Mosaic Canyon – Death Valley National Park, CA

On our second day of hiking with Trail Mavens, we visit Mosaic Canyon for a four-mile out-and-back hike to a beautiful dryfall. The National Park Service describes it as a moderate hike, which I think is accurate. The 1,200 elevation gain may seem significant but is a steady climb with periodic rock scrambles over boulders and dryfalls so it doesn’t feel particularly arduous.

As we enter the canyon, the trail is a wide space between high canyon walls. It quickly narrows within the first quarter mile and we can touch the pale, yellowish gray walls of dolomite around us. The ground is slippery in many places, marble that has been polished smooth by centuries of flash floods. The other notable geographical formation is the breccia, various types of rock trapped in a natural cement like a mosaic, which give the canyon its name.

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The terrain is natural because it area is designated wilderness. Wilderness has been defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as land “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primary by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” (For a more philosophical take on the definition of wilderness, I recommend the She Explores podcast Episode 48: Where is Wilderness).

Most of Death Valley National Park is wilderness with 91 percent of the land between roads and parking lots left in a natural state. It is the largest area of designated wilderness in the contiguous United States – a total of 3,102,456 acres. Today, there is a total of 109 million acres of federally protected wilderness in the United States. Though that number may seem large, it is only about 5 percent of land in the country.

After just over a mile, we came to the boulder jam. At first glance, it seems impassable. But following the trail to the left, we reach the second narrows.

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In the narrows, there are a number of short dryfalls. They are steep and slick, with few footholds to help us boost ourselves over. I saw a number of different ways of getting over them. Some people grab at the top and heave themselves over; others get a running start and literally run up the falls by bouncing from one narrow wall to the other. One woman in our group comes up with the ingenious method of “the shuffle”. She wedges herself into the space with her behind against one wall and her feet bracing against another then shuffles herself up to the ledge of the dryfall. I think it’s a particularly easy method, especially for someone like me without the upper body strength to heavy myself over the smooth incline, and its worth the extra dust on my pants.

Beyond the second set of narrows, we reach another wall. Literally. We reach a 20-foot dryfall that blocks our path. After backtracking down the canyon, we’re able to find the trail that leads us up the canyon into the next set of narrows. The National Park Service warns that this section may cause those with a fear of heights to turn back as the trail rises 40 feet above the canyon floor. Personally, I’m not overly fond of heights but am able to push through without much difficulty.

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After passing through the third and final set of narrows, we reach the end of the trail – a 25-foot dryfall. The National Park Service calls it a “dramatic amphitheater” and it is a fitting description.

We avoid the rim trails and return the way we came. The dryfalls present technical challenge going down as well. Without many footholds, we hold onto any edges we can find in the canyon walls to steady our descent. We often help each other by offering a hand, holding a pack, or pointing out safe places to step. Some people take advantage of the smooth marble and slide down. It’s certainly fun. But I will caution it’s not necessarily safe and does come with the added risk of catching your clothes on a nearby rock and tearing a new bum flap in your hiking pants.

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Looking back on the Mosaic Canyon hike, I think the moderate description was fitting. There were technical aspects to the hike, particularly the dryfalls, but they weren’t particularly difficult and added some interest to the hike. I particularly enjoyed doing the hike in a group. Climbing up and down over the rocks provided a wonderful opportunity to collaborate and help each other through the hike. I barely noticed the elevation change. I hadn’t realized how significant it was until the end, when our guide informed us it was 1,200 feet. For reference, that is the same height as the Bank of America Tower, the 4th largest building in New York City. It is a hike I would happily do again.

 

We have not received any compensation from Trail Mavens or She Explores for this post. We just really liked hiking with Trail Mavens and enjoy listening to the She Explores podcast and would recommend them both.