Death Valley National Park: Mosaic Canyon, In Pursuit of Magic

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Mosaic Canyon follows a fault almost two miles into Tucki Mountain. Actually, the canyon continues farther into the mountain, but at 1.8 miles, an insurmountable fifty-foot dry fall marks the end of a really great hike. Mosaic Canyon is a testament to the power of water written in beautiful stone.

Andrew, Sean, and I arrived at the parking area for Mosaic Canyon at about a quarter to four on February 27. We had traveled some eighty miles from our campsite on Harry Wade Road far near the southern end of Death Valley. Now in the foothills of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells, we were ready for our final adventure of our final full day in Death Valley National Park.

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Down below on the valley floor we could see the tiny spit of civilization of Stovepipe Wells. Beyond, the Grapevine Mountains loomed.

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To the northwest, the Cottonwoods marked the other side of Death Valley.

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Andrew had cell service near the parking area, so while Sean and I pulled on our packs, he had a moment to touch base with his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, Yesi.

Again, the image above undermines my claim that there were quite a lot of people around. Mosaic Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley, or at least the very beginning of it is.

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The approach to the canyon was, unsurprisingly, a path up a broad wash toward the orange flanks of Tucki Mountain.

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As the wash narrowed, the rock walls got more interesting.

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The lower reaches of the rock walls above the canyon entrance’s gravel floor were exceptionally smooth.

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Even the individual rocks in the more rugged patches were smoothed out. The rock is called mosaic breccia, for obvious reasons: it looks like a huge mosaic.

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Farther on, the walls were smoothed to a marble-like finish.

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And not only the walls, but even the little pour-offs were marbleized.

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As we continued up this first narrow section of the canyon, we had plenty of time to admire the marble walls because we were behind a tour bus group of folks getting on in years who were being led very slowly up the canyon. Eventually a line began to form behind them. It made me wonder why the tour guides didn’t have the group step aside and let the other hikers through.

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Eventually, we rose out of the serpentine, marbled section of Mosaic Canyon and were able to pass the tour group.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Above the canyon, Tucki Mountain’s upper slopes glowed as the afternoon advanced.

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We reached a broader, shady section between two deeply striated walls. Beyond, the canyon shone brilliantly.

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The rocks here were a mashed jumbled of colors and layers.

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Suddenly, the canyon opened up dramatically into a small valley with a butte rising in the middle of it.

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Most of the other hikers were continuing to the left of the butte. Sean and I went to the right. Andrew went right on up the butte, providing me with the opportunity to capture one of the very best photos on this site.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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While Andrew took in the view from the top, Sean discovered a piece of stone that looked like a piece of wood…not petrified wood, but as if someone had carved wood out of stone.

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Sean and I ascended a ridge that connected to where Andrew descended the butte. It turned out that the ridge paralleled the little valley with a social trail on its crest. So we three walked along that.

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To the left was the main route of the valley/canyon. To the right was a drop to an alternate path for the raging waters of Mosaic Canyon, which drains some four square miles of Tucki Mountain.

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The far end of the broad section apparently marked the end of the hike for, well, for literally every single other person in Mosaic Canyon. The thing to do, presumably, was to see the marbleized section, reach the amphitheater/valley/broad section, and then just turn right back around.

So from a fairly full parking area and a literal line of people in the first quarter mile of the hike we moved on to another 3.2 miles (out-and-back) of hiking without another human being at all. From crowded to totally alone. It worked for us!

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At close range, the rock formations were beyond beautiful…clearly broken, bent, warped, and pulverized. Deeply, richly colored. Striated. Intricately fissured.

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The canyon narrowed into the shadows. Off the three of us walked in search of beauty.

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Shortly we reached another dramatic section where the water had smoothed out more serpentine paths through the rock.

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And then we hit our first true dry fall.

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Happily, we were able to find an alternate path to the left, up and over some huge boulders and along another water-carved channel, and then back to the main path up the canyon.

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Now the canyon got really fun. Next up was an easily climbed, short dry fall sculpted and smoothed into the rock.

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Above it, the canyon narrowed and the walls rose.

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Then it widened again into a smooth path.

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We knew a forty-foot dry fall was coming.

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Sure enough, we came upon an arrow of stones indicating the path that led up and around the dry fall.

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The mind-blowing part about the dry fall was that it appeared to fall sideways.

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Just imagine the violence of the water roaring down the canyon when it was in flood.

