The Cottonwood Canyon & Marble Canyon loop is one of the few backpacking trails in Death Valley that is actually a “trail”. The majority of the other opportunities for backpacking are essentially “you’re free to wander around and camp in this area” and then leave it to hiker to decide where to go, where as this loop has a set start and end point and a specific path to follow to get there. The trail combines going through three different canyons to create the loop. This ease of direction coupled with reliable water sources makes this the most popular backpacking trail in Death Valley.
- Distance: 26.3 Miles round trip
- Type: Loop
- Days Needed: 2-4
- Elevation at trailhead: 1,200 feet
- Elevation Gain/Loss: Roughly 4,000 ft up and then down again
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Crowd Factor: Low
- Best Time: Feb-April or October-November
- Permits/Fees: Voluntary, Death Valley Entry Fee: $35
- Water: Yes
Directions to the Trail Head
You will need a 4wheel drive vehicle!
Once in Death Valley, make your way to Stovepipe Wells (there’s a general store here if you need any last minute items). If you’re getting a permit (they’re free and voluntary), there’s a ranger station nearby too.
From Stovepipe Wells, it’s 10.5mi to the trailhead (which can take 30-40mins). Follow the road to the left of the store that goes towards the RV/ campground. It will continue to the left past the airstrip. We missed it the first time thinking this road just went into the campground.
The road quickly becomes sand as you drive through the dunes. The sand then turns to gravel and rock as you move into the canyon. You’ll pass a large parking area on the right (if you don’t have 4-wheel drive, you could park here and continue on foot to the trailhead instead). It’s roughly another 2.5 miles to the trailhead where the “road” deteriorates into just a dry river wash.
You’ll enter the canyon where the walls will narrow and the road weaves back and forth in a series of “switch backs”. Then the canyon will open up and you’ll come to another parking area with a few cars on the left of the road shortly there after.
There’s a sign here that marks the intersection of Cottonwood and Marble Canyon (we again missed this sign the first time as it was hidden by some tall brush). If you enter another narrow canyon section, you’ve gone too far.
This is the most popular parking spot. Technically, you can drive to the end of Cottonwood Canyon or Marble Canyon if you have the right vehicle (like a jeep) and park there as well (or stage one at the end of each), but it’s less common and there isn’t as much space for parking.
Death Valley Park Fees
There is no entrance gate for Death Valley. Park entry fees can be paid at the ranger stations or at any of the self-pay facilities around the park.
- Individual (on foot or bicycle) – Good for 7 Days: $15
- Motorcycle – Good for 7 Days: $25
- Automobile with up to 4 people – Good for 7 Days: $30
- Death Valley Annual Pass – Good for 1 Year: $55
Permits: You can pick up a free voluntary permits for backcountry camping at the visitor center or any ranger station.
When is the Best Time to Hike Cottonwood/Marble Canyon?
Early spring or late winter. Death Valley gets extremely hot over the summer – by May temperatures get into the 100s during the day, and with no shade for the majority of the hike, you’re at the mercy of the sun. During the late winder/ early spring is ideal. The temperatures during the day are in the low 80s and at night the low 50s (tho it may sometimes dip to the mid 30s).
Spring Break and long weekends are a popular time for students to tackle this trail, so if you’re looking to avoid people, skip visiting on the holidays.
What To Expect Along The Trail
If I’m gonna be honest, I wouldn’t really recommend this hike. The majority of it is basically through a dry river wash and very exposed to the elements – sun, wind, etc.
While there is a beauty to the solitude of the desert, I don’t think this hike really captures it all that well and much of the views and terrain are very similar. Plus you can see 1/3 of the hike by driving it if you have a jeep, which I think is pretty defeating, but maybe that’s just me.
Rules for backcountry camping: (not that anyone will be there to check up on you)
- No campfires. Stoves and propane grills are allowed.
- Campsites must be more than 100 yards from any water source
There are three seasonal water sources along this trail. That being said, they aren’t the easiest to find and aren’t always reliable as the flow varies depending on the time of year. Bring enough water that you don’t have to count on the springs, but have the option to use them as a backup if needed. I also recommend using both purification tablets and water filers with these springs.
