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Hikes in Death Valley: Salt Creek

18 October 2016
salt creek

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 kick off our Death Valley hiking trail series with one of its least challenging paths, Salt Creek.

Photo by Ray Bouknight

A-okay. Stats please!

salt creek

Photo by OpenStreetMap

Distance, 800 meters, which is doable in half an hour. I did say it was easy! As long as you come in spring or winter, that is. The trail is in excellent condition – you’re on a boardwalk all the way, so if you get lost here you probably should never be hiking on your own.

How to get there?

salt creek

Photo by Google maps


From Tecopa, drive 68 miles north to Furnace Creek . From there, head north about 20 km on CA-190. You’ll see the signed turnoff on the west side of the road. Drive down a dirt road for a couple of kms and park at the trailhead.

salt creek

Photo by Google maps

An easy stroll in the middle of the desert. How strange.

Yup, a short loop on a boardwalk through a very, very odd area of Death Valley – a bona fide salt marsh in the middle of one of the driest places on the planet.

If anyone told you that you could drive out to the centre of Death Valley and see fish swimming around in a flowing creek, you’d likely think they’d spent too much time in the sun. But if you travelled to the Salt Creek Trailhead, that’s exactly what you could see.

How is this possible?

salt creek

Photo by Brian

During the last Ice Age, Death Valley was covered by a massive inland freshwater sea/lake called Lake Manly. As the ice age drew to a close, the ice receded and the landscape sank, then the water dried up – but small pockets of life clung on. There was a time when the pupfish populated the whole water basin – but since the climate became more arid, they found themselves confined to various water holes and springs scattered around the desert, and the original species has evolved into ten separate subspecies.

As is Nature’s wont in these situations.

salt creek

Photo by Ray Bouknight

The Salt Creek Pupfish or Death Valley Pupfish lives only in the briny waters of Salt Creek, and if you’re keen-eyed and patient you’ll probably be able to spot them in the water on this hike.

The hike itself, as I said, is a short walk along a boardwalk-path through the marsh-like terrain. If you’ve been along a coastal dune boardwalk before, this feels eerily similar. But the whole experience is strange: these things – deserts and boardwalks – are not supposed to be together!

Yes, it is intriguing.

salt creek

photo by Brian

Early on in the path, the boardwalk skirts the side of Salt Creek. Depending on the season, this will either be a flowing stream or a dry wash. If you look closely, you might see some pupfish darting through the water here, but if they’re hiding, don’t worry – there are normally plenty more of them further upstream.

Carry on as the boardwalk cuts through the dense growth of salt grass and pickleweed, two plants that have adapted very well to this harsh and unique environment.

Eventually, the boardwalk splits and ends in a loop – but it doesn’t matter which way you go first. Both routes will lead you to the spring-fed pools of upper Salt Creek, which is the only section of this marsh that has water year-round.


And this is where a ton of pupfish live, no?


Yup, if you gaze into the water here, you’re likely to see them on the creekbed, and a few swimming in the water too. This impossibly teeny-tiny chain of pools is the only place where their eggs can survive into the next season.

When you’re done, carry on along the boardwalk loop and head back to the parking lot. Enjoy the incongruous sounds of a babbling brook in Death Valley, and add this to your Wild West Challenge stories to refute the common misconception that “nothing lives in the desert.”

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