This is part of a series on natural springs and seeps around the Las Vegas Valley. Although the entire world considers the Mohave Desert a vapid wasteland, this desert has the underground Mohave and Amargosa Rivers and multiple springs and seeps that support life. The real Mohave desert was a home for the many Native Americans who knew it’s secrets, thrived and exploited them to survive. Ash Meadows is one of these exotic and special places. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was named after the galleries of ash trees described in expedition notes from 1893. In 1952 the actions of a few dedicated conservationists, inspired President Truman to protect the Devils Hole pupfish and declaring Devils Hole as part of Death Valley National Park. This important historical event led the way to Ash Meadows becoming a refuge in 1984 rather than a planned housing development. The 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and alkaline desert uplands is so unique that it is recognized as an wetland of international importance. The refuge area provides habitat for at least 24 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Four fishes and one plant are currently listed as endangered. This concentration of indigenous life distinguishes Ash Meadows NWR as having a greater concentration of endemic species than any other local area in the United States, and the second greatest in all of North America. Ash Meadows provides a valuable and unprecedented example of desert oases that are now extremely uncommon in the southwestern United States.
It is unknown how long man has frequented the area of the Amargosa Valley, but artifacts have been found as far back as 10,000 years. The first occupants were Native American hunter gatherers. The first white man to settle in the Amargosa Valley was Charles King. King had gone to California with the Gold Rush in 1850. By 1870 he had worked as a lighterer, a merchant in Sacramento, a lumberman, a sheriff and had mined all over California and Nevada. King was working as a miner in Timpahute, Nevada in the summer of 1871 when Wheeler’s survey came through and signed on as a guide. With mining operations at Ivanpah and Chloride Cliff, King recognized that the Amargosa Valley would be valuable with its springs and thousands of acres of virgin grasslands. Between 1871 and 1879 several ranches were built in the Amargosa Valley. By the early 1880s, the decline of mines in the Ivanpah and Tecopa areas had deprived ranchers and farmers of markets, and about half had been forced to abandon their homesteads.
The Amargosa River is an intermittent waterway, 185 miles (298 km) long, in southern Nevada and eastern California in the United States. The Amargosa River is found near the center of the Mojave Desert Ecoregion. From its headwaters on the Pahute Mesa of Nye County, Nevada to its terminus at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California, the Amargosa is fed by springs that are in turn fed by groundwater from an ancient carbonate aquifer. The river and its associated wetlands constitute rare features in this otherwise arid landscape; it is one of only two rivers with perennial flow in the California portion of the Mojave Desert. The Amargosa does not always flow along its entire length. In fact, in some places the river is better described as a dry wash that floods during rain events because the groundwater is too deep to be expressed aboveground. In other places, where bedrock is close to the ground’s surface and groundwater is expressed in springs, the river flows continuously throughout the year. The flow is generally underground except for stretches near Beatty and near Tecopa, California, in the Amargosa Canyon. In the canyon, the river passes through the Amargosa River Natural Area, a region of dense greenery and prolific wildlife made possible by the presence of water.
Running roughly parallel to California Route 127, the river passes through Death Valley Junction. Shortly thereafter it receives Carson Slough, which drains Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, from the left. The Carson Slough, an area in the northwestern portion of the refuge which was historically the largest wetland in southern Nevada, was drained and mined for its peat in the 1960’s. Soon the river passes between the Resting Spring Range to the left and the Greenwater Range to the right before reaching Shoshone. Below Shoshone, the river continues roughly parallel to Route 127 to Tecopa. Downstream of Tecopa, with the Old Spanish Trail, it passes through the Amargosa Canyon between the Sperry Hills on the right and the Dumont Hills on the left, enters San Bernardino County, California, and flows by Dumont Dunes in the northern Mojave Desert. Turning west, the river crosses under Route 127 and enters Death Valley National Park between the south end of the Amargosa Range on the right and the Avawatz Mountains on the left.
