Death Valley Oasis: Water In The Desert

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Article and Photos by Lisa K. Harris
 Sand dunes at Death Valley National Park, where most of the landscape is dry.

Sand dunes at Death Valley National Park, where most of the landscape is dry.

The mention of Death Valley National Park conjures images of vast dryness, sun-cracked salt flats, barren mountains strewn with boulders, wind parched sand dunes.  If an animal comes to mind, it would be a vulture or sidewinder or kangaroo rat, a nocturnal rodent that metabolically generates water from seeds and never needs to take a drink during its lifetime. If someone told me that tumbling water chock full of fish and surrounded by lush plantings of maiden hair fern and willow trees existed outside of the developed Furnace Creek’s resorts I would have accused them of an April Foolery. The joke, however, would have been on me, for Death Valley used to be a lake which dried up at the end of the last ice age. Lake Manly, as it is now called, left several remnants, and on a recent trip, my daughter Ava and I explored two.


Salt Creek in Death Valley National Park, home to Salt Creek pupfish.

Salt Creek in Death Valley National Park, home to Salt Creek pupfish.

Salt Creek  Tucked behind sand dunes and surrounded by salt encrusted ground lies Salt Creek. A 1.0 mile long boardwalk follows the creek’s lower reach making exploration easy. Pickleweed and saltgrass grow thick near the waterway. There are no trees, so make sure you wear a hat, and bring your own water for Salt Creek is just that, salty. In fact it’s two to three times saltier than seawater and the water temperature can reach upwards of 112 degrees (hot tubs top off at 104 degrees).

From the boardwalk, we scan the waters and easily spot what makes the creek special: inch-long Death Valley pupfish, a subspecies of pupfish that is only found at Salt Creek, and have adapted to the water’s high temperatures and saline conditions. The tiny fish dart back and forth in the shallows, and are believed to be the last survivors of what once lived within ancient Lake Manly. At several points the boardwalk crosses the creek, and try as we might we can’t spot one pupfish in the creek’s deeper sections. During the summer months, this portion of the creek runs dry and the fish find safe harbor in the pools in the upper portion, reached by trail at the far end of the boardwalk. Almost as bountiful as the fish are signs instructing hikers to stay on the boardwalk, yet, nearly every mud flat is marked with boot prints. We were careful not to add ours as we wandered about. Salt Creek is a short drive on a well-graded gravel road, off of Scotty’s Castle Road, north of Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.

Darwin Falls Named after a prominent area rancher, not the father of evolution theory, Darwin Falls is located on the Park’s far western boundary, off Highway 190, near Panamint Springs Resort. Getting there is not for the faint of heart nor with a low-clearance vehicle. From the Park’s major crossroads, take Highway 190 to Stovepipe Wells and continue west, through the valley, and climb. My first clue to the treacherous route was a road sign that instructed drivers to turn off their vehicle’s AC. Since I visited during March’s temperate weather I scoffed at the sign’s advice. Though my Toyota sedan wasn’t likely to overheat, I should have been concerned about smoke billowing from my brake pads.

The road rises from sea level and cuts through the mountains at Towne Pass (elevation 4956 ft). No problem on the way up. But on the way down, I hit construction and the road was limited to one lane. On a downhill slope, I sat behind a string of behemoth RVs for a good half hour waiting our turn. Finally, the flagman’s sign flipped from “Stop” to “Go,” and I thought I’d whiz down the mountainside. Boy was I mistaken. Driving at 5 MPH behind touring RVs on a road scraped down to its gravel bed with the mountain falling away to my right brought sweat to my brow, but once we were free of the construction zone and on pavement again, I further drenched my shirt following the RVs around tight switch backs, pumping my brakes the entire way, hoping (praying more than once) that my car’s brake pads wouldn’t give out.

Darwin Falls is a lush oasis in the western  portion of Death Valley National Park.

Darwin Falls is a lush oasis in the western
portion of Death Valley National Park.

The scary ride continued once I was on flat land and turned onto the unpaved and poorly maintained access road that led to the trailhead. If I hadn’t spied another sedan ahead, I would have turned back, if there had been a place to turn around in. The narrow, boulder pot-hole poxed road hugged the side of a dry creek. At one turn the road narrowed further, as part of the bank had slipped into the wash following a flood event. After 2.5 very bumpy miles, we arrived at a small parking area and the trailhead.

Ava and I hiked the 1.0 mile trail which followed the dry creek bed. To our right was a jury-rigged irrigation pipe which dripped water at its seams, so I knew we were headed in the right direction. At 0.7 miles, we spotted running water in the creek, albeit merely a thin trickle choked with algae. The canyon walls narrowed and willow trees appeared, growing thicker and taller as we climbed higher. The trickle turned into a full-fledged creek when we rounded a bend. At several places we had to cross the stream on well-placed rocks and logs, and at a few spots we scrambled up boulders.

We passed a dammned area and located where the irrigation pipe originated. The tiny pool was thick with lush watercress. After a few more wet-feet crossings, we heard tumbling water. The falls, actually the 3rd in a series, fell from the cliff above into a deep pool which filled the slot canyon edge to edge. Maiden hair fern grew underneath the cascade and a huge willow tree’s limb dangled invitingly over the pool. At the edge, away from the fall’s turbulence, a sphinx moth alighted onto a floating bark raft and sipped.

Ava climbed out on the willow’s branch and dared to dive into the water’s coolness. In the end, she climbed down and stuck her toes in near where the moth had drunk its full and flown off then waded into water up to her thighs. “Imagine water in Death Valley,” she said, threatening to drench me with a splash.

Posted in Tailwinds