Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop Backpacking Guide - Death Valley NP

 

Still very much a backpacking frontier, Death Valley National Park, at 3.4 million acres, is the largest national park in the US south of Alaska. Popular with desert-loving backpackers, this long and challenging hike is one of the few loop trails in Death Valley National Park. The route is undeniably beautiful, though a bit tricky to follow at times. To create this loop, the “trail” follows dirt roads and washes (not an actual trail) through three different canyons, winding through dramatic narrow passages, traveling over steep ridges and trekking across classic desert landscapes. With few signs to guide backcountry travelers, hikers need to be prepared with topo maps and GPS. Lots of side canyons beckon, but stay on the main route to avoid getting lost in a maze.

QUICK FACTS

  • Distance: Varies, between 26.3 and 31.8, depending on route

  • Days Needed: 2-4 days

  • Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,032 feet (1,229 meters)

  • Peak Elevation: 4,955 feet (1,510 meters)

  • Best Time to Travel: Winter (or late fall, early spring)

  • Permits: None required

  • Difficulty: Moderate (overall)

HIGHLIGHTS  

  • Solitude

  • Beautiful and fun to navigate narrow canyons

  • Lovely wildflowers in spring

  • Relatively low volume of hikers

  • Crystal clear air

  • Possible wildlife sightings: kit fox, bighorn sheep, roadrunners, mohave fringed lizard, desert cottontail, badger, coyote, bobcats, ringtail cats, bats and gophers.

  • Scorpions found in the park are not poisonous

  • Wild horses and burros wandering about

LOWLIGHTS

  • Very hot and windy in summer

  • Sun exposure - little shade along most of the route

  • Few reliable water sources - plan very carefully

  • Sketchy trail at times (deep, loose sand, gravel, wash outs), few signs

  • Scorpions, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders live here

  • Flash floods in the fall can be very dangerous

  • Decent amount of elevation gain along a mostly unmarked route

BEST TIME TO TRAVEL

Winter (from mid-October through mid-March) is the best time to hike in Death Valley. It also offers the most dramatic photography with long shadows and more vibrant colors. We recommend avoiding hiking in the summer as temperature can get dangerously high with little opportunities for shade. Even driving here in summer is a sketchy proposition. Stay on paved roads and carry lots of extra water. If your car breaks down, stay with it until help comes (don’t try to walk out. There’s limited phone coverage.

Spring brings road flooding, runoff, and roaring creeks. Always pre-check check Death Valley's Current Conditions page before heading out. And absolutely avoid this loop if there’s any chance of flash flooding.

DIFFICULTY

We rate this hike as moderate to strenuous. Much of the hike involves walking on dirt roads, gravel washes and cross-country brushy areas, and through deep sand or gravel. It also requires navigating narrow canyons and open deserts (topo map, compass, and phone GPS app strongly recommended). For the confident and experienced hiker, this trail is quite navigable, but beginners and anyone unfamiliar with desert hiking should skip this one, or go with experienced hikers.

As always, difficulty ratings depend on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight and weather conditions. Plan accordingly, train properly, know your limitations, brush up on your skills, and dial in your gear. Doing so will make for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

PERMITS

Death Valley does not have an entry gate typical of most national parks. National Park fees are paid at the ranger stations or at any of the self-pay facilities around the park.

  • Individual (on foot or bicycle) – $12 (good for 7 days)

  • Motorcycle – $20 (good for 7 days)

  • Automobile with up to 4 people – $25 (good for 7 days)

  • Death Valley Annual Pass – $50

  • Annual Pass for all National Parks - $80

Backcountry Camping Permits

Pick up a free voluntary permits for backcountry camping at the visitor center or any ranger station. These are basically designed to help rangers find you if you get lost or things go sideways.

Trailhead

While there is no specific “trailhead” when you first set out, most backpackers begin the route at the intersection of Cottonwood Canyon Rd. and Marble Canyon Rd. The road is rough and may require a 4WD high clearance vehicle for the final 2 miles to the trailhead. If your vehicle is unable to venture the final two miles, you’ll have to hike the additional two miles in and out.

