Death Valley National Park is known as the hottest, driest and lowest place in the country, a scorching desert that for half the year is fit only for European tourists with a perverse desire to experience hell on Earth.
Of course, the largest national park in the lower 48 offers much more than desert flats for those willing to look. To see one of the more unique locations, visitors must engage in a rare activity at Death Valley: backpacking.
A hiking buddy and I backpacked the Cottonwood Canyon-Marble Canyon loop during a four-day trip in early March. The 27-mile route can be done in three days, but we spent an extra day exploring side canyons.
The loop passes through groves of cottonwoods, over rolling terrain and through narrow canyons and lush oases. Most important, the route follows reliable spring streams. The area is one of the few in Death Valley with a consistent water source, streams fed by snow from the nearby 7,000-foot-tall Hunter Mountain. The ridges and washes were full of colorful wildflowers, such as the golden evening primrose, in the waning days of a “super bloom” that only happens about once every decade.
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“It’s hands-down the most popular place to backpack at the park,” said Charlie Callaghan, wilderness coordinator at Death Valley, who attributes the popularity to the water sources and the looped route.
While it may be the most popular, the loop’s estimated backpack traffic is only 300 people a year, in a park that attracts about a million visitors annually. Other than a large group of college students backpacking on spring break, we encountered just a handful of people.
We got to the Cottonwood Canyon trailhead by traveling a dirt road about 10 miles from Stovepipe Wells, a tiny community on Highway 190. The road is passable only with a high-clearance vehicle.
The drive took us out of the wide-open terrain of the valley and into the red walls of Cottonwood Canyon. The hike gradually increased in elevation, which along with the high canyon walls blocking the sun reduced the heat to a nearly perfect mid-60s.
By sunset we reached an ideal campsite in a locale that looked nothing like how people imagine Death Valley. It had trees, grass and running water – an oasis.
While there is no marked trail on the loop, the route to the end of Cottonwood Canyon is easy to follow, along canyon walls and the springs that run much of the way. Still, the trip is not to be done without a map, especially for navigating the section between Cottonwood Canyon and Marble Canyon. We used a GPS file downloaded from the park’s website. The site has other useful information about backpacking the loop and other areas of Death Valley.
That section between the two canyons, in fact, is the trickiest part of the hike. The challenge starts at the ridge of Deadwood Canyon, about 4,000 feet up and with a multicolored vista stretching several miles to Death Valley. To get to the bottom, you have to descend about 600 feet across a steep slope of loose rock. Both of us have covered similar terrain in the Sierra, but were still relieved when we got to the bottom.
From there, it was only a short jaunt to another lush campsite, where we stayed for two nights. We took a day trip into the upper Marble Canyon, which required more scrambling to get around an 8-foot dry fall in Deadwood Canyon.
On the final day, we encountered the highlight of the trip, the narrows of Marble Canyon. The high and tight colorful canyon walls are like something you’d expect to see in southern Utah.
“Marble Canyon is the most spectacular narrows in the park,” said Callaghan.
As we reached Marble Canyon’s intersection with Cottonwood Canyon, we could see our car and the vast, flat expanse that is Death Valley. Having hiked beautiful canyons for several days, we both realized that the park is so much more than flat desert.
Cottonwood Canyon-Marble Canyon Loop
What: A strenuous 27-mile loop hike in Death Valley National Park.
Where: Take Highway 395 south to Highway 190 east to Stovepipe Wells. Take the Cottonwood Canyon Road to the trailhead, using a high-clearance vehicle.
When: October through April.