Artist Drive Hidden Canyon Hikes | Death Valley National Park, California

Overview – Artist Drive Hidden Canyon Hikes | Death Valley National Park, California

The Well-Known Popular Colorful Hills on Artist’s Drive

Most visitors experience Artist Drive as a 10-mile one-way paved loop road with a few awesome viewpoints, the most famous of which is Artist’s Pallet where the hills are a dazzling mixture of colors from reds (iron and hematite deposits), aluminum and Magnesium (slivers and whites), greens (chlorite). I at first mistakenly thought the greens were evidence of copper and said so in the video on this page. The hills were formed by ash from volcanic eruptions five million years ago which later was chemically altered by heat, water and oxygen to form the colors seen today. The colors are further altered during the day by the angle of the sun.

The Hidden Canyon Adventures on Artist Drive

Few visitors to Artist Drive realize that there are at least 4 short adventure hikes off the main loop. The first is a ridge hike at the first pull-out parking area about 2 miles up the loop. The second two are canyon hikes at the base of 2 dips (actually marked by a yellow highway “Dip” warning sign. The fourth series of canyon hikes are the canyons surrounding the hills of Artist’s Pallet.

The video and slide show on this page explore these 4 hidden adventure hikes off the Artist’s Pallet loop. The hikes, while being fairly short (average 1-2 miles each) offer the experience of being in remote canyons and high ridges far removed from the traffic on the loop. Its a way to suddenly disappear into a hidden wilderness world within just a few hundred feet of a high-traffic paved road.

Trailhead Directions – Artist Drive Hidden Canyon Hikes | Death Valley National Park, California

From Las Vegas take Hyw 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) to Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn left on Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn left on Hwy 190 toward Furnace Creek. Continue on Hwy 190 past Furnace Creek. A little less than two miles after Furnace Creek turn right onto Badwater Road. In about 10 miles, take a left onto Artist’s Drive Road. Note that Artist’s Drive Road is one-way. The first intersection of Artist’s Drive Road is actually the exit. A couple miles later you will find the entrance on your left. There are 3 trailheads leading to short hikes in various small canyons on Artist’s Drive Road. These will be explained below.

Route Observations – Artist Drive Hidden Canyon Hikes | Death Valley National Park, California

First Adventure: The Artist Drive Viewpoint and Ridge Walk

About 2 miles from the beginning of Artist Drive there is a well defined pull-out and lined parking area. You have two choices, I took both. The first is to ascend a short ridge to a viewpoint looking toward the colorful hills at the base of the Black Mountains ahead. That’s the obvious short hike. Well worth it!

But there’s another less obvious trail heading straight up a ridge just South of the parking area. As you top the ridge take a right and head along the ridge summit toward the West (base of Death Valley with a spectacular backdrop of the Panamint Range including Telescope Peak, Wildrose Peak, Hanaupah Canyon and Ridge, Aguereberry Point, the Skidoo Ghost Town area and a number of other canyons leading up from the base of Death Valley into the Panamint Range). In less than a mile from the parking area you have an incredible view across the expanse of Death Valley from the South to the North. From this perch you’ll feel as if you’re in an entirely remote area viewing an expansive untouched desert wilderness.

Second Adventure: First Dip Canyon

The two “Dip” canyons are unmarked. There is however a large yellow highway warning diamond with the single word “Dip” at the beginning of each dip before the road plunges into the base of the dip.

It took me a couple attempts to find the actual First Dip Canyon. For one thing, this and the Second Dip Canyon are both unmarked in terms of trailheads. Also, you’re on a one-way 10-mile loop road which means if you go too far there is no turning your car around to backtrack. For this reason, I parked at the top of the First Dip before the road descended into the base of the dip. I could not see that there was indeed a few parking spots just ahead at the base of the dip.

From that first pull-out at the top of the dip it looked as if there was a trail heading upward. There was even a small signpost. So, I headed up the trail. But as I ascended, it became clear that the real dip canyon was to the left (North) below the high ridge I was on. So, after exploring a bit, I retraced my steps to Artist’s Drive and headed down to the base of the first dip where I found there was indeed room to park a few cars and a real canyon heading upward to the right (East).

As you head up First Dip Canyon, the walls quickly narrow to give the impression if a miniature slot canyon. The surface, though dotted by some large rocks, is easy enough to navigate. Turn around to view Death Valley and the Panamint Range out the opening of the canyon.