Pupfish are a group of small killifish belonging to ten genera of the family Cyprinodontidae of ray-finned fish. Pupfish are especially noted for being found in extreme and isolated situations. They are primarily found in North America, South America, and the Caribbean region, but Aphanius species are from southwestern Asia, northern Africa, and southern Europe. As of August 2006, 120 nominal species and 9 subspecies were known. In the late 1940s, ichthyologist Carl Leavitt Hubbs began campaigning for legal protection for Devils Hole and the pupfish. This led to President Harry S. Truman issuing a proclamation in 1952 that made Devils Hole part of Death Valley National Monument (now National Park). In the early 1970s, The Nature Conservancy purchased one pool in the Ash Meadows area to protect the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. It became a small nature preserve for this species. But that preserve protected only a small portion of the area. The surrounding 12,000 acres were owned by a real estate developer. In the late 1970s, he released plans to create a development featuring 30,000 homes, shopping malls, golf courses and an airport – essentially a new city in the desert. The water for that city would come from those crystal-clear springs. After all, they naturally produce millions of gallons a day. Of course, using that water would destroy a unique desert habitat. And it would mean extinction for the endemic species. Pupfish and other wildlife would disappear under a network of roads and homes and green, green grass. The development was approved, but when an heir took control of the property, he chose to sell it rather than proceed. The Nature Conservancy was there to negotiate the purchase. It became the foundation of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, protecting the unique springs and the wildlife they support. The refuge is home to 26 endemic species – the greatest congregation of unique species in the United States.
Spring Meadows Road
I am not going to repeat a bunch of statistics and history you can just read on the park’s website. In late March, usually the weather warms up and splashes of color begin to appear across the desert landscape. Sadly, the last year was the driest in memory, with virtually no rain in 2020 and spring 2021. That said, I was able to find a fair number of spring ephemerals along Spring Meadows Road although the Meadows themselves looked dead this spring and have looked wretched on previous visits in the winter and spring. Ash Meadows is one of the few locations in the desert that has flowers blooming throughout the year and not just in the spring. The irony lies in the fact that Ash Meadows is most verdant and beautiful in the middle of summer, just the time when the temperature is the highest, just like neighboring Death Valley. Thus, to enjoy this beautiful time of year at Ash Meadows, you must leave Las Vegas at 4AM, travel the 2 hours to Ash Meadows to be there at sunrise. You will have 1–2 hours before the heat will drive you back to the car and home.
The visitor center is large and new, although during the pandemic it has been mostly closed since it runs on volunteers. The actions of a few dedicated conservationists, inspired President Truman to protect the Devils Hole pupfish and declaring Devils Hole as part of Death Valley National Park. This important historical event led the way to Ash Meadows becoming a refuge in 1984. The refuge was established, and is managed today, to protect threatened or endangered plants and animals; and their habitats. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was named after the galleries of ash trees described in expedition notes from 1893. This desert oasis, a very rare and unique ecosystem, is recovering and playing an important role in global conservation efforts. The refuge strives to promote conservation management and awareness through environmental education, outreach programs, voluntarism and visitor services programs.
Crystal Springs boardwalk wanders through a typical desert salt plain to a beautiful caribbean-blue spring pool. The water is blue in all of the springs due to dissolved limestone. This spring produces 2,800 gallons of water a minute, is approximately 15 feet deep and the water stays a consistent 87° (F) 30° (C). The length of the boardwalk is approximately 0.9 miles round-trip (1,430 meters) and there are benches, viewing area complete with scopes and colorful informational panels along the way. The elevated walkway is a way to enjoy the delicate desert plants without destroying the delicate crust of the soil. Biological soil crusts are communities of living organisms on the soil surface in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. They are found throughout the world with varying species composition and cover depending on topography, soil characteristics, climate, plant community, microhabitats, and disturbance regimes. Biological soil crusts perform important ecological roles including carbon fixation, nitrogen fixation and soil stabilization; they alter soil albedo and water relations and affect germination and nutrient levels in vascular plants. They can be damaged by fire, recreational activity, grazing and other disturbances like just walking and can require long time periods, up to 100 years, to recover composition and function. Biological soil crusts are also known as biocrusts or as cryptogamic, microbiotic, microphytic, or cryptobiotic soils.
