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.

So hot
So hot, not a cloud in the sky

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 canyon closes in providing some shade
The canyon closes in providing some shade

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.

Cottonwood Springs
An oasis in the desert
Only in the desert would you be happy to drink this water
Only in the desert would you be happy to drink this water

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.

The trail is easy to follow - it's the only place without flowers!
The trail is easy to follow – it’s the only place without flowers!
Yet more wildflowers
Yet more wildflowers
Cactus flowers
Cactus flowers

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Tiny flowers
Tiny 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.

Wild horses!
Wild horses!
Guarding the baby
Guarding the baby
Camping in the shade
Camping in the shade

The next day we made our way from Cottonwood Canyon up the gradually slopping plateau and down into Dead Horse Canyon.

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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.

An old sign to help miners find their way
An old sign to help miners find their way
Zebra-tailed lizard
Zebra-tailed lizard
Indian Paintbrush
Indian Paintbrush
Camped in Dead Horse Canyon
Camped in Dead Horse Canyon

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.

Marvelling at the narrows of Marble Canyon
Marvelling at the narrows of Marble Canyon
Downclimbing a dryfall
Downclimbing a dryfall

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.

Mud from a huge flash flood remains caked on the canyon cliffs
Mud from a huge flash flood remains caked on the canyon cliffs
Just follow the wash
Just follow the wash

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?

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5 thoughts on “Backpacking Death Valley’s Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop

  1. *14 April,*

    * Hi Justin, Thank you for the photos and write up of this subject. It looks beautiful. Yes, there are some lovely places in America to explore. Nothing spectacular to mention at this stage.*

    * regards, Michael*

  2. I was there , Dec 201 for five days biking and walking day hikes. Would love to do this multi day hike. Beautiful description.

  3. The photos are just wonderful to see. The environment so unspoiled. Just beautiful

    Michael Teekens

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