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Cairn Canyon
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park, Death Valley Wilderness Area
Cairn Canyon
Cairn Canyon
From trailhead, use binoculars to identify Cairn Canyon (view SE)

Overview

The hike up Cairn Canyon is a somewhat arduous, but pleasant and geologically interesting, 10-mile round-trip hike in the Death Valley Wilderness Area. The route runs off-trail up Emigrant Wash, then turns to climb the bajada towards the mouth of Cairn Canyon. A slight detour leads past historic telephone wires. In the canyon, the route trudges up the broad wash for 2 miles to the narrows. For the next 1-1/3 miles, the route winds about and climbs several pour-overs, some challenging, but none are too dangerous. Higher in the canyon, a series of pour-overs leads to "stretched pebbles" and wondrously contorted geology. The cairns are an afterthought for the hike down.

Link to topographic map.

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ... hiking in the lower canyon is quite safe. Passing the pour-overs requires good 3rd-Class and 4th-Class rock scrambling skills, but the rock if firm and usually with plenty of hand- and foot-holds. Most hikers wouldn't want a belay rope on the pour-overs.

Cairn Canyon
Emigrant Wash (view S)

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. This hike is in a wild and remote area, so be sure to bring the 10 Essentials. Also, the route is almost entirely within the Death Valley Wilderness Area, so pay particular attention to respecting the land and the historic objects along the route.

 

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located in Death Valley National Park, about 2-1/2 hours northwest of Las Vegas. Drive west on Highway 190 to a dirt pullout where Emigrant Wash crosses the highway, 14.5 miles west of Stovepipe Wells. Link to Cairn Canyon Trailhead.

Cairn Canyon
Notice the low alluvial bluff on the right (view SE)

The Hike

From the trailhead (Table 1, Waypoint 01), the route runs up Emigrant Wash. At about 0.4 miles out (Wpt. 02), hikers will notice a low bluff of alluvial materials (Wpt. 03) ahead on the left. Cairn Canyon Wash comes down along the north edge of the low alluvial bluff.

Hikers may wish, however, to walk up another wash to see the historic Rhyolite-Skidoo telephone wires. If so, turn left into a wash about 100 yards north of the low alluvial bluff. Following this alternative wash leads to where the wires can be seen lying on the ground (Wpt. 3A). Taking either wash, hikers trudging uphill on the alluvial fan will eventually reach the mouth of Cairn Canyon (Wpt. 04).

In Cairn Canyon, the wash runs fairly straight for about 0.3 miles, then bends slightly to the right (south) and continues straight another 0.50 miles to a solitary boulder (Wpt. 05 ) on the right side of the wash where the canyon again curves slightly to the right. The solitary boulder, "5-Mile Rock," marks 2.5 miles from the trailhead, making a visit to this point a 5-mile round-trip hike.

Cairn Canyon
Cairn Canyon Wash (view SE)

The canyon again runs fairly straight for 0.75 miles, then takes a jog to the left, and in another 0.4 miles the canyon narrows (Wpt. 06). A bit farther in, the canyon constricts and hikers are forced to climb several water-polished pour-overs.

After a well deserved rest atop the pour-overs, the canyon continues as it winds about easy at first, but then encounters another interesting section of pour-overs. Hikers might look for a bighorn sheep skull atop these pour-overs. Then shortly, another set of interesting pour-overs leads into an area of strikingly polished, highly folded and contorted "stretched pebble" metamorphic rock. At 5 miles out and with the challenging pour-overs apparently behind, this makes a good place for day-hikers to turn around and return to the trailhead.

On the way down, after leaving the narrows and pour-overs behind, watch the skyline on the south side of the canyon for large cairns on the ridgeline. These appear to be historic mining claim markers that mark out an area that runs south quite a ways from the ridge overlooking the wash, but the exact purpose is unclear.

Cairn Canyon
Historic telephone wires
Cairn Canyon
Historic telephone wire
Cairn Canyon
Entering the mouth of Cairn Canyon (view SE)
Cairn Canyon
5-Mile Rock (view SE)
Cairn Canyon
Canyon begins to narrow (view SE)
Cairn Canyon
Canyon finally begin to get narrow (view SE)
Cairn Canyon
Start of the pour-overs (view N)
Cairn Canyon
Pour-overs (view N)
Cairn Canyon
Pour-overs (view N)
Cairn Canyon
Beyond first set of pour-overs
Cairn Canyon
Main wash stays left at a fork (view N)
Cairn Canyon
More open canyon (view E)
Cairn Canyon
Canyon pinches down again (view E)
Cairn Canyon
Hikers climbing a series of interesting pour-overs
Cairn Canyon
A short bit of open canyon (view E)
Cairn Canyon
A not-so-stretched pebble in the canyon wall
Cairn Canyon
Fork in the canyon (view SE; straight into side canyon)
Cairn Canyon
Fork in the canyon (view NE; left for main canyon)
Cairn Canyon
Bent and stretched stretched pebbles
Cairn Canyon
Bent and stretched stretched pebbles
Cairn Canyon
Not-so-stretched stretched pebbles
Cairn Canyon
Bent and stretched stretched pebbles
Cairn CanyonCairn on the skyline (view W) Cairn Canyon
Cairn on the skyline overlooking Cairn Canyon (view NW)
Cairn Canyon
Cairn on the skyline overlooking Cairn Canyon (view SE)
Cairn Canyon
Cairn on the skyline overlooking Cairn Canyon (view NW)
Cairn Canyon

Table 1. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance (mi) Cumulative Distance (mi) Verified
01 Trailhead 480626 4042855 1,366 0.00 0.00 GPS
02 Depart Main Wash 480649 4042239 1,522 0.42 0.42 GPS
03 Wash 480714 4042128 1,549 0.09 0.51 GPS
03A Historic Telephone Wires 481300 4041601 1,710 . . GPS
04 Mouth of Canyon 481620 4040844 1,967 1.05 1.56 GPS
05 5-Mile Rock 482777 4040041 2,350 0.92 2.48 GPS
06 Start of Narrow Canyon 483824 4038716 2,873 1.17 3.65 GPS
07 Pour-Overs 484275 4038622 3,130 0.38 4.03 GPS
08 Bighorn Skull 485077 4038988 3,585 0.88 4.91 GPS
09 Polished Stretched Pebbles 485234 4038933 3,746 0.15 5.06 GPS
01 Trailhead 480626 4042855 1,366 5.06 10.12 GPS

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 141109

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