Darwin Falls, in Death Valley National Park, California, is one of my favorite places to go when I need to clear the cobwebs from my head. It affords me a full-day scenic trip, during which I can take a short, yet adventuresome hike, and immerse myself in nature without anyone else around.
Located in a box canyon lush with vegetation, this lovely, remote oasis features a waterfall that flows year-round unless it freezes. Occasions when it does are very rare; the trailhead elevation is only 2,516 feet, lower than some parts of Las Vegas.
The oasis lies in the western region of the park outside the small town of Panamint Springs. After you pass the store, gas station, campground and restaurant at Panamint Springs drive 1 more mile and turn left onto a gravel road. This 2.5-mile gravel road is well-maintained, and in dry times is usually passable by a sensibly driven sedan, but I would recommend a high-clearance vehicle with great off-road tires.
The trailhead parking area can often be unsigned due to vandalism and such but you can recognize the correct place when you see a large, usually dry wash below you, straight ahead of the parking area, along a well-worn path. Just head down the short incline and go upstream. It is your choice whether to take the path on your right or left. I usually start on the right and cross the creek upstream when I reach a point requiring more bushwhacking than I’m willing to do. I don’t mind getting my boots wet.
The trail is less than 2 miles round-trip, with a minimal elevation gain of about 150 feet, so it is suitable for older children or others who aren’t able to hike anything too lengthy, but want a bit of fun and adventure.
Be advised, though, you must wear good footwear because this is an unusually entertaining hike. Your feet will get a bit wet and muddy in multiple stream crossings, and some of the rocks directly before the falls can be extremely slippery. A hiking staff would come in handy here to help keep your balance. You might even have to do some bushwhacking. Though you are only going a short distance you will feel you have worked for the reward.
You will usually hear the falls before you see them because of the canopy trees, but you will be almost there. Cross over to the north side of the creek — the right bank as you face upstream — and you will be there.
Besides the sheer beauty of this hike, it’s a great place to see birds. There have been more than 80 species recorded here, some you would not expect in Death Valley. I have seen yellow-breasted chat, yellow warbler, western meadowlarks, golden eagles and several types of hawks, very impressive for this desert environment.
On the ride home, you will pat yourself on the back if you and your group had the forethought to bring dry socks and shoes to change into. Also bring a plastic bag to transport the wet stuff.
On your way out, stop for gas, snacks or a really great meal at Panamint Springs Resort. If it’s nice weather, the most enjoyable seats are outside, on the wrap-around deck. They also have clean bathrooms and a small bar.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
From Furnace Creek Visitor Center (the hub of Death Valley National Park) take California Route 190 west for about 55 miles to Panamint Springs Resort. Drive 1 mile past the resort, turn left onto Darwin Falls Road. Drive 2.5 miles up the gravel road. Keep right at the fork and drive to the metal gate, parking area and trailhead.