“I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
― John Muir
There is just something very special about the first backpack of the new year. The first feeling of the pack on your back and the knowing that you will have everything you need for the next few days within reach.
Death Valley National Park is the perfect winter getaway. Peaceful with stark beauty, unique rock formations and colors, but most of all so alarmingly quiet. However, overnight backpack trip planning is tricky because of the lack of safe, natural water sources in the park. Often it is either necessary to have a very heavy water haul or cache water ahead of time along the route.
Cottonwood/Marble Canyon Loop backpack just outside of Stovepipe Wells is diverse and follows two very different canyons. The loop even has at least one reliable water source (upper Cottonwood Springs) and two seasonal springs (lower Cottonwood and Deadhorse springs). This trip is usually done in 2-4 days and is a very popular trip that is well-documented on the Internet.
In 2013, good friend and hiker Sally (aka Arrow) and I hiked the Cottonwood/Marble Canyon Loop. I vividly remember how very cold it was at night, the smooth canyon walls of Marble Canyon, wild horses and their abundant poop, and solitude.
This year I headed out with Doni and Michelle, both experienced hikers that I hiked with on the John Muir Trail in 2017. We chose to do the trip in 2 days. I had a great time being out and about and walking, walking, and just a little sauntering too.
TRIP DATE January 29-30, 2019
LENGTH About 31 miles
ELEVATION GAIN 4,032 feet
TRAILHEAD At the mouth of Cottonwood Rd. and Marble Canyon Rd., Death Valley National Park
DIFFICULTY Moderate with some dirt road, trail, cross-country, and negotiating down a dry fall
NAVIGATION Good map/compass or GPS skills needed. A GPS app like Gaia is strongly recommended
BEST TIME TO HIKE Fall, winter, early spring
WATER Reliable water at upper Cottonwood Springs, seasonal water at lower Cottonwood Springs and Deadhorse Canyon Springs
PERMITS National Park Pass
CELL SERVICE None
RESOURCES AND LINKS
MAPS AND GUIDEBOOKS
- Hiking Death Valley National Park: A Guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures
- Death Valley National Park Recreation Map Tom Harrison Map
- National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map – Death Valley National Park
- Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past
© OpenStreetMap contributors
- We really liked hiking this trip clockwise, largely because hiking in the opposite direction would entail a very steep and slippery ascent out of Deadhorse Canyon.
- Our intended campsite was the ridge above upper Cottonwood Springs, but because of an abundant amount of wild horse poop on the ridge we were forced to camp closer to the spring in the large established campsite. After reflecting, it would have been great to camp about 1/2 mile before the upper spring. It is clean, out of a gully that is full of thick tangled brush, has access to water, and would be a lot warmer at night.
- Be sure have a GPS app or good maps. We followed the route using my favorite GPS mapping app, Gaia. Important tip: download the route and maps on wifi before the trip. The route isn’t obvious going to the first saddle above the valley and to the 2nd saddle to access Deadhorse Canyon. From the second saddle
- Check weather ahead of time. There is potential flash flood hazard.
DAY 1 – So Good to Feel the Pack on My Back
Intersection of Cottonwood Canyon Rd. and Marble Canyon Rd. to Upper Cottonwood Springs
About 13 miles – on dirt road and trail
More Photos of the Day
DAY 2 – Give Us Power Gaia
Upper Cottonwood Springs to car
About 16 miles – cross-country, use trail, a little down climb of a dry fall, and dirt road
More Photos of the Day
FAVORITE TRIP GEAR AND FOOD
- I really liked using the iPhone/Moment Lens combo. All the photos on this post are from that lens and edited in Lightroom Mobile App.
- If you don’t already have the Gaia Mapping App on your smartphone, I highly recommend it. Our team snagged the opportunity to learn more about navigation, choices for travel, and terrain using the app. We all agreed it made it a safer and a more enjoyable experience navigating together, not just following or leading.
- Here is a detailed list of the lightweight backpacking gear I used and love.
- I am in love with these tortilla chips by Siete. The LIME is my favorite. They are gluten and corn free, made with avocado oil, and taste amazing.
- I enjoyed my hot at-home morning coffee that is a powerhouse on this trip. It worked perfectly. I added to 1 1/2 cups boiling water: 2 Starbucks VIA Instant coffee packets, 1 tbsp. Keto Creamer, and 1 tbsp. Collagen Protein. I felt so spoiled with lots of energy for a few hours.
- View all photos from the trip on Flickr
ADDITIONAL DEATH VALLEY TRIPS
- Death Valley Traverse
- Darwin Falls
- Telescope Peak
- Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop Backpack
- Death Valley Muti-Activity Trip
- Badwater Basin to Top of Mount Whitney – Lowest to Highest
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