As you leave Tecopa and head into the depths of Death Valley, the lowest, hottest, driest, and largest National Park, you’ll be treated to an otherworldly landscape of badlands, sand dunes, and hidden oases just begging to be explored on foot. We’ll continue our Death Valley hiking trail series with a moderately challenging path, Darwin Falls.
Photo by Joseph Lindley
What are the stats?
Distance: 3.5 kilometers, with options to extend the hike further into the canyon, elevation gain 6 meters, which you can comfortably do in an hour and a half, though you can spend many more hours here if you continue your adventure beyond the falls. You’re best off hiking it in spring or autumn.
How to get there?
From Tecopa, head to Furnace Creek.
Then, go west on the 190 past Stovepipe Wells for about 90 kilometers. Just west of the Panamint Springs, keep your eyes peeled for a washboard road that leaves the paved road and leads west into a canyon. Follow this road for just under four kilometers and look for a small turnoff near the trail head. This stretch of road is quite rough, but still navigable for passenger vehicles. But beyond this turnoff, the road gets a lot more rough and a high-clearance 4WD is required.
What condition is the trail in?
You won’t see much of an established trail here, but once you follow the wash into the canyon, you’ll spot a clear use-trail. As strange as it may sound, you’ll need waterproof boots here. The path boulder-hops through the canyon creek, so be prepared to get your feet wet. Also, if you do want to go past the first falls of the canyon, be prepared for slippery rocks – especially if your boots are still wet.
What can I expect to see?
A decidedly non-deserty landscape in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world, Darwin Falls is one of the very few permanent fresh water sources in Death Valley. A spring-fed creek meanders through a narrow canyon, allowing trees, grasses, and all forms of flora and fauna to flourish in a very small pocket of land. This makes it a hiking experience that’s not to be missed.
Those who have been to a fair few desert oases often say they’ve never been anywhere quite like Darwin Falls. Though this is a fairly short and easy hike, the shocking amounts of greenery and broad range of terrain make this quick hike a must if you’re in the western edge of Death Valley.
You’ll find the trail head at a small parking lot 4.1 kilometers down a rough-but-passable dirt road. At this small parking area, you’ll see that the road goes on, but this section will only be passable with high-clearance 4WD cars. But that’s not where the hike is, so park here and gear-up!
Walk past the gate and into the broad wash. Here, everything looks fairly nondescript – it’s your run of the mill desert wash, and there isn’t really anything special to note, other than an old metal pipe you’ll see hugging one of the canyon walls. This pipe is an aqua duct to Stovepipe Wells, and is the only source of year-round water in the area.
Carry on walking on the sandy wash. At the half kilometer mark, you’ll see a broad, canyon-wide fence used to prevent vehicles from entering the wash. Pass through it and continue on into the canyon.
As the canyon starts to narrow, you’ll notice a few more plants hugging the ground. You’re coming close to the magic of this hike – water.
At about a kilometer into the canyon, you’ll cross a small but fully-fledged stream, lined with greenery. And this is really just the start of the experience. In just a few more moments of walking, you will find yourself in a narrow, lush canyon. Willows and cottonwood trees cover the ground and birdsong fills the canyon air.
The trail makes many crossings of the stream here. There are a few makeshift wooden bridges and rocks to hop across, but if you’re wearing waterproof boots, it should almost always be shallow enough for you to just wade through it.
The first cascade you’ll notice is the 25-foot lower falls – and it’s gorgeous. There isn’t a 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 odd desert sight.
If you backtrack a little from the falls, you’ll see a large, green-tinted granite wall on the southern side of the canyon. It’s possible to scramble along this wall to get above the first cascade, where you will be able to enjoy a view of a three-tiered 40-meter waterfall above the lower falls.
This marks the peak of this hike. When you’ve soaked up the view, return out the same way you came in, and be prepared for a shock when you get out of the greenery and back out into the desert.
You’ll likely need to stop to take it all in – there’s not really a soft transition … one second you’re in the shade of trees, and the next, out in a desert wasteland.
Although short, this really is one of the best, most fascinating hikes to be done in Death Valley. Definitely make time for this one when you’re crossing the park on your Wild West Challenge.