Friday, September 13, 2013

The Desert's Lifeline: Darwin Falls at Panamint Springs

Date: March 7, 2013
Place: Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park, California
Trailhead coordinates: 36.32756, -117.51471
Length: about 2 miles in and out
Difficulty: easy to moderate (involves some rock scrambling near the falls).

The winter of 2012-2013 has been by big desert winter. After touring the desert parks of Anza Borrego State Park, and more desert parks in Imperial and Riverside counties over winter break, I was ready to travel south again: this time with my botanist friend from overseas.
"Come in March and I'll show you the spectacular desert bloom!" I told her, back in Fall. I also suggested camping in the desert, and my friend was concerned that it might be too cold for that.
"Cold won't be a problem," I assured her. "Not where we're going, not on that time of year."
So my friend arrived, and as it turned out, I was grossly mistaken on both accounts. After a relatively dry winter, there were very few wildflowers about and the week we were there turned out to be the coldest of that winter. That taught be not to promise anything that's beyond my control (although I was ready to promise anything so my friend would come to visit, and my predictions would be accurate any other year ... )

Either way, I left the chikas in the excellent care of Papa Quail and took off with my friend into the vast California desert.
Snow-capped Telescope Peak, viewed from Father Crawly Vista
All of my previous visits to Death Valley National Park, I somehow managed to pass Panamint Valley on my way to the more popular attractions of the park. This time I added it to our tour plan and I am very glad I did so :-)
Cottonwood Mountains Northeast of Panamint Valley, viewed from Father Crawley Vista
Panamint Springs is a small resort in Panamint Valley, inside Death Valley National Park, just west of Death Valley itself. There's fresh water there. Precious spring water in the middle of a vast desert that sustains that tiny resort of Panamint Springs. Lucky for us, we got there on time to book nearly the last available room in the resort. There is the campground there too, and that's where we sat down for a picnic lunch, admiring the beauty of the sparrows that hopped about.
House Sparrow, male
After lunch we drove the 2-miles dirt road to the trailhead to Darwin Falls. Along the way we saw the thin, white pipe: the lifeline of Panamint Springs from the only fresh water source in the area.

The dirt road continues beyond the trailhead and onto the hills. We parked and entered the Darwin Wash. Not quite spring yet, but the silvery cushions of brittlebush were in bloom.
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
Other shrubs added their bright colors to the desert brown:
Pygmycedar (Peucephyllum schottii)
But even the desert brown has many shades and colors. These tell of the natural history of the Earth there at that spot:
A dike: a sheet of magma that rose in a rock crack and froze there, exposed by the wash water
The water pipe was going along with us, all the way to the source. With so little water available, every drop consumed by people is a precious drop less for the wild. A fine balance it is, to use and not destroy. The pipe wasn't completely tight and at some points, some of this precious water was returned back to the wild.

About that point we also met with the natural water flow of the Darwin Wash, all covered with algae:

After about half a mile the canyon was closing in on us and lovely lush willow trees filled the gap between its rocky walls. My spirit swells at the sight of the lush green against the bare desert scenery.
Salix sp.
But no one could say that desert color comes only from plants. In the desert, the rock itself is alive with color!

But the plants do add to the color splendor. Some were easily approached,
Emory's Rock Daisy (Perityle emoryi)
And some we had to admire from afar.
Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus sp.)
A fern in the desert. What a luxury! It marked the cracks in the rock where water was seeping from the ground.
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris)
And just above the fresh water source, a beavertail cactus growing on completely dry rock.
Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris)
Along the creek we saw numerous plants that one would not find in the area at all if not for the springs.

And lucky for us - a few of them were in bloom.
Golden Suncup (Camissonia brevipes)
As for wildlife, the chirping of birds was everywhere to be heard. Seeing them, was another matter altogether. After much patience, I managed to get a clear view of one of the happy singers: a Yellow-rumped warbler:
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Their nests are stationary, making them an easier subject to photograph.
Yellow-rumped Warbler's nest
Some of the birds can be difficult to see because they hide in the vegetation. Others are difficult to see because they blend in their surroundings, wearing perfect camouflage:
Say's Phoebe

Some birds, however, stand out proudly in full color, like this lovely robin who stood his ground and allowed us to get quite near for a photo:
American Robin

We kept on going toward the falls. At that point the comfortable trail becomes hard rock and we spent considerable time jumping from one side of the creek to the other to find good footing and to keep our shoes dry and our clothes clean of thorns.
Scrambling to the falls
There is an abundance of beautiful waterfalls in California, many of them are very impressive. Darwin Falls is small and modest but, like in many other things, it is all about location. Being where it is, Darwin Falls is one of the loveliest waterfalls I've seen in this state.
We were alone there, my friend and I, and had it not been so cold and windy, we probably would have enjoyed a swim in that little pool under the waterfall. But then again, had it been hot and sunny, we probably would have had to share the sight and the fresh water with other hikers.
As it was, we enjoyed the solitude and the pure sound of falling water and chirping birds.
Darwin Falls, named after the American Adventurer Darwin French.
The sky was getting dark, and not just because it was getting late. After a long rest my friend and I hoisted our backpacks and headed back down the wash. Ahead we could see the heavy clouds moving in. It was time for to get back indoors.
Signs of on-coming storm

Many thanks to my friend, עננת for identifying the plants!


  1. ha! I know this place, and these pictures! ;-)
    thank you so much for making me come. even though most of the flowers weren't blooming, we had a delightful time, and I enjoyed it so much!!!

    1. And I would do it all over again! (Or chose a different destination for your next visit. I suspect you haven't seen much yet of the Northern California fabulous coastline ... )

  2. Thanks!
    An area I would definitely visit sometimes soon.