Exhilarated, if tired, following my stunning solo desert trail adventure, I half-heartedly looked for the dirt road turnoff to camp for the night. Death Valley is one of the few National Parks that allows some limited “dispersed camping.”
But before I knew it, I had driven past the unmarked road and was soon exiting Death Valley National Park and the State of California.
“I guess I’ll head home,” I thought, as I filled The Beast with gas in the dusty crossroads town of Beatty, Nevada. I weighed my desire to get back to Javier and the kids with a feeling of squandering the generous gift of time to go deeper in my explorations of the park.
Since I would need to sleep at some point during the 6-hour drive home to Truckee, I decided that sleeping in a national park was much more appealing than selecting some random dirt road off the highway. I backtracked 20 miles and found the original spot that I had identified on the park map.
I was rewarded with my first-ever Milky Way photo that night and the bonus exploration of an abandoned mining area the next morning. What a way to cap off my long weekend of explorations!
I had been dreaming about my return to Death Valley since I discovered it last year, and had obsessed over numerous locations in Digonnet’s exceptional guide book, “Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past.” Here are the highlights of my trip:
No single vista on the Cottonwood-Marble route can compete with Death Valley favorites like Golden Canyon, Dante’s View, or the sand dunes, but the whole is worth much more than the sum of the parts. The 27-mile route offers the variety and wonder of passing through several contrasting desert landscapes.
Typically traversed as a 2-3 day backpacking adventure, I ran it comfortably in under 8 hours. The route starts up a dry wash, Cottonwood Road, until green signs of life sprout from Cottonwood Springs. After filtering the only reliable water on the course, you start looping back through a somewhat sandy expanse of low shrubs. There is no trail here – you follow your instincts (and/or your GPS device!) and the impressions of footprints left by previous travelers.
Next you pass through a saddle to the elusive Deadhorse Canyon. I missed the entrance, despite very clear written directions, and found myself two canyons over. I trekked cross-country until I was back on course. Shortly thereafter I approached the “8-foot dry fall,” which was considerably more scary than I expected. I’m not sure how I would have done it if not for a ladder-like-log left there.
Finally, I found myself in Marble Canyon, the grand finale. I was prepared for potentially difficult footing on the gentle descent through the dark, narrow canyon, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a fairly smooth wash and zen cruising through the dramatic canyon walls.
Overall, the terrain is neither steep nor particularly difficult, but the air is bone dry and you need to carry adequate water for the distance. Furthermore, the route is just that – a route – that does not always provide defined trails. While the park published GPX files and a good printed handout on the course, navigation does add to the overall challenge.
I encountered only four other people the entire day.
The traverse to Mount Perry starts at the spectacular (and popular) Dante’s View point overlooking Badwater, the lowest point in the United States. It is more of a traverse than a climb, but includes plenty of ups-and-downs to keep your legs busy while your eyes are feasting on the views.
I chose to carry my camera, hike leisurely, and stop for photos on the way out. Then, for the return, I packed up my gear and enjoyed a gentle run back. It was a great way to experience the ridge, capture some photos, and still do some trail running.
On a particularly hot April day last year, I drove the kids 3 hours over the dirt roads that culminate in Titus Canyon. We saw people many hiking (including a boy scout troop) and I commented on how dangerous and un-fun it would be to hike there with all the automobile traffic.
As luck would have it, Titus Canyon was closed to traffic due to washouts this Spring. I took advantage of the rare opportunity to experience the route on foot. I was nearly alone hiking the Canyon in the late afternoon. It opened to traffic the next day.
Rhyolite and Goldwell Open Air Museum
Not technically in Death Valley, but right there by the Beatty entrance to the park, I enjoyed a relaxed morning stop at the Rhyolite ghost town and the free Goldwell outdoor art museum. Worth the stop if you can beat the crowds and find some time to savor it.
Discover Death Valley
As the largest national park in the lower 48 states, it can be overwhelming to figure out when, where, and how to visit Death Valley. Start with the park’s website (tons of good info there) and one or both of Digonnet’s books.
Don’t try to do it all at once. Also, understand that the valley floor is only one aspect of the park – high mountains line either side, and can provide relief from the heat when Furnace Creek in valley gets cooking.
And, beware: it seems that each visit just stirs up more ideas for the next!