Wandering in the Desert — Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Trail

After My 40 Hours
5 min readJan 8, 2021


This is our first-ever desert backpacking trip and it definitely posed different challenges compared to other trips we have had in alpine terrain. December in Death Valley National Park is quite comfortable during the day for backpacking, dry and cool, sunhoodie-appropriate. As we have been stuck in flat, freezing Michigan for too long, we really wanted an intense trek, so we divided the loop into a three-day itinerary with over 10 miles each day.

For packing up, we were extremely weight-conscious, knowing we had to carry all of our own water. We carried two days of water to start: two gallons per person to be safe, even though we had learned that the water was flowing at Cottonwood Springs and we should reach it after a day and a half. We brought TP as backcountry bidet is water consuming. We also went down that road of eating two dehydrated meals to replace some fresh ingredients, yes, to minimize weight. We forgot to pack up wet wipes, which proved to be a major mistake, as my sunscreen was hard to remove with just water. In the end, we still carried about 45 pounds of weight per person.

Day 1: From our van to the first unnamed spring, 11.9 miles.

We love using Gaia for navigation, and the unnamed spring is marked on the map. We parked our campervan (read about our #vanlife adventure) 2 miles away from the trailhead as the van seemed to struggle with the dirt road. The trailhead is 8-mile from Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, well marked on the park map. The first few miles of the hike were a whole lot of nothing, except sand and rocks. The hike was a constant gradual ascent on loose rocks and sand, which made walking harder.

After about 5 miles, we started to see some cute, yellow shrubs. When we started to see some trees and wild horse droppings, we knew we had reached the first unnamed spring. We were quite overwhelmed by the number of horse droppings we saw but later confirmed with a park ranger that there were just many wild horses living in Death Valley.

Day 2: From unnamed spring to Cottonwood Springs to the first flat area, 8.5 miles.

After camped at the unnamed spring for one night, we were recharged and ready to hit the road again! The second day felt a lot colder.

The stream was frozen

After taking a big detour (Ok fine, we went the wrong way), acres of golden plants jumped into our sights, so fuzzy, like kitten hair — Cottonwood Springs! It was so beautiful that all the sand walking and backpack bruises were worth it.

Enjoyment aside, we did not see any flowing water nearby as expected, and I definitely panicked. Eventually, we found the water flowing about 0.5 miles ahead of the Cottonwood Springs campsite. The stream was actually pretty warm.

Yes! Cottonwood!
Yes! Water!

After resupplied our drinking water, we hiked for about three miles before we reached a mountain pass and started to descend. That might have been the most endurance demanding three miles I have done: gradually ascending on soft sand, with every step sinking. The area is very exposed, and we encountered two hikers earlier who had to give up on it because of the heat. Luckily, we got a cloudy day.

I am a hiker who loves steep ascents but hates the other way around. My dream is a trail that only ascends, but here comes my nightmare — a steep, straight descent after the mountain pass. We were hiking, or, sliding down on loose rocks and soft sand for a while, kicking rocks and causing small-scale landslides.

Finally, we reached a relatively flat area and decided the stay there overnight. If we had more time, we would go further downhill to set up the tent as it will be warmer and less windy. But we were drawn by the sunset and were willing to stop here and sleep in temperature below our sleeping bags’ stats, waking up with frozen condensation from our breath the next morning. It was Christmas the next day. What a special Christmas.

Isn’t nature the greatest artist? The sunset was like a painting
Sunset in the Desert, 2020

Day 3: Back to our van, 11.8 miles.

We were mainly gradually descending with a magnificent canyon view. No more getting lost or trail-finding — the last day was straight forward and idiot proof. About halfway through the day, we came across Marble Canyon, a beautiful slot canyon that blew us away.

The major challenge on this day was the distance. After two long days of uphills, our tired feet trudged along the final miles before reaching the relative comfort of our campervan. What a glorious sight it was to see our van perched where we left it as we rounded our last corner.

Overall we really enjoyed the trail as it provided some verity of terrains and challenges. If we were to do it again, I would make a four-day trip to enjoy the beautiful Cottonwood Springs a day longer.

An additional highlight: we lost our baseball cap on day one and someone found it and left it at the trailhead for us, leaving no trace!

See the full video of our trip: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CJxGSNjhA9n/?igshid=3zyprhnrj6og

Amateur Tips:

  • Wearing a mask is quite nice for keeping my face warm and lips unchapped;
  • Use what the desert offers: solar energy, and substitute headlamps with a Luci lamp.
  • Bring good hand cream and gloves or you might get the following “gift” from the desert.



After My 40 Hours

Recording fun experiences and any random thoughts here