The Cottonwood-Marble Loop is Death Valley's premier backpacking route as it passes through Cottonwood Canyon which is often lush green and Marble Canyon which is visually stunning with towering marble narrows over the course of three days. Difficulties encountered on the backpacking loop include driving to the starting point with the proper vehicle, obtaining drinking water from the springs, and route finding to locate two critical passes to successfully crossover from Cottonwood Canyon to Dead Horse Canyon. Google Earth maps of the full backpacking route (turned to the northwest for better viewing) can be found by clicking on the buttons above. An additional topographical map showing the crossover route between Cottonwood Canyon and Dead Horse Canyon can be found by clicking on the third button above. GPS coordinates for the parking spot for HC vehicles are 36° 38.544'N, 117° 16.216'W. GPS coordinates for the parking spot for 4WD vehicles are 36° 37.865'N, 117° 17.781'W. GPS coordinates for the Cottonwood Spring camping area are 36° 30.789'N, 117° 22.783'W. GPS coordinates for the first pass (out of Cottonwood Canyon) are 36° 33.371'N, 117° 23.774'W. GPS coordinates for the second pass (into Dead Horse Canyon) are 36° 34.132'N, 117° 23.132'W. GPS coordinates for the Dead Horse Canyon camping area are 36° 34.974'N, 117° 22.307'W.
HELPFUL TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS:
MAPS AND INFORMATION -- (1) To properly prepare for hiking this route, you may wish to obtain a copy of Michel Digonnet's "Hiking Death Valley" and read pages 367-382 (2nd Edition, March 2016). There are maps and mileage info within those pages. (2) There is a special informational handout on the Cottonwood-Marble loop which you can usually download directly from the park's official web site or pick up from the Stovepipe Ranger Station or FCVC (Furnace Creek Visitor Center). This handout provides extra details and current information about the route and water flow rates at the springs. (3) You may want to pick up large topographical maps of the area (both the Cottonwood Canyon & Harris Hill 7.5 min. topos). (4) Extensive research can be done of the area by using satellite imagery such as Google Earth. This will help you get an overview of the terrain, vegetation, passes, and general route that you will be hiking. On Google Earth, you can also look at photographs posted by previous hikers (which are not always placed in the correct locations). (5) A hiking GPS would be a valuable aid along this route as you would be able to input GPS coordinates for critical areas such as the two passes. This would minimize the potential of getting lost.
DRIVING AND PARKING -- If possible, it is best to drive a HC (high clearance) 4WD vehicle so that you can easily drive to and park at the ideal location to begin the route at the junction of Cottonwood and Marble canyons. If you do not have a 4WD vehicle but do have HC, you can still park at a spot where hiking and backpacking will work out fine. Just add on about 2 hours of extra hiking time each way onto your trip. The parking spot for HC vehicles is at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon. It is the spot right before the road drops down into the wash (about 8 1/2 miles from the start of the road at Stovepipe Wells). You will know you are at the parking spot because there is a steep but short downhill drop, but off to the right there is a large flat area to park overlooking Mesquite Flat. There may be other vehicles parked there. Without a HC vehicle, it is sometimes possible to still drive out Cottonwood Canyon Road, but there are sandy stretches and vehicles have been known to get stuck sometimes. The main danger spot is an area near the beginning of the road just past the airport where sand tends to gather into small dunes on the road. To be safe, it is recommended that you do not drive a passenger car or low clearance vehicle out Cottonwood Canyon Rd. You can always check on current road conditions by asking a park ranger at the FCVC or seeing if anything is posted on the DV Morning Report.
THE LOOP ROUTE -- Once you have properly prepared at home, picked up your backpacking permit, and driven to the parking area, it is time for the hike. The park handout states that "the recommended direction for the loop hike is clockwise starting up Cottonwood Canyon and returning via Marble Canyon to maximize water locations and minimize contact with other hikers." I agree with this because doing the route in this direction makes the most sense. In addition to the reasons mentioned on the handout, it also saves the most spectacular scenery for last and potentially allows for more exploration in the Marble Canyon area if time permits on the hike out. The thick vegetation in both Cottonwood Canyon and Dead Horse Canyon is a cause for concern. The key is to make sure that you don't blitz straight through the vegetation in bushwhacking fashion. Instead, patiently look around for an use path through or around the vegetation. In most cases, you can find a path which will limit the amount of bruises and cuts that you receive. Often, the path will go around the brush by circling up onto a hillside. For camping at Cottonwood Spring and Dead Horse Spring, keep in mind that park regulations state that you must camp "more than 100 feet from any water source that is not otherwise closed." To camp within these regulations, the only practical way is to continue a minimum of 100 feet past the springs and look for a spot. We found a nice sandy area past Cottonwood Spring and a comfortable flat area at the junction of Marble Canyon and Dead Horse Canyon. The biggest challenge by far on the hike is locating the two passes to connect Cottonwood Canyon to Dead Horse Canyon. You will need to use topographical maps, Google Earth imagery, and photographs (such as ours showing the pass) in order to properly find and cross the correct pass. Sometime in the future, the park service intends to install large rock cairns (or perhaps signs) to mark the routes to the two passes. Keep in mind that as many as 50 percent of all backpacking groups have gotten lost looking for the first or second pass and had their trips ruined due to not preparing properly beforehand. If you miss the first pass, you will end up continuing up Cottonwood Canyon until you give up and turn around. If you miss the second pass and head down the wrong canyon, you will end up getting cliffed out above an impassable dry fall or perhaps stuck somewhere in the challenging place known as Cottonwood Slot. At the end of the trip, when you are hiking out Marble Canyon on the final day, try to take the time to visit Marble Canyon's 4th Narrows and the Marble Main Side Canyon narrows to see some very beautiful scenery. As a final note, the park handout asks backpackers to "please respect other campers by camping out of sight and sound of your neighbors." During peak visitation times to the park in the Spring and Fall, you are likely to encounter other backpacking groups. Proper disposal of human waste is vital in order to maintain the beautiful appearance and health safety of the springs and surrounding area. The park service reminds visitors that "to prevent pollution of water or spread of disease, you must dispose of solid waste properly. Dig a cat-hole with a small trowel 4-6 inches deep and at least 200 yards from any water source or campsite. After use, the cat-hole should be covered with soil and disguised with natural material." Please follow this regulation and pack out all tissue and garbage.
