We ended up naming it White Slickenside. Charlie informed me later that he and Alan had not made it this far up the canyon during their previous visit, thus I was able to share full genuine credit for the discovery of White Slickenside. Nobody had ever seen it before.
#3 - Middle Hidden Bridge Canyon (March 9, 2012) - Steve
The culmination of my time spent exploring Hidden Bridge Canyon and Big Fall Canyon came when I finally found a route into the middle portion of Hidden Bridge Canyon. Hidden Bridge is one of Death Valley's greatest treasures. It is a solid rock natural bridge that is quite large and impressive to see in person. However, no other hikers who had previously visited Hidden Bridge had ever attempted to see what was in the rest of the canyon behind the natural bridge. And there was good reason for that. It is a very long hike that takes up nearly an entire day just getting to Hidden Bridge and back. Just behind Hidden Bridge is a major dry fall which cannot be climbed. It is tall, polished and slippery, and there are no good handholds or footholds to climb up it. On my third visit to Hidden Bridge Canyon, I finally found a way into the middle canyon. And what I found there was truly stunning. There were three sets of incredible narrows that were colorful and towering in height. It was a great privilege to be the first person to ever see these narrows and then share them with the world.
#4 - Sunlight Bridge (November 15, 2013) - Steve and Kauri
The discovery of Sunlight Bridge still stands as my favorite moment ever in Death Valley National Park. After we found Tunnel Bridge in 2010, three other major natural bridges were discovered in Death Valley over the next three years. They were Crescent Bridge (2011), Tucki Bridge (2012), and Moonlight Bridge (2013). That led to me making an effort to document all of the park's natural bridges but also to search out new ones that had not yet been discovered along with my friend Kauri. We both knew that there had to be more out there just waiting to be found. Thus, we put a lot of time and effort into studying satellite imagery in different areas of the park. One particular area that we both happened to spot around the same time was located in the Grapevine Mountains. Thus, we decided to check out the area, although separately on our own family trips. But we agreed to share co-discovery on anything that happened to be found there. Here are the words written in my trip report that capture what happened during my hike: "The sunlight above the canyon was creating a fiery red and yellow glow on the walls of the narrows. The canyon was already amazing. And then I walked around a corner and was literally stunned beyond belief. In front of me stood one of the most colorful and beautiful major natural bridges that I had ever seen. It's hard to put into words what that moment felt like inside. It was the best moment that I have ever had in Death Valley in all my years of hiking there. I just stood there for several minutes, staring at the new bridge in disbelief." And that is the story of how Sunlight Bridge was discovered. In addition to the major natural bridge, Sunlight Canyon itself is also an incredible place to hike through. No other canyon reflects sunlight in the same way and has the same fiery glow on canyon walls. And the conglomerate rock slot narrows are among the best in the park.
#5 - Teddy Bear Chollas (February 24, 2014) - Steve, Charlie, and Tobin
Although the discovery of Sunlight Bridge was my personal favorite moment, a more important discovery from the standpoint of the NPS was when we found Teddy Bear Chollas growing for the first time ever in Death Valley. This discovery came about because I was the only hiker exploring the northwestern Panamints. The only officially named canyon in this area is Nova Canyon. And even that canyon had never been documented by anyone. Not only did I explore and fully document Nova Canyon, but I began exploring much of the surrounding area in between Highway 190 and Nemo Canyon. There were many canyons (major and minor) as well as side slots to be checked out. For the largest canyon located in between Nova Canyon and Nemo Canyon, my friends Tobin and Charlie joined me in hiking it, and we created a loop hike in the area. Based on satellite imagery, there were at least 4 nice-looking slots that appeared to have great potential for narrows. That day, we did indeed find some nice slots. But we found something way more significant as we approached the canyon mouth. In my trip report, I described the discovery as it happened: "As we were hiking up the long fan, Charlie took out his binoculars and began studying something in the distance. He then passed the binoculars to Tobin and I, and we took turns looking through them. Up ahead, we could see what looked like a tall cactus garden growing that was spread out everywhere -- on hillsides, in washes, and on banks above the washes." The account continues: "As we approached the cactus garden we had seen from a distance, we could see that these were indeed chollas, but way different than what we were used to seeing. These were much taller, with some cholla specimens growing 6 to 7 feet in height (the next day we would find one nearby that measured 9 feet tall). In addition, many of these chollas had multiple large branches extending off the main trunk. Finding this giant cholla garden just outside of the canyon mouth literally stopped us in our tracks and we spent the next hour photographing and checking out many sections of the garden (which was spread out in quite a large area). It dawned on Charlie as we were taking our photographs that these could be Teddy Bear Chollas." And, indeed, Charlie's guess was correct. It was later confirmed by park botanists that we had discovered Teddy Bear Chollas in Death Valley National Park. Not only was it the first time these chollas were ever found in the park, but they were growing 100 miles north of their usual range. It was a truly stunning discovery. And a great reward for being willing to explore an area that everyone else had ignored.
