Windstorms and Wild Horses: Death Valley’s Marble Canyon Loop Trail Might Be the Perfect PCT Training Hike
Starting a backpacking trip in a windstorm is so demoralizing. Just trying to organize our packs at the car is frustrating, with the gale-force gusts continuously slapping the car door shut as I try to stuff bits of gear in the appropriate places. We are in Death Valley but we can’t see any of it; dust has blotted out the landscape.
We are on our fourth and final training hike before we kick off our Pacific Crest Trail attempt in a few weeks. We’ve been testing gear and going on short backpacking trips since January, sticking to coastal California where we can avoid high mountain snow. But this hike is different. It will mimic some of the conditions we expect to see in Southern California: long dry sections with next to no shade and significant water carries.
Plus wind. So much wind.
It’s my friend Jake’s birthday and we have an intention of surprising him at the trailhead with chocolate cupcakes and a card. As soon as we park, I hurry to the back of the car to light birthday candles. But even inside the car, it’s impossible to light candles with the hatch open. The wind is too strong. So when Jake, Alyssa, and Anton come around to the back of the Rav4, they find me pathetically attempting to light candles, the lighter blowing out instantly every time I strike it. Jake, our dedicated firestarter, takes matters into his own hands and creates a fire barrier, lights twisted paper on fire, and then manages to get his own birthday candles lit for all of one second before he blows them out. We all hastily eat a chocolate cupcake and then strap on our packs and hike out into the windstorm.
The Marble Canyon-Cottonwood Canyon loop is only 31 miles long, but we are adding in extra miles so that we can have a five mile day to start and then two fifteen mile days. We park on a jeep road a few miles from the trailhead and our first day is hiking for five miles, dust-laced wind clawing at our clothes and faces. We camp in Marble Canyon on a wide sandy ledge, right where the jeep road ends and the footpath begins.
Because we’re planning to dry camp tonight and we aren’t certain whether the first seasonal spring will be flowing, we are loaded up with water. I am carrying eight liters of water, and my pack weighs just shy of thirty-seven pounds. I think it’s the heaviest my pack has ever been.
But even as I’m wrapping a bandana around my nose and mouth to block the dust and wind, even as I’m tugging at my too-heavy backpack, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to be out in a wild place where the weather doesn’t care one whit about my plans or my comfort, with friends who don’t hesitate in the slightest at the idea of hiking into a windstorm.
Day 2: Wild Horses and Rock Climbing
The wind settles overnight, or maybe the canyon walls protect us from it. We’re up early and hiking before 7:30 AM; today is our most challenging day, and I’m already worried about the technical terrain we’ll be facing. We’re hiking the loop trail counterclockwise so that we’ll tackle the hardest sections on the uphill and take the declines more gradually. That’s generally easier on the body, but it means that today will be challenging.
Marble Canyon is delightful. Zebra-striped rocks create narrow canyons that we wind through for most of the morning. The air is cool and the canyon creates shadows that protect us from the blazing Death Valley sun. We talk through all the facts that we know about rocks, which is pretty minimal beyond the three types: metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary.
The first major challenge we face is scaling a dryfall: an 8-foot dry waterfall. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t think it would be so much of an exposed, vertical rock face. Jake, who is both a rock climber and a former army guy, repeatedly assures us that this is easy, but I’m skeptical. I’m also the shortest of the group—by a lot.
“Let’s all agree we aren’t leaving any short people behind,” I suggest as we examine the wall.
Jake wastes no time shedding his pack and then finding handholds and levering himself up over the dryfall. “Wow,” I say as he turns and looks back down at us. “Well, definitely something doable for tall people.”
We heft our packs and hiking poles up to Jake and he sets them back from the ledge, then returns to coordinate getting the rest of us up the dryfall. I think he’s probably trying to move quickly so we don’t get freaked out, which is a good strategy. He’s barking orders and we’re all following instructions. I’m going first, apparently. My friend Alyssa braces a knee against the rock wall and I place one foot on it, while my partner is behind me. As I stand on Alyssa’s leg and reach a hand up, my partner gives me a push from below and Jake reaches down and grabs my hand. Then I’m essentially flung up the rock face and safely onto the ledge. My heart is pounding, my hands are a little shaky, and I’m grinning so hard my face hurts.
The others (taller!) have more gradual ascents, with Jake offering strong words of encouragement and yanking them up with clasped hands. My partner joins me and I say, “I think the key part is someone yelling at you what to do before you can freak yourself out.”
We’re through the technical part and now we have a serious climb to undertake. It’s also a messy nest of uncertain trail at parts, with the track disappearing, splitting off, and reappearing at random. We’re using the Gaia app to navigate, though we’ve each downloaded slightly different versions of the route. The trail is very steep, the mountainside eroded and occasionally collapsing under our feet, and there’s loose gravel making things a slippery mess. I’m grateful we’re tackling this hard section as an incline, and I’m amazed that most people do this trail in the opposite direction. By noon, we’ve managed the two hardest sections of the trail, and we stretch out on a flat stretch of dirt between dry bushes to eat lunch.
There isn’t any shade to hide out in.
