Mosaic Canyon Death Valley

Marble Set in Time

by Curtis Von Fange

California Highway 190, a black ribbon of pavement, descends along the edge of the Tucki Mountains into Emigrant Wash, meandering precariously along the ridge overlooking the west side of Death Valley. It reminded me of a black snake roiling amongst the rocks.

As I drove down Highway 190, ancient mountain ranges and vast emptiness stretched as far as I could see. Periodically, the road crossed an alluvial fan, rocky evidence of one of the washes or canyons that lace the mountain framework. Invariably, each canyon, dark and foreboding, quickly disappeared behind the bend. Part of the beauty of Death Valley isn’t what is obvious. It’s what’s hidden.

Mosaic Canyon is one of those secluded wonders.

Stovepipe Wells Store

The small outpost of Stovepipe Wells lies on the western slope of Death Valley National Park. The huge mountains of the Tucki range almost seem to nudge the village toward the valley floor. Just west of town, on the south side of Highway 190, is a small graded dirt road that climbs up a huge alluvial fan towards the mountain base. The road, three miles long, can be traversed by automobile. It has ruts. It is dusty. Its washboard surface will jar your teeth. But the mouth of Mosaic Canyon awaits at the end, well worth the bone-rattling drive to the top.

Mosaic Canyon, and most other canyons in Death Valley, were formed in a unique manner. Eons ago, during the Paleozoic Era, a vast sea covered the area. The sea deposited layers of sediment embedded with fossils of marine life. Over time, the sediments compressed into limestone and a related calcium-magnesium carbonate called dolomite. Pressure and heat transformed the stone into the metamorphic rock we call marble. Volcanic action heaved the beds into mountain ranges, folding the marble layers.

Geologic faulting created cracks which would channel water. The valley floor settled, creating a deep basin known as a "half-graben." (In geologic terms, a "graben" is a structural channel.) Water, flowing through the fault channels, eroded massive amounts of rock and debris from the mountains, transporting the material to the valley floor, filling it to its present level. The fault cracks, though, played the defining role in creating the narrow, steep walled canyons unique to the area.

I parked at Mosaic Canyon’s mouth and hiked upstream. There was a wide water shed where the water flow fanned out and deposited debris. The flow area was defined by small rock hills that looked a lot like artificial levees. Within a quarter mile, the channel narrowed abruptly. It reminded me of an axe cleft left in a piece of wood. As I penetrated into the canyon, the walls narrowed, and the pathway grew steeper. Polished walls of marble ascended toward the sky. Countless floods had ground and polished many sections of banded, marble-like rock, which was mixed with colorful mosaic patches of agglomerated fragments. The marble contained angular shards of rock which were as intricately patterned as the tile floor of an ancient Roman bath. As I hiked into the canyon, its wall grew steeper, the pathway more narrow still, more winding.

canyonTwenty or 30 feet up the marble wall, I could see tree debris and stone clinging precariously—the high water mark of the last flash flood. It reminded me that when hiking the deep canyons of the valley, it is wise to inquire ahead of time at the ranger station about weather conditions. Storms miles away can cause a flash flood at the outlet of canyons such as Mosaic. With no soil to absorb or retard runoff, water rushes down the rock surfaces, collecting in tremendous volumes. It picks up freight-train speeds, moving boulders the size of houses.

I continued up the beautifully carved canyon for three or four hundred yards, to a point where it opened abruptly into a larger wash. Straight ahead, the main canyon continues for a few more miles. To the right, smaller washes and precipices continue for four or five miles. The precipices and boulders become so large and steep that the distance traveled depends on one’s ingenuity and love (or hate) of heights. I climbed a series of rocks, ascending 200 feet, to a wonderful view of the western edge of the valley. Far below, I could see cars in the parking area. Across the valley, I could see clouds pouring rain on the high mountains. I looked behind me, half expecting to see similar storms. To my relief, I saw only saw blue sky. A warm, late winter wind blew up from the valley.

The hike up Mosaic Canyon can take at little as 20 or 30 minutes. The ride to the canyon from the turnout near Stovepipe Wells can take as long. Extended trips up the washes beyond the polished marble can take the better part of a day, requiring a hiker to bring drinking water and a good snack. It is well worth the effort.

The secret places in Mosaic Canyon are beautifully scenic, set in silence and solitude, another world. The depths swallow the sunlight, creating a sense of mystery, a reminder of the hidden places of Death Valley.

Where to Stay - for information on lodging, click here.


Death Valley National Park


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