You might not expect to see a year-round flowing stream in Death Valley National Park, but there are a few, and one of them is a great hiking destination. Darwin Falls is an unspoiled oasis, a critical sanctuary for wildlife and riparian vegetation, which even boasts romantic pools and waterfalls.
Located in the western area of the park, near Panamint Springs, a hike to the lower fall and back is an easy two-mile round-trip journey, with minimal elevation gain. Barring the occasional slippery rock, children will relish exploring this canyon, and most will even enjoy getting their feet a little wet in the stream crossings. More seasoned hikers can enhance a trip here by making the tough scramble to the upper reaches of the canyon, above the lower fall, to see even more spectacular waterfalls and pools.
Driving down the gravel access road off the main highway doesn’t give any hint that within a half hour or so you’ll be standing at the base of a year-round waterfall in a lushly vegetated box canyon. From the signed trailhead follow the well-worn trail down an easy-to-navigate embankment, into Darwin Wash. The wash starts out broad and you’ll probably see a small band of water running down the middle. There will be two trails; both head upstream, but the one on the left is the better choice, to avoid bushwhacking later on.
At the start, the vegetation is pretty sparse, mostly made up of rabbitbrush and fourwing saltbrush, but as you continue you’ll also find Mojave asters, and desert globe mallow as well as many healthy colonies of cattails. All the water in the Darwin Falls area is fed by China Garden Spring, located a few miles upstream, just outside the park’s boundary.
As the wash narrows and becomes more canyon-like you’ll find a healthy riparian habitat, mostly comprised of Gooding’s willows. In the past, invasive, non-native tamarisk was growing throughout, but removal programs have been successful and most of it has been cleared, for the time being. As you continue up you will have to make a few stream crossings but nothing major. Watch where you step because western and red spotted toads are found throughout the wash.
This area is also a birder’s paradise; more than 80 species of birds have been documented. Some of the more interesting ones include the yellow-breasted chat, yellow warbler, loggerhead shrike, western meadowlark, California quail, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks, and even golden eagles.
Near the waterfall the dense vegetation creates a canopy so that even when you first hear the falls, you won’t be able to see them. As you follow the path the pool will come into view, and once you skirt it to the north side, you’ll see the waterfall that feeds it. At first glance the twenty-foot waterfall appears to be two falls but as it cascades down, a large boulder splits the pour-off, before it hits the pool below. Ferns and watercress grow abundantly in this shady refuge.
This lower fall marks the turnaround point for most hikers and children. For those who are experienced hikers and crave a bit more adventure, backtrack about thirty yards or so, and scramble up the southeastern canyon wall. Here you’ll find a faint trail that leads you to the valley above. You’ll have to seek out the best routes over or around a few more obstacles, but you’ll be rewarded with more cascades and waterfalls, including a spectacular one where a ribbon of water free-flows 80 feet down into a deep pool.
No matter if you make this an easy short hike or a more exciting activity, time spent at this oasis, in one of the harshest and hottest places on earth, is sweet as the center of a chocolate.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States,” “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide,” and co-author of “Access For All, Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.