My first lifetime hike of the Cottonwood-Marble route took place when some good friends agreed to join me for a Winter backpacking trip to Death Valley. We decided to do the trip over a long weekend in February. Friday morning, our group (consisting of myself, Shawn, Kathy, Conrad, and Brandon) left our small town of Sonoma and made the long drive to Death Valley. Shortly after arriving, we stopped by the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to pick up our backpacking permit. Permits are necessary for quite a few reasons -- because they help the park know how many people are backpacking in the area, let the park know where your vehicle will be parked, get you updated on the current weather and regulations, and provide a record of where you were traveling in case you disappear. We ran into an old friend working at the ranger station, someone I had hiked with before and asked advice from regarding hikes. With our permit in hand, the next morning (Saturday) we drove our 4WD truck out Cottonwood Canyon Road and parked at the junction with Marble Canyon. For several hours, we hiked along Cottonwood Canyon Road until we reached the end of it and began hiking through the three springs. Lower spring, Middle spring, and Cottonwood Spring were all interesting with various challenges of getting through the brush. Upon passing Cottonwood Spring, we set up our camp in a nice sandy area and then enjoyed dinner together. Saturday night it was a little bit cold as we slept at a fairly high elevation of 3,650 feet, but most of us managed to get at least a little bit of sleep. During the night, sounds of an owl, coyotes in the distance, and other desert critters sometimes awoke us.
Sunday morning we packed up and headed into the upper reaches of Cottonwood Canyon. The highlight of the day was walking by a group of six wild horses. One of the horses was a foal, and we were all scrambling to get some nice pictures of it and the rest of the family. Then came the big challenge. The question was this -- would we be able to successfully cross over the two passes using the correct route and find our way into Dead Horse Canyon? Or would we get lost like quite a few other groups do? Keep in mind that at this time, I was not yet using a GPS on my Death Valley hikes. At home, I had spent quite a few hours studying maps to put us in the best position possible and it paid off big time. We crossed over the first pass (4,800 ft.) and the second pass (4,300 ft.), and then dropped directly into Dead Horse Canyon without any problems at all. Once we worked our way down Dead Horse Canyon to flowing water, we found that it was quite windy. Thus, Conrad and I set up our tents just outside of Dead Horse Canyon at the junction with Marble Canyon. That sheltered us from the worst of the wind and allowed for a good night's sleep. For this day, we had hiked about 6 miles and ended up camping at an elevation of 3,425 ft. Also, Kathy and Brandon joined me for a hike into Upper Marble Canyon as a side trip.
Sunday night we slept fairly well and woke up Monday morning ready to finish our trip. We had another 8.6 miles to hike through Lower Marble Canyon and down the Marble wash to get back to our vehicle. The two highlights of the day had to be hiking through the 3rd and 2nd Narrows of Marble Canyon. None of us had ever hiked through these before and we felt a sense of awe and wonder at what we were experiencing first-hand. I think I can speak in behalf of the group in saying that backpacking the Cottonwood-Marble Loop was a fantastic experience, something never to be forgotten. And what made it even better was taking the trip with such great friends. Please note that due to an abundance of photographs being that we hiked three canyons on this trip, I had to split up my photographs into five separate reports. The first set of photos is included in this report and specifically features pictures of the people in our group as we carried out the route. These photos will be of the most use to others who are planning their trips. The other four sets of photos can be found within separate trip reports for Cottonwood Canyon, Dead Horse Canyon, Upper Marble Canyon, and Lower Marble Canyon. These other four sets of photos focus more on the beautiful scenery that we saw along the way. So in order to get a full overview of the area, it is necessary to check out all of the reports. When viewing our Cottonwood Canyon photos, keep in mind that we visited during the month of February when the trees were bare and lifeless. During the Spring and Fall, the Cottonwood trees are often covered with leaves and the area is much more beautiful. As an example of this, note the first sample photograph below, which was provided by a hiker named Max who hiked Cottonwood Canyon in the Fall. According to the park service, the hiking mileage for this route, depending on where you park, is 26 to 32 miles with up to 12 miles of the hike being on a primitive dirt road. Our backpacking trip took place on February 21-23, 2009.
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
TRIP REPORT FORMAT