Backpacking Death Valley's Cottonwood Canyon/Marble Canyon Loop

Posted by Gareth Lintt | 06.12.2017

Waking up at 3AM in San Diego on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, my girlfriend and I embarked on what would surely be a trying adventure in Death Valley National Park.

There is a limited amount of information regarding Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop.  The official NPS website recounted that as of 11.01.2016 there was water at Cottonwood Springs and Deadhorse Springs, but that was a far cry from reassuring.  Knowing that temperatures can reach above 100 degrees F this time of year, we prepared for the worst and hiked with no less than a gallon of water at any given time.  Still, it was all smiles from start to end as this landscape holds a majesty that is unsurpassed in California desertscape.  

Gareth Lintt & friend in Death Valley

This article is an attempt to relay the facts and prepare other backcountry travelers of the details surrounding this great hike.  On the first day of our adventure, we arrived at Stovepipe Wells around 8:30AM and attempted to obtain a permit.  The ranger station was closed however, and we resigned to rely on the good faith that we had alerted a number of people back home where and when we would be located.  For future reference, permits can be gathered at Furnace Creek Visitor Center at no charge.

Trail Sign Cotton Wood & Marble on Death Valley


After parking at the intersection of Cottonwood and Marble Canyon, we hiked 8 miles down an ATV road until we reached the beginning of an unmaintained trail to Cottonwood Canyon.  After an additional 3 miles of uncertain terrain and encountering owls and wild horses, we found running water at middle and upper Cottonwood.  This campsite was marked with a ram and horse skull. 


Gareth with Wild Horses in Death Valey

That night we camped under the stars and witnessed more than one shooting star.  Day 2 began with a slow trudge up through the Valley and towards the impending 5,000ft mountain range to the Northeast.  There were a few signs along the way to guide us toward the obvious saddle veering us Northwest.  

Goldbelt and Cottonwood Trail sign in Death Valley


At this point, Gaia GPS app came particularly handy to ensure that we descended the appropriate canyon.  Once in Deadhorse Canyon, we navigated an obvious game trail and were pleasantly surprised to find running water.  Everything we had read about the trail had suggested that this would be out of the question.  

Running water near Dead Horse Canyon

After carrying nearly 3 gallons of water all day, anticipating needing a two day supply, we kicked back in what would be known to us as the oasis of Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop.

Campsite on the Cottonwood - Marble Canyon loop

Despite not being able to have a camp fire for the evening because of local regulations, the night sky provided a more than spectacular light show.  Day 3 culminated in magnificent marble canyon narrows and a mostly shady hike.  


marble Canyon narrows

It was a great year to hike this loop so late in the season, the combination of heavy rain and good fortune made this loop both beautiful and less difficult than usual.  It is important to note that human contact was extremely limited outside of Stovepipe Wells and a lot of planning and preparation was put into this trip to ensure our safety.  Death Valley National Park offered much in return in the way of solitude and beauty.  

Gareth Lintt is an Eagle Scout and recent graduate of San Diego State University.  He has backpacked extensively in the Sierra Nevada Mountains including a 300 mile section along the PCT.  He enjoys pushing the limits, stiff bourbon, and always carries a book on the trail.