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Cottonwood Wash
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring
Mile 18.2 Trailhead (view S)

Overview

Cottonwood Wash runs through a beautiful, geologically jumbled area for about 1 mile to Cottonwood Spring, then continues another mile to the Confluence of the East and West Forks of Cottonwood Wash. The route runs through volcanic mountains, red sandstone crags, layered limestone mountains, and conglomerate cliffs where blue-gray limestone cobbles are set in a matrix of red sandstone, plus mudstones and siltstones that record ancient lake beds with myriad Cenozoic fossils and ripple marks. The colors in the mudstones and siltstones include grays, tans, reds, yellows, and greens, plus the area has lots of glittery gypsum mixed in. The hike to the spring is a great hike for less adventuresome people and families with young kids, and for hikers so inclined, the easy walking continues up the wash for another mile or so. This hike is entirely within the Pinto Valley Wilderness Area.

Link to map.

Cottonwood Wash
Top of bank overlooking Cottonwood Wash (view S)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...except for crossing the highway, this route is about as safe as they get. There is a low and easy-to-climb pour-over behind Cottonwood Spring, so be careful when high enough to fall and get hurt. Always be aware of the potential for flashfloods. Silverleaf Sunray and California Bearpaw Poppies, species of concern in Nevada, grow in the red-and-white mud hills. Please help protect these plants by staying off the mud hills.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even thought this hike is short, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials. Also, this hike runs into the Pinto Valley Wilderness Area, so pay particular attention to respecting the land.

Cottonwood Spring
Starting up Cottonwood Wash (view SE)

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located along Northshore Road in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about 45 minutes northeast of Las Vegas.

From town, drive out to Lake Mead, then drive north on Northshore Road for about 18.2 miles to the Mile 18.2 Trailhead. Park here; this is the trailhead.

Cottonwood Wash

The Hike

From the trailhead, a use-trail runs south from the western end of the parking area. Carefully crossing the highway, a use-trail can be seen on the south roadcut (Table 1, Waypoint 01). The route runs south on the well-marked use-trail across some nice desert pavement with scattered, stunted creosote bush and white bursage.

After about 0.2 miles, the almost-level use-trail reaches the edge of Cottonwood Wash (Wpt. 02). From here, high above the wash, Cottonwood Spring lies to the left (upstream), and Northshore Road can be seen crossing the wash to the right (downstream). If a hiker missed this obscure turnoff when hiking down the wash, they would just hit the road, so there really is no chance of getting lost in this area.

Cottonwood Wash

The use-trail drops into the wash (Wpt. 03) and crosses to the main "water course" (Wpt. 04), which is fairly broad, smooth, and runs at a gentle grade. The route turns south (left) and runs upstream.

In the wash bottom, more water is available to plants than on the previous desert flats, and species like catclaw acacia, mistletoe, Mormon tea, desert holly, and desert almond are common and robust. Drought-tolerant species like creosote, bursage, and pygmy cedar can be seen beyond the edges of the wash. Farther up canyon in the red-and-white mud hills, rare species like silverleaf sunray and California bearpaw poppies, which are species of concern in Nevada, thrive in the gypsum-rich soils. Please help protect these species by staying off the mud hills.

Cottonwood Spring
Yellow-brown wall with fossils and ripple marks

About halfway to Cottonwood Spring (0.6 miles out), the route passes through Halfway Narrows (Wpt. 05), which were formed by layers of volcanic ash that turned to stone and tilted sideways. Just before the narrows (less than 50 yards), there is a low, fairly smooth, yellow-brown wall on the left side of the wash that is full of recent fossils such as oyster or mussel shells, snail shells, worm tracks, and other identified things. At about the middle of this wall, a little wash comes down the hillside and cuts a notch in the wall. Up in the notch, maybe 20 feet from the bottom of the wash, there are some of the best examples of "fossilized" ripple marks (large, deep, and regular) that I have ever seen. Above the narrows, many worm tracks can be seen in the stone.

At the narrows, the southwest-facing wall holds some nice specimens of barrel cactus, pygmy cedar, Mormon tea, and mesquite growing on sunny side. It is hard to believe that these plants can grow on this sunny rock face, but it is a pretty rock garden.

Cottonwood Spring
Fossils in yellow-brown wall

On the north end of this wall, about 10-15 feet above the wash, there is a set of ripple marks that are larger (wide but shallow) than any I have ever seen. They are so wide (perhaps 18-24 inches) that they don't look like ripple marks until you see the difference between the surface of that layer of stone and the layer that lies above it.

Continuing another 0.2 miles up the wash, which is still running at the same gentle angle, cottonwood trees at the spring come into view.

Just below the spring, the wash forks. The spring is in the left fork, which is obvious because of the cottonwood trees. An old road, the historic Arrowhead Highway, runs up the right fork to bypass a pour-over behind the spring, then loops left and back into the main Cottonwood Wash. Before the Arrowhead Highway starts up the hill, an old radiator water trough lies at the base of a cliff. Old pipes carried water from the spring to the trough. It is interesting to contemplate what it would have been like to drive this "highway" back in the old days.

Cottonwood Spring
Oyster and snail fossils at Halfway Narrows

Continuing to the spring (Wpt. 06), two cottonwood trees against a cliff that is red on the west side (right) and blue-gray conglomerate on the east side (left).

