For many years I have heard of a miracle in the desert, Darwin Falls, a spring-fed waterfall flows year-round in a narrow gorge in the driest place on earth, Death Valley. This year I decided to visit. Its lush streamside thickets of willows ring with the song of migrating birds in springtime. The falls are located just west of Panamint Springs via a 2.5 mile unpaved road. Although there is no formal trail, the mostly level, two mile walk to the falls involves rock scrambling and several stream crossings. Darwin Creek is one of the four perennial streams in three million-acre (12,000 km²) Death Valley National Park. Darwin Falls and Creek are fed by the Darwin Wash, which is in turn fed by the volcanic tableland of the Darwin Bench between the Inyo Mountains and the Argus Range. The small, narrow valley where the creek and falls are located features a rare collection of greenery in the vast desert and is home to indigenous fauna such as quail. Darwin Falls, the Darwin Falls Wilderness, the nearby town of Darwin, California, and all other areas named “Darwin” in the vicinity are named after Dr. Darwin French (1822–1902), a local rancher, miner, and explorer.
We drove through Pahrump and got to see the snow covered peak of Mount Charleston in the Spring Mountain Range from a different direction. It is the eighth highest mountain in the state. Well separated from higher peaks by large, low basins, it is the most topographically prominent peak in Nevada, and the eighth most prominent peak in the contiguous United States. As longtime readers of this blog know, there are mule deer and lovely scenery on this mountain.
The Amargosa River is an intermittent waterway, 185 miles (298 km) long, in southern Nevada and eastern California in the United States. It drains a high desert region, the Amargosa Valley in the Amargosa Desert northwest of Las Vegas, into the Mojave Desert, and finally into Death Valley where it disappears into the ground aquifer. Except for a small portion of its route in the Amargosa Canyon in California and a small portion at Beatty, Nevada, the river flows above ground only after a rare rainstorm washes the region. This year was particularly wet and the river was visible on the sides of the road on the way to Death Valley.
I thought I would add a few desert flowers we saw on the way in honor of the super bloom.
The Creosote bush (Creosote Larrea tridentata) is the most characteristic feature of North America’s hot deserts. It is one of the best examples of a plant that tolerates arid conditions simply by its toughness. It competes aggressively with other plants for water, and usually wins, accounting for its prevalence in many arid locations of the southwest. Inch-wide twisted, yellow petals bloom from February-August. Some individuals maintain flowers year round. After the Creosote blooms the flower turns into a small white fuzzy fruit capsule that has 5 seeds. You can find these seed capsules on the ground under the creosote bushes.
Many first time visitors to Death Valley are surprised it is not covered with a sea of sand. Less than one percent of the desert is covered with dunes, yet the shadowed ripples and stark, graceful curves define “desert” in our imaginations. For dunes to exist there must be a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand, and a place for the sand to collect. The eroded canyons and washes provide plenty of sand, the wind seems to always blow (especially in the springtime), but there are only a few areas in the park where the sand is “trapped” by geographic features such as mountains.
Panamint has many steep side ravines including Darwin Canyon, which contains the highest waterfall in the national park (80 feet), plus smaller falls and cascades, deep pools and a permanent stream running through a narrow, boulder-filled gorge, all fed by springs high up in the canyon. The falls are easily reached by a maintained trail to the base then by lesser paths that continue upstream. It is about a two mile walk with a little scrambling over rocks to the falls.
Encelia farinosa (commonly known as brittlebush), is a common desert shrub of northern Mexico (Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Hidalgo) and the southwestern United States (California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada). The common name “brittlebush” comes from the brittleness of its stems. Other names include hierba del vaso (Spanish) and cotx (Seri). Another Spanish name for it is incienso because the dried sap was burned by early Spanish missions in the New World as incense.
The early Spanish priests learned that brittlebush resin made a highly fragrant incense, much like frankincense in odor. In 1702, Father Kino wrote “. . . in this journey inland and on other occasions I have found various things – little trees, fruit, incense, etc. – all species which are peculiar to . . . [this area] . . . alone, and samples of which I bring, to celebrate with the incense, by the favor of heaven, this Easter and Holy Week, and to place five good grains of incense in the Paschal candle.”
Atriplex hymenelytra, or desert holly, is silvery-whitish-gray shrub in the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), native to southwestern United States deserts. It is the most drought tolerant saltbush in North America. It can tolerate the hottest and driest sites in Death Valley, and remains active most of the year.
Ambrosia dumosa, the burro-weed or white bursage, a North American species of plants in the sunflower family. It is a common constituent of the creosote-bush scrub community throughout the Mojave desert of California, Nevada, and Utah and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northwestern Mexico (Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Chihuahua).
As you climb through the canyon, it begins as completely dry desert, but soon gives way to greenery fed by wet spots or seeps. A little farther up, there are pools and trickles of water feeding clumps of willows. Along the sides of the canyon are uprooted trees and stones giving evidence of periodic flooding. This would be a good point to mention at least part of the trail involves walking up the street bed. High topped hiking boots are recommended.
A little further on, the sun is shut out by the narrow canyon and the temperature drops to a very comfortable, humid wetness. Small pools of water appear with many water plants and ripples of the Darwin creek.
As the canyon continues to narrow, the water flows down a sluice cut in the rock. This is one of the lower falls.
The first cascade you’ll see is the 25-foot lower falls and it’s gorgeous. There isn’t a whole lot of room to sit at the base of the falls, but you’ll definitely want to spend some time relaxing here in view of this extremely strange desert sight. This main attraction is the waterfall shown above, but the smallish pool of cool water about three feet deep provides a rare opportunity to splash around in a natural setting in Death Valley. I stopped here since I did not have the proper footwear. There is a route around the first falls along a well used path on the left (facing up canyon), then back down into the drainage on the upper side of the falls. A 100 yards later, after passing through an overgrown stretch of trail, you’ll reach a scenic grotto with 3 sets of falls (though you’ll only be able to see the lower two). To reach the upper falls, and the best part of the canyon, climb a scree slope on the right (facing up canyon) and look for a path which leads left to the top of the second falls. With some careful climbing on the right you can reach the upper falls, which cascade down a 50 foot chute into a fern lined pool.
It is about three hours from Las Vegas to Darwin Canyon and with the two mile walk, about five hours. Add the walk out, and you get to see the sunset in Darwin Canyon. Sort of a sad but great experience, going from the cool of the canyon back to the desert and the car that takes you home. Good and bad, all in a single sentence. As always, please leave a comment.
Creosote Bush: http://mojavedesert.net/plants/shrubs/creosote.html
Desert Holly: http://www.desertusa.com/flowers/Desert-Holly.html