Starting off down Cottonwood Canyon, the trail is very easy to follow as it’s an ATV/ off-roading road. It’s a rocky sandy wash which doesn’t make for the easiest footing and is a great butt workout – almost like walking in sand. This continues for 5 miles or so. Since there is no shade or escape from the sun in this section, I recommend trying to finish it quickly before mid day so that the sun isn’t beating down on you as badly.
The canyon walls then start to narrow for another mile/1.5miles or so. This will provide you with some relief from the sun as the more narrow walls create some shade if it’s not high-noon. By “narrow”, I don’t mean slot canyon by any means. Keep in mind, you can literally drive a jeep down this road so there’s still lots of space.
The canyon then starts to widen again and the brush becomes larger for the next 2miles as you’re approaching the spring. The road also continues to deteriorate as rocks become larger.
At the end of Cottonwood Canyon Road there’s a small grove of Cottonwood trees and a flat dirt area for camping under near a large tree. The rock here has been severely burned by campfires (even tho they aren’t allowed). It’s a good spot to set up camp, depending on how many days you’ve planned for your trek, as it’s pretty well protected.
Pro Tip: It often gets VERY windy in the canyons at night (like 50mph winds windy). Bring tent stakes so make sure you don’t blow away!
From this point, you enter a true footpath (no more gravel!), which is a nice relief. The first opportunity for water is literally right around the corner from this camping spot, about 1/4 mi (though it was dry for us).
The path then winds between trees and over fallen branches for approximate 1/1.5 miles. You come out of the overgrown brush into a meadow as you’re entering the upper canyon. Several hikers have reported seeing wild horses grazing here, but no such luck for us.
As you continue on for another 1.5-2miles, you’ll reach another grove of Cottonwood trees. These trees mark a more reliable spring, which can be found by following the flow of water in the muddy washes surrounding it. This hollow is also another good spot for camping as you’re almost at the half-way point.
The next 4 miles are fairly uneventful, going through a valley that seems to continue at a never ending slow incline as you head towards the mountains to the northwest. The path is pretty much nonexistent, returns to light gravel, and is often surrounded with knee-high brush. There’s no shade at all, but you can occasionally see some rabbits running around.
You are heading towards an obvious saddle between the hills, the low point to the right:
There are a few signs along the way to guide you. It’s 2 miles from here to the next spring and also the ridge of Deadhorse Canyon.
This path can be a bit daunting as you’re descending into a gully as you exit the saddle from the valley, but there are plenty of “side route” options to wind around a few hills and still get back on the same path.
The next mile between the two canyons is the most difficult part of the hike. The ridge of Deadwood Canyon is about 4,000 feet up and to get to the bottom, you have to descend about 600 feet across a steep slope of loose rock
From there, it’s only about 1/4 mile to another seasonal spring (which was flowing for us, but was more of a marsh than a spring), and also another good camping area. The entrance to Deadhorse Canyon is to the left across from the spring, and if you want to explore it, now’s the time as coming back with way will end up being very difficult.
After the spring, it’s about a 1/2 mile to an 8-foot dryfall, which you will probably want to tackle slowly by taking off your gear and passing it down.
Once past the dryfall, you’ll continue for another 1/4mi or so to the intersection of Marble Canyon.
At the intersection with Marble Canyon, you can take a little side trip to the left further into the upper canyon (supposedly there are petroglyphs), or just continue along the loop trail to the right. It’s 6.5 miles through the canyon along a gravel path until you come to an ATV/ backcountry road.
The trek through Marble Canyon is more interesting and enjoyable than Cottonwood and my favorite part of this trip. There are three “narrows” that you’ll go through (no more narrow than 8ft max), some with dried mud on the side of the walls (possibly from a flash flood?).
The rocks formations and striped colors and pretty incredible and beautiful to look at as you wind through the canyon. The narrow sections offer some shade and relief from the sun. This less-harsh environment is also home to some wildflowers that have found a way to put down roots between the rocks.
Once you reach the “road” (which again is more of a wash) and dead ends into a wooden fence, it’s another 1.8miles back to the parking spot. The remaining portion of this hike is mostly wide and open as you continue to walk along the wash.