Natural Bridge Canyon in Death Valley National Park, California, contains one of the most massive and spectacular natural bridges I have seen. The entire area was once a huge alluvial fan of composite rock washed down from the Black Mountains above. Over time the fan hardened, and subsequent floods cut through the fan creating a fairly narrow canyon with high sheer vertical wall borders towering up from 40 to 100ft or more on either side. About a mile up the canyon from the parking area at the canyon’s entrance there is a massive natural bridge formed when water tunneled through the composite rock.
Most visitors make it up the canyon to the natural bridge and perhaps a little beyond. In this adventure we go beyond the natural bridge to a barrier dry waterfall about a mile beyond and explore a potential bypass route beyond the barrier to the upper canyon. We also explore some promising routes that might take one up to the summit of Dante’s Ridge above and on to Mt. Perry or Dante’s View. Earlier we had looked down from Dante’s Ridge into the Natural Bridge Canyon area and it seemed this might be a potential approach route from Death Valley below.
The best time of day to explore Natural Bridge Canyon is based on what you’d like to see. If you’re viewing the spectacular Panamint Range and Telescope across Death Valley, you want to be there in the morning. If you want to see the incredible shades of evening light in the canyon visit about an hour before sunset. The best time of year to explore Natural Bridge Canyon is mid-Fall to mid-Spring. Temperatures during the Summer can easily soar into the 130s as the Natural Bridge Canyon area is only a few miles from Badwater Basin, lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
From Las Vegas take Hyw 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) down into Death Valley. Take the split-off toward Furnace Creek. Turn left onto Hwy 190 and proceed beyond Furnace Creek. About ½ mile beyond Furnace Creek turn right onto Badwater Road. Continue on Badwater Road past the turnoffs for Golden Canyon, Westside Road, Artist’s Pallet and Devil’s Golf Course. Shortly after Devil’s Gold Course take a left into the parking area for Natural Bridge Canyon.
The 2-mile or so unpaved approach road to the trailhead at Natural Bridge Canyon is in fairly good condition. My Smart Car made it, so most 2WD vehicles can navigate the road. I did need to weave around dodging a few washboard areas, some with washboards that threatened to swallow my car! But there was always a way around and through. If there has been a flood or the road has not been regraded for some time all bets are off!
It was early morning, so all along the way and from the trailhead parking area the view back across Death Valley to the Panamint Range with Telescope Peak, Wildrose Peak and Hanaupah Canyon was spectacular in the rising sun.
The canyon route up Natural Bridge Canyon is very easy. The surface along the bottom of the wash is mostly loose rock and gravel with a pretty clear passage way through, and the rise is very gradual with no obstacles to navigate. As you enter the canyon the walls immediately rise up around you and the canyon narrows. The walls are sheer vertical creating quite an echo of amplified sound in the canyon.
There are one or two potential routes up to the top of the walls (to the right – South) early in the canyon, and these routes might take one up higher ridges that lead to the summit of Dante’s Ridge. That will be for a future exploration. But realize that above the canyon the surface is uncertain with many potential sheer drop-offs and avalanche slopes.
The Natural Bridge itself is about a mile up the canyon. In the videos and pictures on this page compare the tiny human forms under the bridge to the massive size of the bridge. You could turn around here as the natural bridge is the most pronounced feature in the canyon or you could continue up the canyon.
Beyond the natural bridge there is a pretty spectacular vertical niche with a narrow dry waterfall smoothing out its 75ft plunge into the canyon. There are other such interesting features on the walls of the canyon. About a mile past the natural bridge the walls suddenly become smooth and polished and there is a pretty steep smooth 20ft dry waterfall blocking the canyon. It would be possible to summit that obstacle but I’d recommend a good pair of rock climbing shoes. Some portions looked close to class 4 climbing. No real exposure and the elevation gain is not too great, but the surface is dotted with sharp rock spikes that would not be fun to slip and slide down.
Fortunately, there is a high bypass route on the South side of the canyon beginning just before the dry waterfall barrier. On this day I turned around after summiting the bypass and did not scope out how it may or may not have descended back into the canyon above the dry waterfall barrier. It’s a question how much further one could ascend Natural Bridge Canyon beyond the dry waterfall, but possibly the ascent could lead to a route to the summit of Dante’s Ridge in the Black Mountains above.
In summary, if you are visiting Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Drive and Badwater, a side trip up Natural Bridge Canyon is well worth it!