#6 - Wingate Slot Canyon (November 21, 2014) - Steve, Tobin, and Debbie
Wingate Wash is one of the most isolated places in Death Valley. Very few hikers have ever ventured up Wingate Wash, although there is a lot of park history in the area. While studying the entire area carefully on satellite imagery, I spotted several potential slot canyons that looked worth checking out. Thus, I created a one-way backpacking trip (about 27 miles long) from the parking area for Epsom Salt Works to Warm Springs Canyon Road. This would allow us to check out Wingate Dry Lake on one day and the slots on the next day, along with other interesting things along the way. The main slot canyon that we checked out proved to be extremely impressive, especially for the Owlshead Mountains. We ended up naming it Wingate Slot Canyon. Although the narrows remain somewhat shallow, they continue for around 1 1/2 miles in length and go through several rock and color transitions. There are some truly beautiful spots within the narrows and it definitely seems worthy of being called a major discovery and included on this list. But it is a very hard place to get to, requiring a 21-mile round-trip day hike to visit.
#7 - Double Bridge (January 1, 2016) - Steve and Tobin
The discovery of Double Bridge was another one of those stunning once in a lifetime Death Valley hiking moments that I will never forget. Double Bridge turned out to be hidden in plain sight. My friend Tobin and I targeted an area in the foothills of the Funeral Mountains which people drive by every single day. However, when driving by, it looks like there is nothing in the area interesting to see. So it is easy to see why nobody had ever found Double Bridge before. Somebody would have to choose a very random place to go hiking and then hike up the correct wash for about 2 miles before turning off into an obscure side canyon in order to find it. Double Bridge is unique because it is the only double natural bridge in Death Valley. (Keep in mind that there is a major difference between natural bridges and arches. Natural bridges are much more rare and they span across canyon walls, while arches are a very common sight on hillsides and mountain tops.) The left passage through Double Bridge is about 7 feet high, while the right passage is about 4 feet high and must be crawled through. The twin natural bridges are openings in a massive wall of conglomerate rock at the canyon mouth which allow water to flow through. Double Bridge also happens to have a fantastic short slot canyon behind it featuring a place we call The Dark Spot. Nearby, we also discovered Squeeze Slot, which is one of the tightest slot canyons in Death Valley. The NPS was so impressed with this discovery that for a while they were leading guided Adventure Hikes to take the public out to see it.
