If you like narrows, rock art, fossils, or all three, put Marble Canyon on your preferred list when visiting Death Valley. Whether you’re driving along the scenic 4x4 canyon road or hiking the remote narrows within the Cottonwood Mountains, here one can see the ancient petroglyphs adorning the canyon walls that rank among the most elaborate in all of Death Valley.
Just west of Stovepipe Wells on Highway 190 is the 8.6 miles of desert road that leads to the edge of the Cottonwood Wash. From the parking area a high clearance vehicle or 4x4 vehicle is recommended. From this point the road turns north up the wash for 2.2 miles to a road junction. Follow the road to the right that will continue to Marble Canyon.
If you are lucky enough to be a passenger, the rock formation, flowers and those impeccable distant views can occupy your time. But with the responsibility of driving, I can now practice the skill of dogging rocks and boulders that just happen to be sitting on this colorful but historic road.
From this junction, the first narrows or our trailhead into the lower Marble Canyon is only 2.6 miles to the west. Many visitors come to Marble Canyon just to see the petroglyphs. These prehistoric figures were pecked on smooth rock surfaces by the Aboriginals centuries ago. Keep in mind this journey from the trailhead is another mile before viewing the first few petroglyphs that remain today.
To anyone who enjoys art, this is a special place. There are beautiful figures to be found, from abstract drawings such as pregnant bighorn sheep to lizards, desert foxes, human figures, and finely crafted birds. Also pecked on one canyon wall is a very faint historical inscription of the date “1849” with the initials “JB” mixed with petroglyphs.
Could this have been one of the men of the ill-fated Savage-Penney Party? This was a group of immigrants who split from the Jayhawkers and left Death Valley at the end of 1849. These 12 men were among the first to see Death Valley and only two are known to have reached the coast.
After entering the first narrows and for the next mile, you’ll be walking through a colorful corridor framed by sheer high walls. Along the way there is an interesting side canyon with falls, thick limestone beds loaded with black chert nodules and overhangs with welcome shade. The first narrows ends with a huge quartz monzonite chockstone wedged between the canyon walls. There is a make-shift trail that leads over and around this natural blockage and drops back to the beginning of the second narrows.
The second narrows are the most impressive within this canyon. They gradually deepen, than open up for a short distance, than tighten again. The polished walls continue high above the wash and open to a smooth contorted passage. For the next hundred feet or so we walked through a dim, cool and naked world where the light continuously changes through the day.
After .04 of a mile, the second narrows ends and this wash opens up to an impressive extended open canyon. On the left perched on an elevated sandbar was an ideal campsite location. We set up our camp and with a few hours of daylight remaining, we continued exploring the main wash.
The third narrows was another 2.4 miles following this same wash. Knowing we were lacking daylight to complete this round-trip, we decided to slow our progress and search the smooth rocks for petroglyphs along these canyon walls. Luck was hiking with us this evening and our camera’s captured another historical petroglyph site.
The following morning we decided to hike past those images we found yesterday evening and ignore the second narrows, and hike the large canyon to the north. This change of plans will conserve our water supply to complete this adventure.
Once again, luck was following us, because within this northern canyon imbedded in the rocks, were fossils - mostly fragments of crinoids and gastropods fossils located on the polished slanted walls of dark dolomite rock. There were a new fossils imbedded in large rocks lying on the canyon floor. What a photo opportunity.
Our morning was complete and now to double back to our camp and continue our hiking adventure back to the trailhead. Waiting inside my Jeep was my ice-filled cooler with cool liquid refreshments. Isn’t this the only way to end a successful hiking adventure in Death Valley?