Death Valley: Coffin Canyon

Categories: Death Valley

Although I’ve been to Death Valley more times than I can remember since the 1990’s, I’d never done a technical canyon in the park. In late December, 2022, I had planned on going to southern Arizona but changed my plans at the last minute to tag along with some local canyoneering friends who invited me to do Coffin and Scorpion Canyons.

Coffin Canyon is a technical canyon with a strenuous approach in the southern part of Badwater Basin. The day starts with a 2,000 foot climb straight up the mountain above the large alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.

The day starts brutally, with a long climb straight up the mountain.

Max doesn’t look too enthused about the terrain.

Emerging into the first sunlight. It was a cold morning so feeling the warmth of the sun was nice.

You have to use your hands a lot on the climb up. Gloves are a must on the razor sharp rock. Care must be taken not to knock rocks on those below. Helmets are a good idea.

After hundreds of feet the slope of the ridge finally eased up a little.

The views of the salt flats kept getting better.

After an hour and a half we were still right next to the cars. That’s a good indicator of how steep it was.

It’s me looking down towards Copper Canyon. 
Photo by Max Feingold.

The higher we climbed the more I became aware of how huge  and high the alluvial slopes at the base of the Panamints are across the basin. The bottom of the valley is merely an illusion of rubble that has filled the canyon. In reality, the steep slopes we’d been climbing steepen to 50 degrees and plunge downward another 13,500 feet to the true bottom of this expanding rift in the continent. In the photo above, above me to the left is one of the famous (to geologists) Turtlebacks of Death Valley. The 3 Turtlebacks of Death Valley are megamullions, features that normally occur on oceanic ridges, and are sometimes called the “Rosetta Stones” of the valley’s geologic history.

When I first saw this boulder on the top of the mountain glaring in the sun like glass, my first thought was how much it looked glacially scoured. I knew that couldn’t be the case, and after looking into it I am pretty sure this is an example of “slickensides” and asperity plowing, where a rock is part of the boundary along a fault line, resulting in polishing and gouging under great pressure as one side of the fault slides against the other.

Time for new scenery. An amazing “white” mountain of ash on top of black lava. I really wanted to go over there but that will have to wait for a completely different trip.

After summiting the lowest peak around we were met with this almost abstract view of multicolored mountains and steep zigzag washes. The main streambed seems to fork and go around both sides of the mountain we were on. Our next task was to climb down to the wash on the left side.

I don’t know if that false volcano, made of basalt, was full of olivine but the top sure looked kinda green in the sun.

These rock bands were completely different than the ones we’d been climbing up all morning on the other side of the peak and they seemed to have been eroded vertically for a long time before they were tilted into this position.

It was a very rugged and slightly dangerous descent but were were almost down to real trail! The trail took us past a debris field of columnar basalt.

We were only on the trail briefly before it dumped us out into the wash.

The geology on this whole trip was just crazy. Here are three completely different mountains to choose from, both in color and material, all right next to each other.

In a welcome change of color one side of the wash was full of these red hoodoo bluffs.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an alcove carved under hoodoos like this. 

These red conglomerate cliffs were reminding me a lot of the terrain I explored around Tupiza, in Bolivia.

This marked the return to shade for most of the remaining miles. Just in time too because I felt like I was getting sunburned.

Time for lunch.

A very nice crumbling hoodoo.

It looked like we were about to hit the first rappel!

More cool hoodoos loomed over the anchor station. I kept thinking it was the last chance to see any but they continued well down canyon.

Some cool crags above what I think is the second rappel.

An area where the water has eaten through the alluvial deposits. Something I didn’t notice until months later when I was looking at my photos was that this terrain with the hoodoos seemed to be sitting on top of what was already carved out bedrock. It seems like the canyon at some point became buried in a massive landslide or flood deposits. Now they’ve been cut through and in some areas you see isolated chunks of the material sitting on bare rock faces.

The view down the biggest drop. I climbed up a little to get this vantage point so from here it’s over 200 feet down. Notice the huge boulder on the left embedded in that alluvial deposit, and how thick that material is on both sides of the canyon.

The start of the 190 foot rappel is a breathtaking view. The grey pile of rock downstream is a big rockfall we had to climb over.

Ella belays Max at the bottom of the big falls.

Looking back at the big rappel. Even though I knew we were well beyond committed, this impressive section of the canyon seemed especially deep and isolated.

Mud cracks where a pool forms at the base of the rock slide. There was driftwood 15 feet above here so the slide must have tightly dammed up the canyon. You can see a little of it in the second shot, with the mud in the back ground.

The canyon narrowed and briefly changed colors to bizarre blue and purple tones.

Max and Elle on a fluted blue rap.

This was a tricky downclimb.

This was a cool rappel under a huge boulder.

I think we were working our way through the Artist’s Pallet layer.

Me on rope. Photo by Max Feingold.

This lower section, while not having big rappels was fun for me because the colors changed around every bend. Here’s some mottled blue and pink rhyolite, I believe.

The final rappel was a pretty good one at 80 feet. Amazingly, right after this you are simply done, and we found ourselves walking out next to the place we started climbing early that morning.

Walking back to the cars after a very fun and tiring day. It ended up being an amazing sunset.

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