About a quarter mile up the canyon there is a 15-20ft dry waterfall barrier. The ascent is class 3-4 rock climbing, but fairly easy, fun and challenging. You don’t want to slip because the surface of the dry fall is dotted with sharp protruding rocks that would make it quite the cheese grater to one sliding down! And, of course, you’re thinking, “How easy will this be to descend on the return trip?” Happily, I found the descent easier than the ascent as I was able to lower myself.

Another quarter to half mile beyond the first dry waterfalls barrier there is a second even more challenging barrier. I turned around here, but noted that it would have been possible to ascend this barrier. Definitely there was some light class 4 bouldering here. I can’t vouch for the condition of First Dip Canyon beyond that second barrier, but imagine it continued upward with additional barriers. First Dip Canyon was a brief, fun adventure!

Third Adventure: Second Dip Canyon

Second Dip Canyon is about a half mile along Artist Drive past First Dip Canyon. It is unmarked, but begins at the base of the well pronounced dip and, there is another yellow warning diamond sign with the word “Dip”, so you know when you have arrived.

This time I parked at the base of the dip, and, as with the First Dip, there was plenty of room for a few vehicles to park off road there.

You can see the distinctive coloring in the hills up this canyon. There is an immediate smooth dry waterfall barrier visible from the beginning of the canyon. I scoped it out and believe it would have been possible with rock climbing shoes. But I decided to take what looked like a bypass to the left (South). That bypass had what looked like some fairly vertical high steps required to ascend. And while on those steps you are exposed to a larger drop-off, so I’ll give this section a class 3-4 climb rating.

Yes, not being a rock climber — I’m just a glorified trail runner — I was on my hands and knees scrambling up the vertical loose rock exposed face of that bypass wondering what it would be like to descend later! Again, it turned out the descent was a bit easier than I thought, but did require careful placement of each hand and foot hold while while descending vertically overlooking a yawing 20ft drop below! In the end, navigating the dry waterfall might have been less scary than the bypass!

Heading up the Second Dip Canyon beyond the initial dry waterfall, the canyon narrowed and the vertical walls rose higher on either side. In another half mile I was confronted by a second barrier. This time is was a rock fall composed of huge boulders. It looked possible to navigate the boulders on the rock fall but some of the ascents would have been near vertical up large 6-10ft boulders.

There was what appeared to be a bypass to the left (North) that promised to possibly circumvent the boulders. However, I turned around here on this day. Future exploration with a commitment to some bouldering will probably get me above that second barrier. What additional barriers lie beyond I do not know. But in all, the Second Dip Canyon, like the First Dip Canyon was a lot of fun with some interesting challenges!

Fourth Adventure: Artist’s Pallet Canyons

Here you can park your car and hike right into the colorful Artist Pallet hills to experience the colors up close. And, there is a maze of canyons: Some short and narrow; others long and wide winding up into the hills, each with a series of side canyons to explore. There are a number of use trails throughout the hills and canyons in the area. Get lost and explore the entire area. You could spend an entire day here and then return to Artist’s Pallet near sunset to see the dramatic changes light casts upon the hills.

It’s hard to get lost. Just behave like water and flow back down the series of canyons. You will eventually reach Artist’s Drive and can easily navigate back to Artist’s Pallet. Just bring plenty of water, some snacks, a camera and you’re good to go! But in this and other canyon areas in Death Valley watch for dramatic vertical drop-offs and realize that near the edge the surface is loose dirt and gravel daring one to get too close and slip and fall to a potentially fatal result.

Scene from Star Wars

I believe one of the canyons stemming from the Artist’s Pallet view area, possibly the largest canyon, was used to film the scene in the 1970s movie Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is kidnapped by the evil sand people who descended from one of the ridges above the canyon. Watch that scene before exploring the canyon and you might find some familiar spots in the canyon. Even if the movie was not filmed in this exact canyon, the terrain is as similar as possible to the true location.

Artist Drive Hidden Canyon Hikes Summary

There is a lot to see in Death Valley and you might just make Artist’s Drive a quick loop trip between Badwater, Natural Bridge Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course and Golden Canyon as I have done many times in the past. But you will be greatly rewarded if you give Artist Drive an entire day to explore the hidden, unmarked canyon hikes along the way.