Death Valley 2018: Backpacking Cottonwood Marble Canyon Loop

Famous among backpackers — the Cottonwood Marble Canyon loop in Death Valley is a very taxing and difficult trail. The hike itself does not offer large elevation changes but it does present unique scenery. I went in the first week of April and was hoping to avoid the harsh summer temperatures and sun. This was not the case!

I started the trail by driving roughly 8.1 miles down a dirt “high clearance” road from Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. I was driving a rental sedan and it was a rough ride down the road. If I had an SUV or 4×4 vehicle, I could have driven another 2-3 miles to the trail head. Having a low clearance rental car added these extra miles to my backpacking loop.

CottMarb Parking 2018
Made it 8.3 miles down the dirt road before parking. Sorry rental car!

Upon entering the death valley back country, I was immediately met with jagged stone formations, distant mountains, and pulsing 94F heat + sun. The experience can be daunting even for an experienced backpacker. I had packed 3 days worth of food and 4 liters of water. I knew that my next water source was 12-14 miles away and the spring has been known to be…finicky.

The first 8 miles were on a 4×4 track and surrounded by sprawling canyons. The trail winds its way through the ragged rocks and slowly gains elevation. The experience was one of complete remoteness. Much like being on Mars!

After about 9 beautiful miles, I managed to strain a leg muscle. The 34 pounds on my back added to the pain that was now growing with every step. I attribute this injury to the shifting loose dirt/sand and knew I was roughly 5 miles from the closest oasis containing water. I would limp into Cottonwood springs or I would collapse and become a sun dried tomato. Only two options šŸ™‚

After many house of hiking through the desert, cottonwood springs is a little bit of a shock. Hours of reds, browns, and grays turn into green trees. All of a sudden you are walking among leaves and a very shallow babbling crick.

Death Valley 2018 Oasis
A picture of Cottonwood Spring from above; An ecosystem surrounded by desert mountains

Camping at Cottonwood is a very nice experience. The trees are rustling, the water is nearby, and there are dozens of level campsites for backpackers. Backpackers are required to camp 100 ft from water, as well as leave no trace principles. On this particular early April day….I was the only human camping in the vicinity.

Death Valley 2018 Campsite
Campsite View: Oasis on my left, elevation on my right, canyon in front

After a very sore morning, I set out to leave cottonwood and make the “turn” to the back side of this backpacking loop. The canyon spits hikers out into a large expanse of open area. With mountains on the right and left; I was now staring down 5.5 miles of open prairie. There seemed to be a dip between to the distant ridge line and this was where I would be crossing over into dead horse canyon. The hike going forward would be primarily off trail. A GPS and TOPO map is highly recommended.

Death Valley Prarie to Deadhorse edited
No trail in this section but you can see the ridge line cross in the distance

After going up and over the ridge, I believed myself to be in Deadhorse canyon. However, that is actually in another 2 miles and it involves another small ridge crossing….I missed this an continued down the wrong canyon. I’ve read other blogs about the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon loop and this is a common issue. Luckily, I checked by GPS and saw that I was now headed the wrong way. I could either backtrack and try to find the cross into Deadhorse….or I could cross through uncharted territory over the mountain range and try to find the next Oasis water supply (I was running low again).

Death Valley Lost
Oops! This was an unsafe and off-trail route; Check your GPS more often!

Being the adventurous type, i decided to leave the unnamed canyon and traverse my way over the mountain to my left. I had to literally crawl up the steep side as loose rocks slipped from beneath my hands and feet. Upon getting about 50 ft up the incline, I began rethinking this crossing decision. However, I refused to turn back and continued the tedious accent. I don’t recommend following my path here but I will say the top of this ridge gave some STUNNING 360 views. It also gave me a strong sense of adventurism through uncharted trails.

Death Valley View from Lost
This is the view from atop my lost excursion; Dead Horse water supply is just around the corner

After a very steep and sliding decent into the canyon, I began to see the trees of my next oasis in Dead Horse canyon. There is a dry river bed running off to the west ending in a cluster of trees that is the next water supply. I walked into the forest and again the contrast between desert hills and green trees was breathtaking. There is a small footpath routed along the oasis…this is the first actual trail I’ve seen in 7 miles. Coming off my ridge scrambling off-trail adventure — I was excited for a water break and my pace was faster than normal. All of a sudden; I heard a very loud hissing noise to my right and immediately halted in my tracks. 5 ft in front of me was a huge rattlesnake blending into the sand walking path. I took a few steps back and watched his accent up the steep canyon wall to my left. If I had been less attentive, unaware, or listening to headphones…. I probably would have stepped right into his coiled body. A potential tragedy avoided!

The Dead Horse canyon water supply was a very small trickle of water. I managed to collect and filter enough for 3 fresh liters but it was a slow collection process. The area around Dead Horse gives multiples locations for flat camp sites on semi-soft sandy ground. This is a perfect place for back country camping.

I recommend backpackers be careful when continuing onward from Dead Horse towards Marble Canyon. There is an 10ft vertical drop that cannot be avoided. I threw my pack down and climbed/rolled/fell down after. It was not a graceful decent šŸ™‚

Death Valley 2018 Marble entrace
A few miles after leaving the Oasis, you will see the entrance to the Marble Canyon

After a few more miles of trekking you will reach Marble Canyon. The next couple miles were the only shaded hiking i did in Death Valley. Surrounded by massive 100ft slot canyon walls — this is an absolutely breathtaking experience after days of hot sun and strenuous trail. I recommend you proceed through this section slowly and take in the beautifully unique environment.

Death Valley 2018 Marble canyon
Beautiful walls within Marble Canyon. Towering above and leaning precariously overhead

You will be within this canyon up until the dead end point of a 4×4 dirt road. Upon reaching the end, I ran into a group of day hikers who nicely offered a ride in their Ford 4×4. It was a bumpy ride in the bed of the truck but at least it eliminated 5 miles of road hiking off my plan…3 of which I already hiked when arriving.

To sum up; this is a very unique backpacking loop. It presents challenges and views that are not entirely common in many locations. The secluded nature of the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon loop is perfect for people wishing to escape the confines of busy trails and society.

A few more pictures are below. Feel free to reach out with questions about this hike. Enjoy!

Written By:

Luke Langhals

Death Valley 2018 tent
My REI Passage 2 has been a rigorous ally on over 1000 miles of backpacking trails. It is a 2 person tent — but I love the extra space and easy set up.
A selfie water break in front of the entrance to Marble Canyon

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