Route Description

Most people hike the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop in a clockwise direction, hiking along Cottonwood Canyon Road for the first 8 miles. After the this dirt road stretch, the route narrows from road to trail, and passes through a canyon, before reaching a grove of cottonwood trees. This is the location of one of three seasonal springs along this route, but it should not be relied upon (Cottonwood Springs 4 miles up the trail is much more reliable). This may be a good place to get water in fall, winter and spring, and to set up camp.

Hiking toward Cottonwood Spring, the trail gets rougher and makes its way up an easy slope to a steep canyon before entering an oasis of cottonwood trees. This is another good place to camp and the best water source along the entire loop. From here it’s 6 miles to Deadhorse Canyon, much of it across desertscape. Dig out the map and compass (or better yet, GPS), because while there may be signs (like footprints) that will point in the right direction, it’s tricky here.

Continue trekking up the valley with the mountains on your right. Head up the steep gully ahead to a low saddle that provides entry into Deadhorse Canyon. This is another confusing spot. To enter Deadhorse Canyon,  drop into the next vegetated canyon, and hike a short ways (less than a city block) into it. Then head uphill to a saddle the north for a big view over Deadhorse Canyon and a large cottonwood tree in the valley below. From the saddle, turn left (not right, like the NP GPX track says) and head steeply downhill to the water drainage area. From here you can turn right and head down the drainage much more easily than the steep decent down the headwall to Deadhorse Canyon.

Shortly after reaching the large cottonwood tree at the bottom of the canyon, you’ll come across a tricky section of trail that has a 6-8 food drop (see photo gallery below). It may be easier to navigate this section without your pack, so take it off and have a hiking partner hand it down to you. There are some foot and hand holds in the rock that make it easier to get down, so take your time and be safe.

Marble Canyon, known for its beautiful distinctive narrows, and soaring walls (a reminder of similar places in Utah), can also be debris choked after storms and dangerous during them. Flash flooding is a potential danger, particularly in the spring and early fall. For many people Marble Canyon is considered the best part of the loop with easy grades, beautiful narrow canyons, and options to avoid the sand and gravel that dominates the area by staying on hard pack terra firma along the way.

Marble Canyon presents only one moderate challenge: a boulder blocks (dry pour-off) the canyon exit and a climb of the west ridge is required to get around it. Make your way through these canyons until you reach Marble Canyon Road. The final stretch through a wash to the end/start at the junction of Marble Canyon and Cottonwood Springs Road.

Getting there

From Barstow, California - Get on I-15 S from E Mountain View Street and Barstow Road
and follow CA-58 W and US-395 N to Trona Rd for 59.5 miles. Turn right onto Trona Rd and follow it for 21.2 miles. Follow Trona Wildrose Rd and CA-190 E for 87.3 miles. Turn left onto Cottonwood Canyon Rd and drive 4.3 miles to Stovepiple Wells Campground.

From the Stovepipe Wells Campground - Drive west on Cottonwood Canyon Road. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended to reach the start of this loop. If you’re in a 4WD vehicle you can go about two more miles to knock off part of the rough washboard road that must otherwise be hiked for the next 8 miles.

GPS Files

It’s highly recommended that you use a GPS device on this route, as it can be tricky to navigate at times and getting lost would be disastrous. We use GPS phone apps like Gaia GPS and Topo Maps+ and they work great.

CAMPSITES

There are no designated campsites along this route, but you will surely see signs of previous camps. The best campsites tend to be around Cottonwood Springs and in Deadhorse Canyon with seasonal water flow and ample shade from the old growth cottonwoods that thrive in the area. But you can also camp anywhere out on the desertscape/playa between Cottonwood Springs and Deadhorse Canyon, and at the Marble Canyon entry point (trailhead).

POSSIBLE ITINERARIES

Two Day Itinerary

TRAILHEAD Start/Finish: Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Junction

  • Day 1 - Hike clockwise to Cottonwood Springs (about 12 miles)

  • Day 2 - Get an early start for a long day continuing clockwise back to your starting trailhead through Marble Canyon (about 14.3 miles)

  • Note - You could also reverse this route and start with the longer day. Additionally, you could make this a great 3 day itinerary by stopping short of your car by a few miles and camping another night around the Marble Canyon trailhead.

