Cottonwood Marble Canyon Loop Backpack In Death Valley

  • Updated: March 24, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

March 24th to 26th, 2017
Canyon Point (5,890')

Finally it was time for the first WTC Experience Trip of the 2017 season!  The Orange County section of WTC had just finished snow camp two weeks before which meant two of the other areas weren't even done but I was ready to get out of town.

This counted both as one of the two experience trips students need to complete in order to graduate and an provisional trip for Dave Jahng's Sierra Club I rating.  And even better it was something I hadn't done before!

It's also happen to qualify for the 2017 #HikeDeathValley program giving all the points needed for a super swanky free sticker in one trip.  So extra bonus!

And it was a blast!  Three days! 9-13 miles a day!  Water at both the camps!  1 DPS peak!  Rainbows!  Wild horses  Rain!  Hail!  Oh my!

We decided to do this loop without a car shuttle leaving the vehicles at the junction of Cottonwood and Marble Canyon but it is possible to cut off about 8 miles driving up Cottonwood and a few miles coming down Marble if you don't mind a car shuttle.  Personally I liked how we did it since otherwise one of the days is only about 3 miles and the shuttle isn't particularly interesting.  We also added the DPS Peak Canyon Point because it's always better to have a peak!

The trailhead starts near Stovepipe Wells so it's a reasonable drive from Orange County.  We met at 7 pm and by midnight we were gassing up in Stovepipe Wells.

From here it's a dirt road drive which is technically classified as 4WD but anything high clearance should be able to make it at least this time out.  Last year when I was here the road was in significantly worse shape mostly due to heavy washboarding which took forever to get past.  Also even at the best of times it can be a bit difficult to navigate certain parts where the road is in a wash in the dark.  I was in the lead with my jeep lights and still lost it a few times.

Our group stayed at the trailhead while others were at the Emigrant Campground or sleeping along the road dirt road on one of the numerous pullouts.

Day 1:  Junction to Cottonwood Springs

13.4 miles, 2700 ft

It was a pretty morning and most of us had time for a gradual wakeup while Dave ran back out to Stovepipe and guided the other vehicles in.  By 8:40 everyone was together and it was time to go.

The first 8 or so miles were on a road.  I'd driven most of the way up this when I did Canyon Point via the normal DPS route at the end of last year and I was actually looking forward to walking it since the canyon walls are pretty neat in places.

This is the end of the road and the first of the three springs we'd be visiting.  It may have had open water somewhere but if so it wasn't a lot.  Fortunately the other two springs we'd be visiting  flowed a lot stronger.

There's some decent car camping spots with fire pits though the latter are illegal in Death Valley.  The DPS route cuts off to the right up a gully so it was all new trail from here!

The trail continued periodically diving into groves of trees.

Then higher up we ran into some friends...

Wild horses including one that was pure white!

There was also open water flowing by this point which was encouraging considering we were counting on the spring flowing.

The last section of the canyon had more dense vegetation and a few muddy water crossings.  Then we exited the canyon at about 3600.

The spring was covered in trees and at first the only decent campsite we could find was very close to the water and already occupied.  Northwest of the spring is a large wash which was perfect for several groups.  Which was good because several other groups came in after us.

Our camp location did mean we had to hike to get water.  But not until after happy hour.

Well fed wanting to get sorted before dark we hiked back towards the spring and found a spot flowing well just south of the spring on the map.  The trick was getting through the mud to be able to pump.

Far more precarious than it looks
This took a fairly long while to complete and we had at least one boot buried in the mud before we were done.  Even with the filters there was a bit of a taste to the water but a little gatorade powder or Nuun fixes almost anything.

The wash made for a nice soft surface to sleep on.

Day 2: Cottonwood Spring, Canyon Point, Dead Horse Canyon

9.4 miles, 3100 ft

We woke up to horses wandering around camp though we didn't get any decent pictures of them.

Notice the horse tail behind the tree
Looking at the map it seemed like this day was going to be significantly shorter than the other two just eyeballing the distance to the next spring.  Fortunately we had some weather and a peak to make things interesting.

We got moving by 8 and we had interesting looking clouds off to the north already.  Considering there was a non trivial chance of rain this weekend and I have somewhat of a history of hitting weather in Death Valley guess what that means...

Dave took us cross country from here sticking closer to Canyon Point.  There was a trail further down we could periodically see others following.

It started to rain off and on to the point we put on pack covers.  By the time we dropped packs to climb Canyon Point it had seemingly cleared again.  Seemingly...

Sure enough as we reached the summit ridge it started to rain again making a few of us wish we'd brought our rain jackets.

We kept things brief at the summer due to mixed rain and hail.  A few people were able to get enough cell signal to send out messages.

In rained more as we descended but Dave found a nice sandy chute and were able to plunge step most of the way.

Complete rainbow below Canyon Point
From here it was a matter of picking out the right notch to jump over and dropping into Dead Horse Canyon at the correct spot.  Dave did a good job at this despite the rain having cleared any tracks.

Looking down on Dead Horse

There was this nice camp spot right where we dropped into the canyon but there wasn't flowing water so we headed further down.

This is the spring itself.  The water seeps out in a few places but as with Cottonwood it was muddy.  There were better spots to take water further down.

This was where we ended up camping.  We didn't use the firepit as again it's illegal but it did make for a nice happy hour table.

And after dark we had a trusty Luci lantern to use as a centerpiece.

Day 3: Dead Horse to Marble Canyon, Boron Prison

9.3 miles, 20 ft

No horses in the morning just another pretty desert sunrise.

Since we were in a steep canyon close to water we had limited access to suitable areas for bathroom duties but our camp had gently sloping gully a short distance away.

We were moving around 7:45 am.  Not far below camp was the trickiest section of the loop.

It's not bad though we did hand packs down.

From here it was easy scenic hiking descending about 3000 ft.

Modern hikers

127 Hours 2: Electric Boogaloo

Eventually we popped out at the parking area for Marble Canyon.

A short stroll down the road later we were back at our cars.

And of course...celebratory beer!

Having finished the hike it was time to get our stickers.  So we headed over to the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.

The friendly ranger asked for photos to verify we'd done the hike and asked us a few questions about conditions.

doesn't this look like information someone should have told us *before* we did a 30 mile loop?  :P

We were all hungry after 3 days of backpacking and Stovepipe offers limited choices.  So off to the saloon it was!

We stopped along the Trona Wildrose Road and looked through the sighting tube that points up at Panamint City since we'd be back here over Easter weekend for another experience trip / provisional up to the old mining town.

And since it was fairly early and still light as we were driving back I couldn't resist a stop at the old favorite the old abandoned Boron Federal Prison Camp.

Which was totally not creepy right as the sun was setting while a strong wind blew through all the abandoned buildings...


After about an hour and much Kristen disapproval we called it a day and headed on home.

From there the vehicles split up when we fell behind due to a cell phone which was accidently left behind in Adelanto.  Facing bad traffic on the 15 we did the only logical thing and enjoyed a late second dinner before cruising home around midnight.

This trip was quite pleasant the way we did it and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone looking to get out this time of year.  As long as the springs are flowing and the weather isn't too warm it's a good warmup for harder Sierra backpacks.

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