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Hiking: Death Valley

Wa-a-ater . . . Wa-a-ater Falls in Mojave Desert

November 10, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Tucked away in what appears to be a forlorn range of mountains on the east side of the Panamint Valley is a year-round creek and waterfall. Darwin Falls and the mini-oasis surrounding it are small reminders of the surprises found off the main roads in the Mojave Desert.

When Congress passed the landmark California Desert Protection Act of 1994, Death Valley National Monument was expanded to 3.3 million acres and upgraded to national park status. The park gained considerable acreage on its western frontier--Saline and Panamint valleys--from lands previously administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

One of the many splendid places now under national park protection is Darwin Falls, centerpiece of the new Darwin Falls Wilderness Area. It's well worth a stop, particularly for the visitor entering Death Valley National Park from the west via U.S. 395 and California 190.

Darwin Falls is fed by an underground spring bubbling to the surface of the volcanic rock floor of Darwin Canyon. Wildlife and more than 80 species of birds find water and shelter at the cottonwood and willow-fringed oasis.

During the 19th century boomtown days of Darwin, a Chinese-American farmer grew vegetables in a rich patch of earth below the falls and sold his produce to the miners. For more than 100 years, visitors have enjoyed bathing in the stone basins in the canyon bottom.

Every Eden has its serpent, and in the case of Darwin Falls evil incarnate is the salt cedar tamarisk, an aggressive weed that prevents animals from reaching the water. Not only is the tamarisk fast growing, it's a huge water consumer. Worse yet, the plant drops salty leaves that kill surrounding native vegetation. Thanks to the efforts of the BLM, Sierra Club and other conservation groups, much tamarisk has been removed from the area.

Best times for a visit are the cooler months, and in spring, when the creek flow is the greatest, the falls at their fullest. Forget hiking in summer. At 3,100 feet in elevation, Darwin Falls is far from the hottest place in the Mojave, but because of the presence of the water, it's horribly humid.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 395 in Olancha, head east on California 190 for 44 miles to tiny Panamint Springs. Turn right on Darwin Canyon Road and drive 2 1/2 miles. At a fork, bear right and continue half a mile to the parking area.

The hike: It's dry going when you first walk the canyon bottom. Soon you'll notice some wet sand, then spot a trickle of water. A quarter-mile along, the canyon narrows and you'll begin walking alongside a little creek. Ferns, reeds and monkey flowers line the creek. The path ends at the 30-foot waterfall.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Darwin Falls Trail

WHERE: Death Valley National Park.

DISTANCE: 1.5 miles round trip.

TERRAIN: Year-round creek and waterfall.

HIGHLIGHTS: Surprising oasis, good bird-watching.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Death Valley National Park, Death Valley, CA 92338; tel. (619) 786-2331.

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