Three Day Itinerary

TRAILHEAD Start/Finish: Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Junction

  • Day 1 - Hike up Cottonwood Canyon to camp near Cottonwood Canyon Road end campsite near a seasonal spring. (8.5 miles)

  • Day 2 - Hike from Cottonwood Canyon to seasonal Deadhorse Springs. (9.5 miles)

  • Day 3 - Hike from Deadhorse Springs back to start. (8.3 miles)

Four Day Itinerary

TRAILHEAD Start/Finish: Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Junction

  • Day 1 - Hike up Cottonwood Canyon to the seasonal spring near the end of Cottonwood Road. (8.5 miles)

  • Day 2 - Hike to Cottonwood Springs (3.5 miles)

  • Day 3 - Hike from Cottonwood Springs to seasonal Deadhorse Springs (6 miles)

  • Day 4 - Hike from Deadhorse Springs through Marble Canyon and back to your car (8.3 miles)

MAPS & GUIDEBOOKS

Below is a list of guidebooks and maps we've found helpful in planning our trips in Death Valley. In addition to planning with these resources, we recommend calling or visiting the ranger station in Death Valley to get any updates on current conditions.

  • Hiking Death Valley National Park: A Guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures - This book includes detailed information about 57 of the best day hikes and extended backpacking trips in Death Valley. It includes GPS coordinates for the trailheads, mile-by-mile directional cues, rich narratives, and beautiful photographs.

  • Death Valley National Park Recreation Map - Tom Harrison Maps are famous for their beauty and accuracy. This map includes color-coded symbols and trails, mileages between trail junctions, latitude/longitude, UTM grids, contour lines, vegetation, and elevations at trail junctions.

  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map - Death Valley National Park - This map features all of Death Valley’s marked trails, including mileages between intersections, a list of backcountry roads and trails complete with descriptions, lengths, and starting points. The map base includes contour lines and elevations for summits. Hot weather tips, a temperature chart, regulations, and safety suggestions are included as well. It’s also printed on "Backcountry Tough" waterproof, tear-resistant paper.

  • Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past - This book offers in depth descriptions of each region of the park, meticulous maps, mileage tables, and some of the most useful trip descriptions found in any hiking guide.

Regulations

Visit this link to read about all of the regulations that apply to Death Valley National Park Service. We are not an official source on current regulations, so please consult the official website prior to your trip for frequent road closures. Below is a snapshot of important regulations to follow.

  • No campfires are allowed.  

  • Being in an area posted as being closed for restoration, wilderness restoration, or rehabilitation is prohibited.

  • Walking on, climbing, entering, ascending, descending, or traversing any archaeological or cultural resource is prohibited. This includes all mine structures, features, and ruins (i.e. standing mill structures; aerial tram towers, terminals, and cables; ore bins; ore chutes; buildings; walls, gates, fencing, etc.).

  • Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing a structure or its furnishing or fixtures, or other cultural or archeological resources, is prohibited. This includes all mine structures, features, and ruins (i.e. standing mill structures; aerial tram towers, terminals, and cables; ore bins; ore chutes; buildings; walls, gates, fencing, etc.

  • In non-designated campgrounds, group size is limited to 12 persons and no more than 4 vehicles, and/or 8 pack animals, and/or 4 vehicles. Groups larger than 12 must split up into smaller groups and must camp, hike, and eat at least a half-mile apart. Larger groups may request an exception to these limits from the superintendent under the terms of a special use permit.

WATER

Backpacking in Death Valley can be more challenging than a lot of places due to its arid environment. There are three seasonally reliable water sources along this route with flows that vary depending on the time of year. Of the three sources, Cottonwood Springs is the most reliable. All water sources here should be filtered or treated because giardia is present in this area. We highly recommend calling the Death Valley visitor center (760-786-3200) to ask about current water source conditions prior to your trip.

All hikers are different, but in general you should carry at least 4 liters of water per person per day. On very hot days you may want to drink 5-6 liters, but again, everyone’s different. We highly recommend bringing a trusty water bladder or two (we like Platy Bottles) to carry water between sources.