The afternoon is easier, and we have climbed high enough that the weather isn’t unbearably hot. We climb to about 4,700 feet and then drop into a gorgeous wide valley. Here, the trail is impossible to follow. But the landscape is wide open and we head south toward distant canyons.
There seem to be countless trails through the stunted desert bushes, and it’s so strange to think of so many people coming out here when we’ve hardly seen anyone. But upon looking closer, we realize they’re horse tracks; horses have carved hundreds of little trails through the desert.
We spot a herd of wild horses in the mid-afternoon, blending into the rolling hillsides. It’s incredible to see horses surviving in such inhospitable conditions, and they watch us as we make our way through the valley. We pause to stare at them and they look back at us, and it feels like two alien worlds intersecting.
We make it to Cottonwood Springs at around 4 PM. My feet are a touch sore and I’m a bit tired, but we only rest for a moment. Then my partner Anton and I bid a quick farewell to our friends. We are training for the PCT and want to cover fifteen miles today, whereas our friends can be satisfied to rest in the shade after twelve. Which means we need to wander out into the desert for three more miles. We pick a direction and follow winding horse trails through the dry brush, heading west toward the setting sun.
Part of me resents the heck out of having to schlep an extra three miles on top of a difficult day, and a whiny part of me keeps thinking about turning around early. But another part of me finds the whole thing magical. We’re totally off-trail, walking on paths carved by wild horses, heading into some of the most inhospitable desert imaginable.
We turn around just before the sun sinks below the crest of the mountains to the west and watch as the shadows fly across the valley floor. We hustle the mile and a half back to camp quickly, the temperature dropping, and I am grateful to reach the oasis and our friends. We’re surrounded by shady cottonwood trees and weird, Dr. Seuss-style silvery bushes that I don’t recognize. We set up tents quickly in the growing dark and heat water for food. We’re near the seasonal spring but it’s late and we still have water.
This is exactly the kind of info I was hoping to get before our PCT trip. Eight liters apparently will last me for twenty miles, including two dinners and two breakfasts, and I’ll still have a liter and a half left when we refill in the morning.
Night falls and It’s brutally cold. Even tucked into my 10 degree sleeping bag, I’m chilled and end up wrapping a puffy jacket around my feet for extra warmth.
Day 3: Shadeless Canyons
We wake to ice. The water in our Nalgenes froze overnight, and the hose on my water bladder is also frozen. I pull on my warm gloves and all my layers. Our friends’ tent has ice all over the rain fly, and we all shiver as we gather to make breakfast. The oasis is in a canyon and so the sun doesn’t reach us until we’ve been awake an hour. My fingers are so cold I can’t get the lighter to work. Anton finally takes it from me and gets the little stove going so we can have hot chai.
We get a late start that morning. Anton and I set off to find a good access point to the seasonal spring and I’m delighted that the water flows like a stream through the desert, winding among trees and slipping over mossy rocks. We use steripens to zap four liters of water, enough for us to make it back to the car tonight. I love steripens because I don’t have to worry about them freezing, the way I always worry about the Sawyer Squeeze filters freezing on me.
The next few miles of trail heading out of Cottonwood Canyon are a mess of challenging but fun trails, winding along narrow, rocky, somewhat technical terrain and crossing back and forth across Cottonwood Spring. We have seen maybe five other backpackers on this trip, but I study the trails for human footprints.
The last ten miles are on jeep trails through a wide canyon. I figure this will be the easiest part of the trip, as it’s downhill and the trail should be relatively easy walking.
But, as if often the case with backpacking, the hard parts surprise you.
After several hours of constant downhills and a shadeless, hot walk, my body starts to ache. My feet start barking at me with every step, and my calves are cooked by the sunlight. I’m anxious to get back to the cars and get to a restaurant for dinner and sort out our plans for the evening, so I push the pace. And that’s a mistake; walking fast in the sun leaves me woozy—dizzy and overheating. We stretch out for a few minutes against a bare bit of rock, no overhang to hide beneath, and set off again at a more modest pace.
When we finally make it back to the cars, sometime after 4 PM, I flop straight down into the front seat and prop my legs on the dashboard. An angry rash stretched from my ankle to my thigh.
I think about running. After a marathon, there’s this remarkable transformation. Just crossing a finish line suddenly makes the most difficult moments distant, and the last mile or two instantly fades and becomes a fuzzy, even slightly pleasant memory.
But finishing a long desert trek in Death Valley feels nothing like that.
In the car, I’m sleepy and achy. The grinding miles in unrelenting desert sun have left me wrung out and exhausted. I can’t even rouse myself to change clothes the way my friends do.
It’s not until later, after I’ve dozed an hour in the car and eaten a veggie burger and a pile of french fries, that my brain starts to disconnect from the pain of the last few slogging miles in the sun. And then I remember all the magical bits: wild horses, an idyllic desert oasis, zebra-striped rocks forming steep canyons. Even striding out into a gale force windstorm, scaling an 8-foot rock wall, and waking up to find everything frozen seem to add to the magic of the experience.
But the most magical part, by far, was getting to share it with a group of fearless friends who don’t shy away from big challenges. I find the remaining birthday cupcakes in the car and split them with my partner, and they don’t taste stale at all.
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