Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Backpacking in Death Valley

death valley backpacking

Death Valley National Park is a surprisingly beautiful place. It is like the topmost layer of the earth has been peeled off, exposing a vast, multicolored rock garden. The park is huge, both in size and feel. One could spend years exploring it. As such, deciding where to start is a bit daunting. Most of the main attractions can be accessed by car, but strapping on a backpack and leaving the roads behind can reward hearty visitors with deep solitude and beauty.

We decided to try the Cottonwood/Marble Canyon Loop, one of the more popular backpacking trips in the park. "Popular" is a relative term. Throughout our five day trek, we encountered only seven other people, even though we were traveling during the peak season of March, right between the freezing cold nights of winter and the brutally hot days of summer. Basically, the route consists of hiking up Cottonwood Canyon, then crossing a high plateau and a mountain pass before descending into Dead Horse Canyon, which connects to Marble Canyon, which leads back to the starting point. Although Death Valley appears to be bone dry everywhere you look, there are actually two flowing springs on the loop, spaced apart just about perfectly. The loop covers a distance of 26 to 32 miles, depending on where you start, and has an elevation gain of 3500 feet.

The hike up Cottonwood Canyon was quite nice, with easy walking up the slightly inclined canyon. As we enjoyed the scenery, the only sound we heard was the crunch of our boots on the gravelly floor, which produced a feeling of pleasant isolation from the rest of the world.

cottonwood canyon

cottonwood canyon tent

At the top of Cottonwood Canyon, we easily found the first spring and replenished our water supply in preparation for the hike to the next canyon.

cottonwood canyon spring

When we crossed over the high plateau, things seemed to be going pretty well. We were finding the correct landmarks, and the landscape was matching our research. We found the mountain pass and began our descent. Then things started to go wrong. We missed a turn and ended up descending into the wrong canyon, and consequently went quite a ways in the wrong direction. By the time we realized it, we were well into the afternoon, and our backtracking was going to be all uphill. So, we turned around and started climbing back up. When we got to the spot where we went off track, we began to search for the correct route, but by this time it was getting dark. So, we set up camp, ate some dinner, and bedded down for the night.

The next morning, we resumed our search for the correct route. We continued to have difficulty and burned another few hours looking for the trail. Worse than that, our water supply was beginning to run low. We never reached panic mode, however, because even though we were unsure of the way forward, we absolutely knew the way back to the first spring and back out Cottonwood Canyon to the car. Our hope was that it would not come to that because we wanted to complete the loop. Finally, we found what appeared to be the correct route, a long steep descent into the next canyon. Even though we were 90 percent sure this was the right way, we had some hesitation. By this time, we were nearly out of water, and very thirsty after rationing for 24 hours. If it turned out to be the wrong canyon, the climb back out and hike back to the the first spring would be pretty miserable. After discussing it a bit, we ended up taking a leap of faith, and began to climb down. As we descended it became clear that we were on the right track. Then we saw some vegetation on the canyon floor, indicating a spring. When we finally spotted water, it seemed little more than a trickle, but it was one of the most welcome sights I have ever seen. After drinking to our heart's content and filling our containers, we thanked the spring for its life-sustaining gift, and continued on.

Marble Canyon turned out to be worth the hardship, and a perfect climax to the hike. There were many striking narrows with high rock walls smoothed out by countless centuries of erosion. We saw ancient petroglyphs, colorful lizards, and strangely beautiful plants eking out an existence in this extreme desert environment.

marble canyon

marble canyon

marble canyon

marble canyon

After we emerged from the narrows, the canyon grew very wide, and central Death Valley gradually came back into view, a sight we had not seen in four days. We found our trusty Subaru right where we had left it, indicating the final completion of the loop. While we were looking forward to enjoying the comforts of civilization, we were sad that our wilderness trek had come to an end.


The starting point depends on your vehicle. There are two designated parking areas. Those with low clearance vehicles are advised to use the first parking area. A second parking area further in can be accessed with a high clearance vehicle, which shortens the hike by six miles. Our Subaru Outback sort of falls in between the two categories, but we had no trouble making it to the second parking area, although it was pretty slow going.

Be advised that the trip has a few significant challenges. The first challenge is navigation. Now, for the most part, the route tracks through deep canyons, so it's unlikely that you will make a wrong turn since there are steep canyon walls on either side of the trail. As illustrated above, however, the crossover between canyons is not straightforward at all. The trail is unmarked and can be difficult to find, so it's quite possible to stray off course. Therefore, maps and preparation are essential for a successful completion of the loop. Our research began online. We found a very detailed and helpful trip summary by Steve Hall. We even printed out some of his photos to assist us in identifying landmarks. Once we were in the park, we paid a visit to the ranger station, and they provided us with additional maps and information. Even with all this preparation, we found ourselves temporarily off course.

The second challenge is your water supply. Although there are two springs on the hike, the heat and dry air can sap the moisture from your body very quickly. So, you may find yourself running low on water before you know it. Because of this, you need to carry an ample supply of water with you, which adds significant weight to your pack. Before you go, it's a good idea to check with the ranger station for the current status of the springs.

The third challenge is the occasional tricky obstacle. There is one drop-off that required dropping the packs and doing a bit of bouldering. Also, the trail into Dead Horse Canyon is a long, steep descent on loose dirt. The plant growth around Dead Horse spring is pretty thick in spots, and requires a bit of ducking and weaving to get you through. Beyond these few obstacles, however, most of the hike consists of relatively flat, firm, and wide surfaces.


  1. Backpacking can be an adventure. It can be a fun weekend hobby, the way you spend your vacations or part of your lifestyle. However, you approach backpacking, it is a great way to get some exercise and experience the great outdoors.


    1. Thanks for commenting. I'll be writing some posts from other backpacking trips in the next few days. Just completed one for Waimanu Valley in Hawaii.