Going all the way in Mosaic Canyon

Going all the way in Mosaic Canyon

We’re back in Death Valley and it feels both like we’ve never left and like it’s our first visit. The great thing about being able to return to the same place for the third time is that we can pick up where we left off in spots like Mosaic Canyon. On our first visit, we hiked about a half mile into Mosaic Canyon at sunset and were very sad to have to turn around. This time, we were determined to hike as far in as possible, so we started up early one morning.

The first quarter mile is very popular — it’s a narrow section of canyon with walls made up of a yellow-pink-white striped marble and a composite of rocks and mud called breccia. The marble and breccia have been carved into beautiful curves and patterns by many years of flash floods. After the initial narrows, the canyon opens up and most people assume that’s all there is to it. On our first visit, we met a group of young, confused looking tourists. One asked me, “what are we supposed to do here?” I said, “well, you walk in as far as you want, then you turn around and walk back.” I was trying to be nice; I figured something must have been lost in translation. She wasn’t asking me to explain hiking to her, was she? “Oh,” she said, “that’s it?”

If you plod on through the open section of the canyon, up the main wash, in another quarter mile you’ll get back to a fun, narrow, scrabbly section. It starts off quickly, with a bunch of short scrambles, first up and around a pile of boulders (take your time – I practically tore my groin muscle on the way out trying to bear hug these rocks!). After the boulders, the canyon twists and turns through narrowing marble walls. The variety of colors and textures of rock is different than what you’ll find the lower section. There’s still a lot of breccia, but the marble is now a blend of purple, grey, brown, and white in patterns that look like anything from layer cake to wood grain.

About another mile after the canyon narrows for the second time, you hit the first dryfall. It’s about twenty feet tall, and it’s tilted at a 60 degree angle. You think you should be able to walk up it, but don’t bother. A hundred feet back down the trail there’s a path marked with rock cairns that climbs easily around this obstacle. And then you’re on top! The canyon climbs a bit farther, then splits into two branches: one smaller and one larger. The smaller branch quickly dead ends in a twenty foot dryfall. We thought we could get up and around, but the rock was very loose and the slope just a bit too steep.

The larger branch dead ends into an imposing dryfall, a narrow opening in a half-bowl of sheer rock about thirty feet above our heads. After getting so far, we were disappointed to not be able to continue farther. When you get to a dryfall and you can see the canyon open up again above, you just want to get up there. It makes you think that the best stuff is still up ahead, if only you could get up there to see it!

On the way back down, you’ll be looking for more side canyons to explore, and you’ll be in luck. The ones you passed by in the open section of the canyon are still there, waiting. They’re not as exciting as the upper canyon, but they’re a good way to prolong your hike. And, if you can find a way to scramble down, there’s a whole other wash that butts up against the Mosaic Canyon wash to the west of the open section. We’re leaving that one until next time.