Death Valley is exceptionally dry. To be considered a desert, an area must receive less than 10 inches of rain per year. Death Valley is fortunate to get even two inches. That means it’s really hard to find water. You have to carry a lot if you want to do a multi-day hike in the park. The Cottonwood-Marble Canyon loop is one of the few places where natural springs let you explore the wilderness for days without the need to carry gallons and gallons of water.
The drive to the trailhead is rough. Plowing through the deep sand reminded me of winter driving through snowdrifts. We were glad to have an AWD vehicle. We got a late start to the day and by the time we got hiking it was mid-afternoon. The thermometer read 95 degrees (35°C).
The first day of walking follows a jeep track through a long and open wash. The intense sun beat down and sapped my energy. I felt tired and drank my water quickly but I still felt incredibly happy to be walking through the desert on my first backpacking trip since injuring my foot last year. A few miles down the jeep track, the wash narrows and the scenery becomes more dramatic with high cliffs towering overhead. I was happy to reach the end of the road where bright green cottonwood trees made me feel like I’d discovered an oasis in the desert.
You can easily hike this loop in three days but we decided to extend it to four. Without any time constraints it felt great to linger, enjoying the wildflowers and the solitude of the desert wilderness. Wildflowers very much defined the second day’s walk. There’s no established trail through this area but it was very easy to follow where others had gone before – just look for the only ground not blanketed in brightly coloured flowers.
Shortly before getting to Cottonwood Springs, there’s a tricky section. Our route description said to look for signs of wild horses to know that we were getting close. We spotted what looked like fresh tracks in the sand and bent over looking at them. Suddenly we heard a sound and looked up to see a wild horse right in front of us! A whole herd of them! After a few moments of sniffing us out, they just walked right past, escorting the baby rather cautiously. What beautiful animals.
The next day we made our way from Cottonwood Canyon up the gradually slopping plateau and down into Dead Horse Canyon.
The navigation is a bit tricky. I wanted to see if I could do it with just the route description – no map or GPS. I ended up one saddle over from the one we wanted and the descent down into Dead Horse Canyon looked like it was on the edge of being safe. Resorting to the GPS I realized the mistake. This was just a blessing in disguise – it gave me the opportunity to walk along the ridge with fantastic views all the way over to the correct saddle.
The final day of this loop is perhaps the most spectacular. We descended through narrow slot canyons with cliffs towering overhead. The colours change constantly from blue and white zebra stripes to bright reds and golds.
In many places, though, the walls of the canyon were caked in mud. A huge flash flood ripped through these canyons last October leaving behind a thick deposit of mud. In places it remained on the walls far far above my head. This would not have been a good place to be during that storm.
My foot felt sore after the hike. I still have a long way to go to get back to where I was a year ago. I couldn’t be more happy to be back out hiking in the wilderness, though, and I can’t imagine a better place to do it than here. I love the tranquility of the desert with its expansive scenery and starry night skies. Where to go hiking next?