#8 - Smoke Tree Slots (January 4, 2016) - Steve, Tobin, and Charlie
Perhaps the most improbable find of all time in the Owlshead Mountains happened when our group discovered the Smoke Tree Slots. It was a discovery that happened a mere three days after we had discovered Double Bridge. The Owlshead Mountains are known for a lot of things -- being isolated and seldom visited, having huge boulders and displays of decomposed granite, being populated by wild burros and desert tortoises, and having several large and scenic dry lakes. But one thing the Owlsheads had never been known for was having impressive slot canyons. That thought was forever changed after a single day of hiking that Tobin, Charlie, and I did in January of 2016. Upon studying satellite imagery for the eastern Owlsheads, I had spotted what appeared to be three potential nice slot canyons in the vicinity of Great Dry Fall Canyon (informal name). Thus, we decided to use a hiking day to go check them out in person and see what was there. The first slot turned out to be better than we could have imagined. It contained a lengthy set of narrows with sharp turns and walls that were made of a beautiful texture and towered high above us. This find absolutely stunned us and let us know that it was going to be a very special day of significant discoveries that would alter the overall view of the Owlshead Mountains. As I later wrote about it in my trip report: "To summarize, we were all awestruck to be walking through such a fantastic slot canyon with colossal walls on a scale that had always seemed impossible to find or exist in the Owlshead Mountains. But there we were, actually walking through such a beautiful and magnificent place. Charlie pointed out that the slot scenery rivaled the best of Sidewinder Canyon. Tobin agreed that we had just experienced our trip highlight. And I expressed that this was one of the most important discoveries ever made in the Owlshead Mountains." We then moved on and fully explored the second and third slots, which were different in their own ways but also impressive. A hiker named Ken wrote to me a few years later and shared his own thoughts after visiting the Smoke Tree Slots: "Just wanted to let you know how amazing your discovery of Smoke Tree Slots is. I've been hiking in DV for about 22 years now (but still haven't covered nearly as much ground as you) and I think this hike is the quintessential DV hike. 3 miles wandering across the valley floor apparently walking towards nothing of interest and then multiple secrets revealed in short order!"
#9 - Cavern Bridge (November 24, 2016) - Steve
When I discovered my third natural bridge (Double Bridge) in January of 2016, I had serious doubts about ever finding another natural bridge that was previously unknown in Death Valley. Having exhausted almost all the possible locations I could think of to look for natural bridges, there was one remaining spot I wanted to check. It was located up Sidewinder Canyon within official slot #1. This particular slot is fairly popular as a hiking destination for tourists. However, it has a major obstacle in the middle of it that puts a stop to absolutely all hikes. The obstacle is a major dry fall set in the midst of a dark cavern-like section of narrows in which it is impossible to see without a flashlight. Because the area is so tightly enclosed and inaccessible above the dry fall, I thought that just maybe if I could find away to get above the dry fall, there might be another major natural bridge hidden away somewhere in the darkness. It was a long shot but at the very least there would no doubt be some great narrows to check out to make the effort worthwhile. To get to the area above the dry fall, I decided to try to enter the canyon from above. I realized it would be impossible and unsafe to try to climb the high crumbly dry fall. So entering from below was not an option. Even though it was not easy (and I don't recommend that others try it), I managed to find my way into the upper canyon of slot #1 and work my way down it. Similar to how the slot is formed below, the upper slot also enters a cavern-like area that is enclosed by darkness. To my complete surprise, I did end up finding a brand new previously unknown natural bridge. This was the fourth major natural bridge that I had discovered in Death Valley. In view of the setting of darkness within the cavern, I named this one Cavern Bridge. The bridge cannot be seen without a flashlight, although it connects the two sides of the canyon just above someone's head when passing through. It is extremely hard to photograph it and do justice as to how nice it actually looks. As of the time of writing (May 2020), this was the last major natural bridge ever to be discovered in Death Valley.
#10 - Lacy Phacelia (March 22, 2019) - Steve and Tom
Returning to botany for the final important discovery on this list, my friend Tom and I were among the first to hike into the Quail Mountains when they were officially added to Death Valley National Park. We carried out a summit hike to Quail BM peak and it just so happened that abundant wildflowers were in bloom at the time. Among the many wildflowers spotted during our hike were purple flowers that clearly were some type of Phacelia. However, we had a hard time identifying which specific type of Phacelia they were, as they did not quite match anything we had previously seen in the park. Upon returning home and investigating further, we realized that we had found Phacelia tanacetifolia (commonly known as Lacy Phacelia or Tansy Leaf Phacelia). We then talked to the Death Valley park ecologist about having found Lacy Phacelia. She directed us to the NPSpecies official database, which stated that the species was "probably present" in Death Valley National Park. The database added: "High confidence species occurs in park but current, verified evidence needed." Thus, we were able to provide that necessary verified evidence in the form of these pictures to prove that Lacy Phacelia is indeed found in Death Valley National Park. It was nice to make another valuable botany discovery. And that concludes my personal list of major discoveries within the park.