In addition to the cottonwood trees, honey mesquite, arrowweed, and saltbush, plus several desert willows grow at the spring. The ground is moist here, and there is considerable salt built up on the surface of the soil. If there is no water on the surface, look around to see if animals, such as bighorn sheep, dug into the sand to find water.

After resting and enjoying the shade of the cottonwood trees, either wander farther up the wash, which is an easy walk for another mile or so, or follow your footprints back to the trailhead. Above Cottonwood Spring, the canyon continues to run through the same colorful volcanic landscape as below the spring. For details of the canyon above Cottonwood spring, see the Hamblin Mountain route.

From the spring (Wpt. 06), the route continues up the main wash. The short pour-over behind the cottonwood trees is an easy scramble up. Shortly, the route cross a short pour-over and several red-rock fins that cross the wash. Just above this, the Arrowhead Highway (Wpt. 07) rejoins Cottonwood Wash.

Cottonwood Spring Route
Yellow-brown wall with ripple marks (view E)

Hiking up Cottonwood Canyon, several minor washes merge, but the main canyon always is obvious. About 1/2-miles above the spring, however, a major wash, Razorback Wash North, merges from the east (Wpt. 08). The route stays right and continues south.

Following Cottonwood Wash, the canyon narrows to a few feet wide as it cuts through a ridge. Here, the rocks on the right side of the narrows are red sandstone, while the rocks on the left side are blue-gray conglomerate (similar to the cliff at Cottonwood Spring, but orientated at a different angle).

Just beyond the narrows, the wash hits a white mudstone wall (Wpt. 09). The wash splits to the northeast (East Fork of Cottonwood Wash) and southwest (West Fork of Cottonwood Wash), as if it were a T-intersection. The fork to the left follows the Arrowhead Highway over the ridge into Pinto Valley, while the fork to the right is the route to Hamblin Mountain.

Cottonwood Wash
Fossilized ripple marks in the stone
Cottonwood Spring
Yellow-brown wall "garden"
Cottonwood Spring
Halfway Narrows (view SE)
Cottonwood Spring
Halfway Narrows
Cottonwood Spring
First view of cottonwoods at the spring (view SE)
Cottonwood Wash
Approaching Cottonwood Spring (view SE)
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring (view SE)
Cottonwood Spring
Bighorn sheep: life is hard in the desert
Cottonwood Spring
Bighorn skull
Cottonwood Spring
Hole dug by animals to get water (notice salty white crust)
Cottonwood Spring
Water hole dug by animals (hard to see water in shadow)
Cottonwood Spring
Radiator water along the Arrowhead Highway
Cottonwood Spring
Radiator water along the Arrowhead Highway
Cottonwood Spring
Radiator water along the Arrowhead Highway
Cottonwood Spring
Radiator water along the Arrowhead Highway

Upper Cottonwood Wash (above the spring; heading upstream)

Cottonwood Spring
Hikers on pour-over behind the spring
Cottonwood Wash
Cottonwood Wash Cottonwood Wash
Cottonwood Wash
Cottonwood Wash at Razorback Wash North (view E)
Cottonwood Spring
Razorback Wash North (view E from Cottonwood Wash)
Cottonwood Spring
Razorback Wash North (view E from Cottonwood Wash)
Cottonwood Spring
Narrows (view S)
Cottonwood Wash
Narrows (view S)
Cottonwood Spring
Confluence of E & W forks, Cottonwood Wash (view S)
Cottonwood Spring
West Fork, Cottonwood Wash (view W)
Cottonwood Spring
East Fork, Cottonwood Wash (view E)

Lower Cottonwood Wash (below the spring; heading downstream)

Cottonwood Spring Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring
Approaching Halfway Narrows
Cottonwood Spring
A little friend in Halfway Narrows
Cottonwood Spring
Easy hiking
Cottonwood Spring
Silverleaf sunray in mud hills
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Wash (view NW on the way back)
Cottonwood Spring
Easy hiking
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Wash near trailhead (view NW on the way back)
Cottonwood Spring
Desert pavement (view N approaching trailhead)

Upper Cottonwood Wash (above the spring; heading downstream)

Cottonwood Spring
Descending from confluence of E & W forks (view N)
Cottonwood Spring
Hiker descending Cottonwood Wash (view N)
Cottonwood Spring
Hikers approaching narrows (view N)
Cottonwood Spring
Hikers entering narrows (view N)
Cottonwood Spring
Hikers approaching Razorback Wash North (view N)
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Wash at Razorback Wash North (view N)
Cottonwood Spring Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring
Approaching Cottonwood Spring from above (view NW)
Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring from above (view NW)

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 710745 4009664 1,965 0.00 0.00 GPS
02 Top of Wash Bank 710775 4009513 1,983 0.11 0.11 GPS
03 Bottom of Wash Bank 710783 4009481 1,963 0.03 0.13 GPS
04 Cottonwood Wash 710787 4009432 1,922 0.03 0.17 GPS
05 Halfway Narrows 711483 4009204 2,010 0.48 0.65 GPS
06 Cottonwood Spring 711951 4008808 2,067 0.40 1.05 GPS
07 Old Road 712073 4008747 2,121 0.11 1.16 GPS
08 Cottonwood Wash at Razorback Wash N 712435 4008324 2,183 0.40 1.56 GPS
09 Confluence E and W Forks Cottonwood Wash 712768 4007942 2,282 0.35 1.91 GPS
01 Trailhead 710745 4009664 1,965 1.91 3.82 GPS

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 130211

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