Death Valley Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop Backpack

A strong woman is someone who is able to smile this morning like she wasn’t crying last night.
~Harriet Morgan

Arrow, my good friend and long time backpacking partner hit Death Valley for a winter backpack in early February. We were both in need of a well-deserved wilderness fix. Death Valley is the perfect winter backpack destination, but be prepared for frigid desert nights and scarce water sources. The Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop is a popular and remote route that begins 8 to 10 miles outside of Stovepipe Wells. This 32 mile route is usually completed in three days, but Arrow and I completed it easily as an overnight in 2 days. This trip is well-documented on the Internet.

February 9-10, 2013
LENGTH: 32 miles
DIFFICULTY: Moderate with some trail and off-trail
NAVIGATION: Good maps and GPS are recommended on this trek

Our backpack started at the intersection of Cottonwood and Marble Canyons hiking up Cottonwood and returning via Marble. Caution: this trip includes some trail and off-trail with a couple very tricky turns that are not obvious. Namely, the route out of Cottonwood Canyon and route into Dead Horse Canyon. I have included helpful detailed maps at the bottom of this post.

View of Cottonwood Canyon from the trail head
View of Cottonwood Canyon from the trail head

The water source in Cottonwood Canyon was good, fresh, and running. A beautiful little area that would be a great camping spot.

Watercress in Cottonwood Springs
Watercress in Cottonwood Springs

This is the first tricky area to navigate. Turn RIGHT in Upper Cottonwood. The pass is the low spot on the RIGHT.

Heading to Low Saddle on the Right
Heading to Low Saddle on the Right

We camped at the low pass above the route to Dead Horse Canyon.

Campsite on the Pass at Sunrise
Campsite on the Pass at Sunrise

After turning left at the Dry Spring (named on the map) the views into Dead Horse Canyon are stunning.

Looking down at Deadhorse Canyon after left turn at Dry Spring
Looking down at Dead Horse Canyon after left turn at Dry Spring

In many of the trip reports I read  hikers had trouble finding water at the  spring in Dead Horse Canyon. We were lucky #1 we didn’t need water and #2 the water was running right on the trail but did not appear very healthy to drink.

Water at Deadhorse Spring
Water at Dead Horse Spring

Displayed beside the trail was a full on Bighorn sheep skeleton. Pretty amazing find.

Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn at Dead Horse Spring

Marble Canyon is beautiful with very cool rock colors, patterns, petroglyphs, and formations.

Petroglyphs in Marble Canyon
Petroglyphs in Marble Canyon
Side trip to Upper Marble Canyon
Side trip to Upper Marble Canyon
Rockin' in Marble Canyon
Rockin’ in Marble Canyon
Arrow in the Marble Canyon Narrows
Arrow in the Marble Canyon Narrows
Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop Backpack
Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop Backpack
 Tricky area...turn right at Cottonwood Canyon pin and left at Dry Spring pin
Tricky area…turn right at Cottonwood Canyon pin and left at Dry Spring pin

Death Valley’s stark landscape, dramatic views and sunsets make for the perfect weekend get-away.


  1. Great set of pics, I particularly like your camping set up [out of interest: how cold does it get at night?] and the size of those rocks!? There are no deserts in the UK…….but we do have wild horses & water cress ^_^

    • Traveling through the desert on foot is interesting – hot, hot during the day and after the sun dips below the horizon, temps can drop 40 degrees. For the backpacker this means being prepared with appropriate gear and clothing. On this winter backpack I added a 15 degree down bag, down pants, heavy gloves and liners, vest, and heavier weight long underwear in my backpack. Also, the desert can get super windy, which is always a challenge when setting up tents. On this trip I believe the low at night was in the 20sF.
      Given all that, I just love the solitude, openness, stark landscape, and clean dry air. It is healing. 🙂

  2. Rockin, awesome post. I’ve never hiked in the desert but it looks fun. I’d have to learn to navigate better though. Really like all the neat views and finds of peculiar rocks and picotographs. Very cool

    • The desert has grown on me and captured my heart. For years I did not see the hidden beauties lying secret. I loved hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last spring in California’s southern desert and now love and appreciate this mysterious and sometimes dangerous environment.

  3. Great photos of a beautiful area. I’ll have to visit there someday. Did you get a watercress salad for dinner?

    • I just knew someone was going to catch that! Unfortunately, we did not feel comfortable eating the watercress unless we boiled it, due to the surrounding wild horse droppings that might pollute the very water the watercress was thriving in. I huge bummer. It was a great trip and so peaceful!

  4. Awesome loop hike!!

    • Thanks! This trip is one of the very few backpacks in Death Valley that offers safe, running water to filter and we did not see another hiker on the entire trip. President’s Day holiday I am told would be a very different experience.

  5. Stephen Scarano

    I continue to revel in your outings, Rockin, and am grateful for your messages.Here’s a bit of picky-picky: I think the Marble Canyon rock art your photo shows is really a petroglyph panel (pictographs being “painted”, not “pecked”). The thing is, you’re out there doin’ and I am not. Like I said, picky-picky.Thanks.Hamburger Helper

    Date: Tue, 9 Apr 2013 00:25:02 +0000 To:

    • HM, So glad you caught that one. All fixed. BIG thank you. It is so great to know that readers out there are actually reading and enjoying my posts. I am counting on you this summer Hamburger Helper to keep our little group going on the Continental Divide Trail. Will you be trail angeling next month at Eagle Rock?

  6. Did you see the wild horses?

    • We saw a very small group at a distance on the hillside in Cottonwood Canyon. However, there was evidence everywhere that herds roam in this canyon.

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