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Upper Mosaic Canyon
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park
upper mosaic canyon
Above the lower narrows, the canyon opens up to reveal the high ridges that border Mosaic Canyon (view southeast)

Overview

This 1.8-mile hike runs up into the Death Valley Wilderness Area and involves scrambling up a narrow, water-polished, marble canyon to a 25-ft pour-over that marks the end of the official trail (1.3 miles out). Walking in the canyon is moderately strenuous, but the tread is firm and fairly easy to walk on, and it is less steep than is typical for gravel washes. The 25-ft pour-over can be passed, but progress is blocked about 0.5 miles farther up by a 30-ft pour-over. The narrows in the first quarter-mile of the hike are the most spectacular in the canyon, so if you don't hike the entire canyon, at least see the lower part; which alone is worth the trip.

Link to map or elevation profile.

upper mosaic canyon
The "boulder pour-over." The easiest way to pass this jumble of boulders is to scramble up the side of the canyon just left of this photo and go behind the boulders (view south).

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...the hike to the first pour-over is pretty safe, but stay out of the canyon if rain threatens because of flash flood dangers. There are several small pour-overs and scramble-ups in the canyon that are easy to pass, but the rock is water-polished, slick, and covered with dust and gravel, so there is greater than usual risk if slipping. The most obvious way to pass the 25-ft pour-over involves a bit of 3rd-class climbing (which is to say, fairly easy), but be careful or use the longer use-trail.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and please try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, this is a moderately long hike, so be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

upper mosaic canyon
Looking up a straight section of wash at the 25-foot pour-over and the end of the official trail. To pass this fall, scramble up the gully to the right of this point to a good trail (view east).

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located in Death Valley National Park, about 3.5 hours northwest of Las Vegas.

From town, drive out to Death Valley. From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center (Table 1, Site 712), drive north on Highway 190 for 24 miles to Stovepipe Wells (Site 751). Continue west on Highway 190 for another 0.25 miles to Mosaic Canyon Road (Site 750), a graded dirt road. Turn south (left) onto Mosaic Canyon Road, and drive for 2.3 miles to the end of the road at the edge of the mountains (Site 749). Park here; this is the trailhead.

upper mosaic canyon
Above the 25-foot pour-over, looking back down the use-trail. The faint trail to the right leads to a short 3rd-class climb (view west).

The Hike

From the trailhead (Table 2, Waypoint 01), hike up the wash into the canyon. About 0.20 miles from the trailhead, the route enters the first narrows where the rock is water-sculpted and water-polished, and there are many examples of the marble mosaic in the walls of the canyon. For details on this part of the canyon, see the Lower Mosaic Canyon Trail.

upper mosaic canyon
Looking down from the top of the 25-foot pour-over (view west).
Near the top of the first narrows, 0.27 miles out, the canyon bends sharply to the east (left) (Wpt. 02). Shortly above the bend, the canyon abruptly opens to about 200-yards wide (Wpt. 03). The sides of the canyon here are the high mountains (dark, desert varnished rocks). On the north (left) side of the canyon, the colors are quite spectacular with light-colored marble, brown, dark gray layers, orange, purple, a big swatch of green, reddish tan, light tan, purple, and dark reddish brown. In the wash, pygmy cedar, prickly penstemon, desert holly, and creosote bush are common.

Continuing on, the canyon slowly bends back to the south (right) and begins to narrow again to about 40-ft wide, but here the sides are laid back and it is not a slot canyon. Farther up, this section gets narrower, and the route arrives at a pour-over formed of boulders that fell and blocked the canyon (Wpt. 04). This is about 1.2 miles from the trailhead. To get around the pour-over, go back down the canyon a few feet to a place on the east side (left on the way up) where you can do a minimally 3rd-class scramble-up behind some big boulders to a passage that leads through a little slot and around the pour-over.

upper mosaic canyon
A straight, water-polished section of wash. The 25-foot pour-over is at the base of the red hillside straight down the wash (view north).
Above the pour-over, the route passes several water-polished 2nd-class scramble-ups. Just above the scramble-ups, the canyon takes a couple of little jogs, then bends east and runs straight for about 100 yards to the 25-ft pour-over that marks the end of the official route (1.3 miles out). From the bend (Wpt. 05), you can see the pour-over, but before leaving this corner, look for the use-trail that cuts up the gully above of you; this is the safest way to bypass the pour-over.

Continue on to the pour-over. The wall of the canyon on the north side overhangs the bottom of the wash, making this an interesting section of trail. The pour-over is capped by a big flat rock, and water seems to mostly run down the side of the wall, but a flash flood rolling over the main pour-over would be something to see.

upper mosaic canyon
Water polished rock (view northwest).

At this point, the end of the official route, either return to the trailhead or continue on to the 30-ft pour-over, which is another 0.5 miles up the canyon.

Continuing on, walk back down the bend (Wpt. 05) in the canyon and hike up the use-trail through a gully of broken boulders. The use-trail cuts up steeply, then runs out more-or-less level and parallel to the wash.

Walking out the level use-trail, you can see that the canyon ahead bends sharply to the south (right) just past the 25-ft pour-over. On the corner of the bend, just above the pour-over, the use-trail forks. Take the fork down into the wash. The other fork runs along ledges and dirt slopes high above the wash for a fair ways up the canyon. This route eventually is blocked by cliffs, where hikers are forced to downclimb a sloping, dirty, 3rd-class cliff face. There are many places to cut down to the wash; pick any place to cut down, but don't wait until the end. It probably is best to just cut down to the top of the pour-over; besides, you will want to look down from the top of the pour-over.

upper mosaic canyon
30-foot pour-over blocking the canyon (view south).

Above the 25-ft pour-over, the canyon runs straight south for about 0.2 miles. Along the upper part of the straight section, there are several more water-polished scramble-ups. The canyon then hooks to the east and runs up into more narrows.

After the bend to the east, there is another narrow spot with another little water-polished pour-over that you can climb up or climb around on the north side. After this little pour-over, the canyon bends to the south again, and you quickly arrive at the 30-ft pour-over and the end of the hike (Wpt. 06), which is about 1.8 miles from the trailhead.

At the pour-over, rest and relax in the cool shade, then head back down to the trailhead following your footprints.

Starting back down, just before the first bend in the canyon, notice a steep use-trail running up the northeast side of the canyon. I did not follow this trail, but Claire B. (2011) comments: it links with a trail that bypasses the 2nd and 3rd narrows. Definitely not recommended unless you are sure-footed and don't mind steep, exposed trails on talus slopes. We turned back a little beyond where the use-trail disappears from view from the canyon floor.

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

Site # Location Latitude (N) Longitude (W) Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Verified
0712 Furnace Creek Visitor Center 36.46159 116.86574 512030 4034954 -186 Yes
0749 Mosaic Canyon Parking 36.57194 117.14349 487161 4047195 942 Yes
0750 Hwy 190 at Mosaic Canyon Rd 36.60457 117.14758 486801 4050816 32 Yes
0751 Hwy 190 at Stovepipe Wells 36.60654 117.14594 486948 4051034 0 Yes

Table 2. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27, UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Verified
01 Mosaic Canyon trailhead 487161 4047196 942 GPS
02 Top of first narrows 487206 4046796 1,122 GPS
03 Canyon abruptly widens 487560 4046783 1,213 GPS
04 Pour-over formed by boulders 488195 4046063 1,655 GPS
05 End of official route 488244 4045945 1,688 GPS
06 30-ft pour-over 488795 4045420 2,200 Map

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 110327

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