For purification, we used a combination of Chlorine Dioxide pills and a Sawyer Squeeze on this loop, and we were happy with our choices. Check out our Best Water Filters list for more great options.

Seasonal Springs along this loop (clockwise):

  • Cottonwood Road’s end - 8.5 miles in

  • Cottonwood Springs - 12 miles in (the most reliable source)

  • Deadhorse Springs - 1/4 mile north of the large cottonwood tree at the bottom of Deadhorse Canyon (if you hit the 6-8 food dryfall you’ve gone too far) - 18 miles in

Cottonwood Springs

BEARS & FOOD STORAGE

Bears are not a problem in this area so there are no food storage requirements. That said, you should always protect your food against rodents and small critters, which will tear through your backpack or tent without hesitation. We recommend packaging all your food and scented products in a food storage container like an Ursack.

BUGS

Gnats are only a problem in rare wet years near water sources. Otherwise, keep your tent zipped and your boots in a bag or in your tent to avoid encounters with scorpions.

BACKPACKING GEAR

We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.

What To Pack

TENT: We used the Zpacks Triplex tent on this trip to keep our weight to a minimum. The Triplex is one of the top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list.

BACKPACK: We used the Katabatic Onni LiteSkin, Gossamer Gear Gorilla, and Osprey Exos backpacks on this trek. All three are lightweight, convenient, comfortable, and make our list of the best lightweight backpacking packs.

SLEEPING BAG: We used the Enlightened Equipment Revelation 10° and Therm-a-Rest Vesper quilts on this trip. They're both lightweight, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping bags.

SLEEPING PAD: We used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite and Big Agnes AXL sleeping pads on this trip. They’re light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.

COOKING SYSTEM: We used the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove along with our Snow Peak Mini Solo Cookset and Snow Peak Folding Spoon on this trek, all of which make our top picks gear list and best lightweight stove list.

WATER PURIFIER: We used Chlorine Dioxide pills and a Sawyer Squeeze as our water purification methods on this trip. Both methods work great and compliment each other for fast and efficient clean water. Check out our best water purifiers list for our other top recommendations.

SHOES OR BOOTS: We wore the  Saucony Peregrine 8's on this trail and they were excellent. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before your trip. Here’s why we prefer hiking in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots. Also, here's our top picks for the best backpacking footwear.

HEADLAMP: A small headlamp like the Petzl Actik is an affordable, bright, and lightweight option that we really like.

FOOD: When backpacking this loop you'll have to carry all your food. Check out our Best Lightweight Backpacking Food Guide and our Best Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals for some of our go-to recommendations.

FOOD STORAGE: For this trip, we brought an Ursack to keep the critters out of our food. There are no food storage requirements for this area, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry to keep it away from animals.

CLOTHING: Here are some of our favorite hiking/backpacking clothing items from our Top Backpacking Gear list.

MAP &  COMPASS:  We hiked with a free paper topo map that we received from the Death Valley visitor center and it worked well. In addition, and more importantly for this loop, we always hike with a downloaded GPS app on our phone, like Gaia GPS, and make sure to download the GPX track.

FIRST AID KIT: Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We use the Ultralight .7 Kit and add extras, like painkillers and personal medications.

SUN PROTECTION: Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must on any backcountry trip, especially this one.

POCKET KNIFE: We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife, which came in handy here and there.

OTHER ITEMS:

  • SMALL TOWEL: Nano pack towel is great.

  • CASH and ID

  • PERMITS

  • PERSONAL TOILETRIES

  • HAND SANITIZER: Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.

  • WET WIPES: These can be useful for cleaning up after hiking.

  • INSECT REPELLANT: At higher elevations insects weren't a problem for us at all. For lower elevations, a 1oz bottle of DEET will do the trick.

  • CAMERA: The Sony RX100 is our go-to camera for lightweight backpacking.

More Cottonwood Marble Canyon Loop Photos

Final Thoughts

This route in Death Valley is a really fantastic backpacking loop. We hope this guide helps you plan an awesome, safe, and memorable adventure. As always, please leave us a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions.

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