Famous among backpackers, this long loop is one of the most popular loops in the park. It's not difficult to see why this route is so well traveled, as it passes through dramatic canyons and desertscapes, ascends steep ridgelines, and crosses through unlikely springs.
Seasonal changes can significantly impact trail conditions. Spring brings run-off and creek crossings, and summer months bring heat and reduce the number of places to refill water. If you're unsure about conditions during the time of year that you'll be visiting, check out Death Valley's Current Conditions page
Drink plenty of water: Drink at least one gallon (4 liters) of water per day to replace loss from sweat, more if you are active. Fluid and electrolyte levels must be balanced, so have salty foods or "sports drinks" too.
Avoid hiking in the heat: Do not hike in the low elevations when temperatures are hot. The mountains are cooler in summer, but can have snow and ice in winter.
Travel prepared to survive: Stay on paved roads in summer. If your car breaks down, stay with it until help comes. Carry extra drinking water in your car in case of emergency.
This 26-mile route is quite strenuous, and it's recommended that visitors with backpacking and route finding is recommended. Most take the route in a clockwise direction, which is described here.
Starting from the Stovepipe Wells Campground, visitors will drive west on Cottonwood Canyon Road
. The road is rough, and you may only be able to reach the end of it in a high-clearance vehicle. Though the road will be rough but passable for the first 8 miles, and may be impassable for the final 2 miles to the junction with the Marble Canyon Road
From the intersection with the Marble Canyon Road
, you'll begin your loop. Follow the rough outline of the Cottonwood Canyon Road
for 8.5 miles, which will be a nice warm up for the rest of the route. The way is easy to navigate, even as it narrows from a wide roadbed to a trail that winds through the first canyons that you'll see. The trail comes to an end at the first seasonal water source, marked by a grove of cottonwood trees. There is great camping at this juncture.
Continuing on, you'll make your way to Cottonwood Spring. The going from here is a little more rugged, though you'll be making your way up fairly gentle slopes. Enjoy the hiking though here, as you'll first make your way through a steep canyon before coming to an area densely forested with cottonwood trees. There is one tricky area for navigation, and you'll want to make sure to keep a look out for a faint footpath on the right (north) side of the canyon. If you hit a large rock cairn, retrace your steps, and look for the proper path. A good sign that you're on the right track will be signs of wild burros and horses, as they also tend to seek out Cottonwood Springs. Once you've reached the spring, be sure to take a break, potentially spend the night, and above all, fill up on water. This might be the last place to replenish bottles, depending on the season.
From Cottonwood Springs, visitors will make their way to Deadhorse Canyon. The trail dwindles in this portion, so a map, compass, and navigation skills may be required. There are a few old markers that will point you in the right direction, but you'll want to head down a long valley and keep the mountains to your right. Eventually, you'll turn up into the mountains through a steep gully which leads to a low saddle that will allow you to cross from the large valley into Deadhorse Canyon.
Keep your wits about you, as navigating to Deadhorse Canyon is the most confusing portion of the route. To access Deadhorse Canyon, you'll have to descend into a different canyon, which will be lush with vegetation. Head a short way (.1 mi) into this canyon, and then make your way uphill to the north, and drop into Deadhorse Canyon. There is incredible camping here, and ample shade due to the old growth Cottonwoods that thrive in the area.
Working your way out of Deadhorse Canyon and through Marble Canyon is one of the highlights of the route. Marble Canyon is filled with distinctive narrows, and the towering canyon walls provide a sense of scale. There are three defined narrows, each of which have their own character. Use caution, and keep an eye on the weather when working your way through this section, as flash flooding occurs after storms, and can be dangerous. You may have to work your way around the remaining debris of previous floods. Follow the canyons until you reach the first signs of Marble Canyon Road
The final ~2 mile stretch from the end of the narrow to the junction of Marble Canyon Road
and Cottonwood Springs Road is gentle on weary visitors. It's easy to find the roadbed, and you'll be moving through an open wash. If you're visiting the park in February to April, keep an eye out for the wildflowers that may be in bloom along the rocky slopes.
Desert flora such as cactus and cottonwood line the trail, and you may catch glimpses of wild horses and burros.