Read this and do not get lost on the Death Valley Cottonwood Canyon and Marble Canyon loop! My husband and I recently completed this terrific backpacking loop, but a word of warning - we got off-track even though we already knew it was fairly common to do so, in fact we ran into a couple who had to turn around after three nights because they couldn’t find the entry to Dead Horse Canyon in order to get to Marble Canyon. We thought that the problem was finding Dead Horse pass which made me assume (by the name) that you will be dropping into Dead Horse Canyon on the other side of the pass. not so. This is the problem with all the directions we had. We had printed out the NPS guide to doing this hike and also directions from a blogger named Steve hall. Steve’s blog entry is terrific, but he doesn’t get detailed enough about where everyone goes wrong and the topo map that you might get from the ranger isn’t clear enough either. Go to Steve’s blog and Print out a synopsis along with a picture of Dead Horse Pass and the picture of Dead Horse Canyon. Very good to have. Also, print out the NPS directions too:
Key pics from his blog:
BUT here’s what I will add to ensure you don’t get lost and have to turn around. We persevered and found our way, but only after getting pretty dehydrated and exhausted from hiking up and down the WRONG Canyon trying to find where we went wrong.
My biggest piece of advice:
Do not think that when you go over dead horse pass you are dropping into dead horse canyon - not so. When you read the NPS directions and they say "If you get to a 40 ft. dryfall you have gone the wrong way - don't proceed" - this is the canyon you are dropping into. Also in my opinion we went through one dry spring almost at the top of the canyon you enter once you’ve gone over Dead Horse pass. My husband thinks it was vegetation from snow runoff, but to me it looked like a dry spring. Pass this dry spring. Once you pass it and drop into the “bowl” if you keep going you will get to another larger longer dry spring. This is the one you want to avoid. If you get much beyond the top - you've gone too far. You will look for a sandy path on your left about at the top of this dry spring. It is not obvious! Here is a picture:
There is a sandy spot that looks like a spot many people have pitched tents (my husband and I did the night we were lost). Keep going up past that and continue straight up (the path splits and goes to the left as well). Keep going straight up. When you get to the top and look over it will look VERY STEEP. THIS IS THE WAY TO GET TO DEAD HORSE CANYON!!!! If you have printed out Steve’s picture of their “first view of Dead Horse Canyon” you may be misled. We had this picture in hand and thought we were in the wrong place. The picture Steve took is from about halfway down when it starts to get less steep. Once my husband I confirmed that indeed the base of Steve’s picture looked like the bottom of the canyon below, we proceeded down in some cases skiing on the sand - it was that steep. But we ended up in the right place. Also, you will see trees off to your right once you’re down there and think that’s where the spring starts. This is deceptive. You will go to your right to proceed to the mouth of Marble Canyon - but the water is quite a walk from what seems to be the beginning of the spring so don’t think about dropping your packs and looking for the water. Take your packs with you and load up on water when you get to one of the pools - you don’t have to filter at the first muddy spot you will see - there is more easier access a little further down. This dry spring is pretty hard to get through. Try to follow the paths.
Another couple of helpful hints:
- When you are going along the spring in Dead Horse Canyon you will come to a 15 or so foot fall. We went up and around the left side (which was a little scary with packs on), but once you get down it becomes obvious there is a rock wall you can climb down to your right if you’re facing out over the fall. Tie your pack to a rope and lower down so you can climb down without it.
- in Marble canyon you will come to a very high dry fall. There is a path that goes to the side of it on your right (if you’re facing away from the fall) a few yards back.
- When you exit Cottonwood Canyon to the wide open area you will be turning right to head to Dead Horse Pass.
- We were able to drive our Subaru Outback to the junction of Cottonwood and Marble Canyon Jeep roads without a problem. Totally worth it so you don’t have to hike another couple of hours on either end. Probably not advisable with a lower clearance car, but no problem in the Subaru.
- We came to water in Cottonwood Canyon way before we thought we would - before the end of the jeep road.
I can’t stress enough though that you absolutely should print out a synopsis of Steve’s information with the pictures of Dead Horse pass and dead horse canyon and my directions about where to turn left. The topo map with the route that the ranger hands out is NOT CLEAR. It looks like you continue straight in into the canyon you are not supposed to be in. This is a BIG drag to go all the way down there and have to go all the way back up and possibly have to turn around for lack of water and energy and at a loss of the right way to go!
All that said, if you find your way, it’s a tremendous hike. SO unpopulated and vast and desolate. A perfect desert hike. We went at the beginning of March BTW and the weather was great. Pretty cold the nights at higher elevation, but we were prepared. Here are a couple of highlight photos from Marble Canyon. Worth the hike!