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We backtracked from the dry fall to the path up and around it.

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As we were hiking, we heard a roar reverberate through the canyon. We wondered if it was a low-flying plane on some sort of emergency search or something.

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But it turned out the be the sound of a very high airliner. Somehow, the acoustics made it feel as if it were going to appear right overhead. Weird.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean waited while Andrew and I checked out the dry fall from above.

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The jumble of rocks was almost as disorienting as the height.

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We turned around and gazed up the last navigable stretch of Mosaic Canyon.

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The underlying rock here was as dramatic as the shapes the water had carved it into. Throughout the hike, the three of us were commenting on which of the many hues of rock Andrew should get for the kitchen countertops in his condo.

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We scrambled up a series of low sloping falls. On the way back, we slid down a few of them like kids on playground slides.

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The glow on Tucki Mountain beckoned us ever further on up Mosaic Canyon.

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We turned corner and hit another dry fall. This time the route around was indicated by a figure fashioned from maize. Suddenly, that this was the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone came barreling down on us.

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The little figure felt genuinely mysterious.

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Around the dry fall we went.

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The canyon opened up again under the glorious patterns of Tucki Mountain. The glow was leaving them, though, as the sun dropped out of the afternoon.

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Barrel Cactus

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And then we reached the end, the fifty-foot dry fall 1.8 miles from the parking area.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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From the parking lot to the dry fall, the hike had taken us about an hour and twenty minutes.

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There was no way up, so we had to turn around and begin our hike out.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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On the way back, instead of Tucki Mountain, we were treated to occasional glimpses of Death Valley and its framing mountains as evening came on.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

It was the Grapevines’ turn to glow in the dying light.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Back in the abandoned amphitheater, we were surprised to find a trio of seniors slowly making their way up the canyon. It was quarter to six, and the light was fading fast. We advised them that they should make their way back out of the canyon. I think they were incredulous. Hopefully, they decided to turn around. Particularly since they appeared to have no gear at all (not even a flashlight). Even we three, over-prepared with water, food, flashlights, etc. were hustling to get out of Mosaic Canyon before it got genuinely dark.

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Image: Andrew Zalewski

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Descending the final, marbleized section was way more fun without all the other people.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The whole hike took a bit over two hours.

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We emerged above a Death Valley that was pulling evening over itself. Far to the north, it was raining, but over the central section where we were, it was still clear. We hoped it would remain so all night.

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On the back of the trailhead sign, someone had graffitied “In Pursuit Of Magic” in white spray paint that glowed in the twilight.

Indeed.

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Venus was out, and so was a sliver of the waxing moon.

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We climbed into the Jeep and drove on down to Stovepipe Wells where we bought some wine for the final evening and topped off the gas tank.

In this part of Death Valley, the dirt road out to Cottonwood Canyon in the eastern slopes of the Cottonwood Mountains was the only place where off-road camping was permitted, but not for the first 8.4 miles of the road out of Stovepipe Wells. So we bumped along the road as the darkness grew intense around us. As we went, we noticed a few illegal campsites, including one that had a campfire, which wasn’t ever allowed in the backcountry.

As we approached the 8.4-mile point, we began to watch for good sites. Then we turned a corner and saw that there were other campers here between the camping-allowed line and the point where the road entered the canyon. We kept going around another corner or two until we came to a secluded spot adjacent to a wash.

Andrew pulled the Jeep off the road (or what we assumed was the road…it was hard to tell) and we climbed out. It looked like a good, flat sandy spot. We moved a few boulders out of the way, and set up our final camp. Again, we’d have to wait until morning to see the scenery.

This was also our final night on our final trip with our original little tent that we’d gotten in 2011 for our backpack trip to Isle Royale. It had been with us in the Alaskan tundra and the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a desert island in the Gulf of Mexico, and the rim of the Grand Canyon. And now it was saying goodbye on the floor of Death Valley. Perhaps it will join us again someday, used by our kids.

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It was a very pleasant final evening. We talked and talked, drank wine, wrote some postcards, and planned future trips together, including Arches and Canyonlands and, for my 40th birthday in November 2018, Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Canyons.

Then, wine warm and happily filled with adventure and friendship, we climbed into our tents and went to sleep.

 

One thought on “Death Valley National Park: Mosaic Canyon, In Pursuit of Magic

  1. Pingback: Death Valley National Park: A Final Sunrise…Canyon…View…Before Farewell | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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