Friday, April 28, 2017

Death Valley Cottonwood and Marble Canyons Loop

April 20-24, 2017

Cottonwood and Marble track link

First afternoon bird list link

Sunday morning fallout bird list link

Our first backpacking trip of the season and what a great one it was. Our friends Chris and Rosie had invited us on their annual trek to Cottonwood Springs for the bird migration spectacle in years past but we couldn't fit it in. This year was to be the one, and it won't be our last. What spectacular country and excellent birding! And since we were in the area we decided to continue on to the famous Marble Canyon and complete the loop after a couple days of bird watching and exploring.

Other friends, Joan and Alden, and Kay joined the group to make 7. With two vehicles and Alden's expert knowledge of the jeep roads we were able to stage our car at the end of Marble Canyon to save us from many long hot (and less interesting) hiking miles at the end. We were on the trail up Cottonwood Canyon by 11am for the leisurely 5 mile hike to the extensive cottonwood and willow riparian area and our home for the next several days.

Water in the desert is always a treat (and life saving!) for us humans and migrating birds. With over half a mile of continuous forest in a sea of desert scrub, Cottonwood is a magnet for migrating birds and has its fair share of resident birds too. Right away we had singing Bewick's Wren, Lazuli Bunting, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and others. While most of us were setting up camp Chris and Susan were out scouting the birds. A screaming from up-canyon alerted us that the two had turned up something good. Chris spotted a raptor cruising the canyon - a Zone-tailed Hawk! This is only (I think) the fifth record for Inyo County. What a start to the trip!

Death Valley Monkey Flower, also called rock midget. We located it on the drive in. A tough one to find. 

Riding in Alden's truck to the trailhead

Time to hike!

Extensive Cottonwood and willow forest as we approach the spring

Our camp pony. Wild horses still occupy Death Valley NP

Our camp mascot
The next two days would be for birding the forest around the spring and some casual day hiking to local areas of interest. Friday we hiked a couple of miles to the south to see some petroglyphs.

Mimulus flower on the desert floor

The Cottonwood Spring riparian forest seen from a distance



Our pony is still hanging around
Saturday we birded the forest early than went for a walk to another spring to the west for lunch. On the return Alden took us to a historic find he made years ago. The steamer trunk was built back in the 1860's. If only we could know the story of how it came to rest on this lonely outcropping of rock.

Black-throated Sparrow nest

giant four o'clock

Lots of algae in the water but it was clear and cool

Seep Monkeyflower

Bigelow's monkeyflower

The lunch crowd

Aldens 1860's steamer trunk

Cottonwood Spring in the distance
A stiff wind came up overnight and we awoke Sunday morning to a fantastic bird migration spectacle. Chris was up early and was soon kicking everyone out of their tents - BIRDS! Passerine species migrate at night, usually at high altitude. When they face a headwind and a rising land feature such as Cottonwood Canyon, many are forced to near the ground. This is great for birders who can stand in one place and watch the birds stream by. There were so many that it was impossible to count them all to individuals or even species. Hundreds of warblers, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks, you name it. It was awesome.

This was moving days, so as the migration event calmed down we all packed up for the next adventure. Chris, Rosie, Alden, and Joan all had to return to civilization, but Kay, Susan and I were moving on to complete the Marble Canyon Loop over the next two days. Today we would hike up Cottonwood Canyon and cross over into Dead Horse Canyon and the spring located there for the night. The hiking was great and we had a pleasant traverse of the approximately 6 miles, ending our day in the shade of a large cottonwood tree occupied by an active Cooper's Hawk nesting pair. Water was close by so we were set for the evening. 

Old signs along the way from the mining days of long ago

Heading up Cottonwood Canyon

Looking back

From the crest between canyons we could see all the way to the Grapevine Mountains across Death Valley

Prince's Plume

From the ridge, our first look down into Dead Horse Canyon and the spring below

Mojave Aster

Looking down on Dead Horse Spring

The final descent

It was our final day but we knew it would be special. We would complete the loop hike through the famed Marble Canyon. After negotiating a dry waterfall a few hundred yards downstream from camp, it was easy walking down the canyon with good footing all the way. As Dead Horse Canyon intersected Marble Canyon we turned up Marble for a few minutes to have a look around. I'm sure there's lots of spectacular exploring to be done up there some day. Continuing down Marble Canyon we moved through the three map-named narrows sections. Each had its own character and rock formations and were spectacular. We stopped just before the middle narrows and had lunch at the appropriately named Lunch Petroglyphs. 

Susan goes down the upper dry waterfall, then thinks better of the lower portion

Kay scrambling a bit on the waterfall

Bob scrambles down the first section

Getting up to the goat trail

After the aborted attempt to downclimb the waterfall, we took a goat trail up and over

Bob brings the packs down from the goat trail

The dry waterfall that we avoided

 penstemon, perhaps Desert or Death Valley Penstemon

Mud from flash floods of the past is high up the canyon walls

Desert Calico
Death Valley Sage, salvia funerea

Rock Nettle

Rock Nettle

Prince's Plume

phacilia sp

phacilia sp

Lunch Petroglyphs

Desert Five-spot

The middle narrows were the most spectacular with high vertical walls. This would be a bad place to be caught in a flash flood! After the lower narrows the canyon spreads rapidly and all too soon we found our car waiting for us at the end of the jeep road. It was a great trip, made even better by spectacular birding and wonderful friends. We will be back!

Heading in to the middle narrows

The Chock Stone. Thankfully there was an easy route around.
The scale is about 15 feet from bottom to top

The start of the lower narrows

The end of the canyon, start of the road

A happy bunch!