About Darwin Falls
Darwin Falls epitomized what was perhaps one of the great paradoxes when it comes to waterfalling in California.
Sitting within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park, which was known as one of the hottest and driest places on earth, this reportedly 25-30ft waterfall was said to be year-round.
That alone made it all the more crazy that such a place could exist in such a harsh desert landscape.
Now I should caveat its location in that the falls was technically in a side canyon of Panamint Valley, which was just on the other side of the Telescope Range from the main basin of Death Valley.
Nevertheless, from looking at the bare mountains surrounding Panamint Valley and the Panamint Springs area, that doesn’t diminish the fact that the falls indeed sits in a place where water was rare.
How is Darwin Falls possible?
What made the falls’ existence even possible in such a harsh environment was that it was fed by springs.
Springs are underground watercourses (or aquifers) mostly protected from the evaporative heat and low humidity that Death Valley and its surroundings are notorious for.
The desert conditions are mostly a result of the presence of the 14,000ft peaks of the Eastern Sierra (which includes Mt Whitney – the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states).
Anything to the east of these tall mountains would be in the range’s rain shadow.
Nonetheless, during the Winter months, snow could accumulate on the Panamint Ranges as well as further to the east of the Sierras and the Owens Valley.
Then, as the temperatures warm up, the snow melts and feeds the aquifers. Moreover, the Summer monsoon could also help add a little more water to the drainage.
Hiking to Darwin Falls – on the open wash
After finding the unpaved trailhead parking (see directions below), we walked up a wash.
In this stretch, the canyon was wide open and thus it was pretty exposed to the sun.
Other than the presence of water pipes on one side of the canyon walls (which I believe fed the Panamint Springs Resort nearby), there was really nothing here that would suggest the presence of water.
In any case, the first half-mile of the hike was pretty much dominated by the open wash scenery.
However, the further we went up the wash, the more the canyon walls flanking us were closing in.
Both times that we’ve done this hike in the Spring, there were wildflowers in bloom throughout the wash.
Hiking to Darwin Falls – following the creek
After the first half-mile, the canyon walls closed in to such an extent that the trail then bent to our right followed Darwin Creek.
The sudden appearance of water (where there wasn’t any to be seen in the wash earlier on) was because the canyon walls essentially acted as a funnel.
This funnel allowed vegetation to concentrate around the creek and further retain the precious moisture.
There were also a couple of minor cascades as well as tiny ponds where we happened to see toads or frogs the first time we did this hike (not so the second time as apparently this hike had gotten too popular).
Given the presence of the water and the more rugged terrain, the scrambling that was required to both avoid wetting the shoes while also avoiding bushwhacking made things a little interesting.
The trickiness of this part of the hike was more amplified when we brought kids along to do it.
While they were able to do the hike without issue for almost the entire length, there were a couple of spots where they needed assistance.
In general, when the scrambling yielded head-scratching moments, we generally kept to the left of the creek as we were going upstream.
Darwin Falls and possibly beyond?
Eventually after a mile from the trailhead, we would reach the attractive plunge pool fronting Darwin Falls with its split upside-down Y appearance thanks to a rock at its base splitting the course of the creek.
Each time we’ve done this hike, this was the turnaround point as the canyon walls were really rugged and nearly vertical at this point.
However, I did notice some people finding a way to scramble higher up on the cliffs to the left (facing the falls) as there were apparently more waterfalls on Darwin Creek further upstream from the Darwin Falls.
I can’t comment any further on those since we’ve never done it.
Anyways, it was easy to spend lots of time just marveling at the miracle of this waterfall in Death Valley.
The kids loved chucking rocks into the pool or attempt to climb the tree that was right at the edge of the plunge pool.
After having our fill of the falls, we went back down the way we came, which seemed to be much easier and faster as it only took us around 30 minutes to return.
On the way in, it took us nearly an hour or so.
Given how many people we saw on the return hike, it wasn’t lost upon us just how popular Darwin Falls was.
Indeed, this had to have been one of the highlights of a visit to Death Valley National Park.
Darwin Falls is in Death Valley National Park near Panamint Springs in Inyo County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about this area as well as current conditions, visit the NPS website.
To get to Darwin Falls, we had a choice of taking either of two approaches east of Hwy 395 at Olancha or Lone Pine.
From either Lone Pine or Olancha, reaching the trailhead would require around an hour in each direction.
Driving from Olancha to Darwin Falls
Starting from Olancha, we drove about 14.6 miles on CA-190 before turning right to continue east on CA-190.
We then drove about another 30 miles to get within a mile west of the Panamint Springs Resort area.
This was when Hwy 190 was descending towards the Panamint Valley area.
We took a fairly obvious but rough and unpaved road on our right for about 2.5 miles to the trailhead parking area.
Note that there’s a sign indicating this was the Darwin Falls Road though my GPS referred to it as the Old Toll Road.
The parking area was just to the right of a fork with a signed road saying only 4wd vehicles could proceed further.
We saw passenger cars make it here so we know they can make it as long as they took it slow.
Driving from Lone Pine to Darwin Falls
Starting from Lone Pine, we went south on Hwy 395 for just under 2 miles then turned left onto CA-136.
After driving some 17.6 miles, CA-136 merged with the CA-190.
Then, we continued for just under 30 miles along the Hwy 190 to reach the unpaved turnoff on the right for the wash leading to the Darwin Falls trailhead.
If we reached the Panamint Springs Resort, then we missed the turnoff by about a mile.
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