I saw this Black-Tailed Jackrabbit from the Crystal Boardwalk and I think it might be the largest I have ever seen. Hares are known to be larger than rabbits but this was an exceptional example, almost feet tall.
The 2,800 gallons of water a minute from Crystal spring wanders around the meadow a bit before ending up in the Crystal Reservoir. Crystal Reservoir is a remarkably clear reservoir with a surface area of about 70 acres. Swimming at Crystal Reservoir is the only place allowed on the refuge but be warned, there is a chance you can get Swimmer’s Itch. Swimmer’s Itch or schistosome cercarial dermatitis is a skin reaction caused by the penetration of the larval stage of certain flatworms that can be picked up while swimming. It is neither dangerous nor contagious but is very uncomfortable. The eruption typically covers skin surfaces that are exposed to water, but the skin surfaces that are covered by swimwear are not spared. The eruption peaks in 1–3 days and lasts 1–3 weeks. Personally, I would not go swimming in the reservoir. The area surrounding the dam is a good place for bug, bird and flower hunting. Unfortunately, the reservoir is polluted with non-native, introduced species such as largemouth bass, mosquitofish, sailfin mollie, bullfrog, and crayfish which are being removed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as they are harmful to the native fishes through competition for the same limited resources.
The various reservoirs, springs and streams provide a welcome shelter for migrating birds, especially water birds.
Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks Boardwalk is a short trail consisting of a .6 mile round trip over a wooden boardwalk area that passes by limestone springs and a shaded viewpoint within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The boardwalk winds over a small wetlands area, passing by King’s spring with a bench, before climbing about 100 feet in elevation to reach a shade gazebo with another bench and a couple telescopes where visitors can look into the surrounding desert landscape. There is only King’s Pool, since the other springs flow from the hillside and run directly into streams. One nice feature is a group of the eponymous Velvet Ash trees for which the Park was named, with touching distance of the boardwalk.
Devils Hole, a disjunct portion of Death Valley National Park, is a water-filled, geothermal cave system and the only natural habitat for the highly endangered Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis). The calm, carbonate-rich and oxygen-poor water of Devils Hole is a constant 33.5–34°C (93°F) in the deeper reaches of the cave and is often even warmer in the shallows. This combination creates a challenging environment for the tiny blue Devils Hole pupfish! These fish subsist on algae, invertebrates, and other micro-organisms found on a shallow rock shelf within the pool. The water level in Devils Hole was protected by the United States Supreme Court in 1976 to help ensure the ongoing survival of this unique fish. With only about 100–180 individuals remaining in the wild, scientists continue their efforts to conserve the species for this and future generations to learn from and enjoy. In practical terms, this is an out of the way attraction that has little to recommend it. You can’t see any fish and there is nothing else there.
Living amongst the Southern Paiute and Timbisha Shoshone peoples was one of the first pioneers to live in Ash Meadows, Jack Longstreet. He built the cabin made of stone in 1896, near a spring that still bears his name. This was a man of mystery who went by the name of Jack Longstreet but whose real identity remains a mystery to this day. The only clues to his past were his southern drawl and ability to read and write reasonably well; unusual for most folks at that time. The top of his ear was sliced off which was a sign of a horse thief. He made his living as a prospector, rancher, saloon keeper, trail-blazer and hired gun. The notches in his gun symbolized each man he had killed, including his brother-in-law. It has been written that this powerful broad-shouldered man with the sparkling blue eyes was feared by many but found companionship and respect with the Native American tribes. The Longstreet Spring and Cabin are one of the highlights of the refuge.
China Ranch Date Farm
When visiting Ash Meadows or traveling through the Death Valley area consider visiting beautiful China Ranch, near Tecopa California. China Ranch is a family owned and operated small farm, a lush piece of greenery amidst the forbidding Mojave Desert near Southern Death Valley. Imagine towering cottonwoods and willows by a wandering stream, date palms and abundant wildlife, all hidden away in some of the most spectacular scenery the desert has to offer.
As always I hope you enjoyed the post and will return for more.