Darwin Falls

Death Valley National Park / Panamint Springs, California, USA

About Darwin Falls

Hiking Distance: 2 miles round trip; some scrambling
Suggested Time: 1-2 hours

Date first visited: 2006-03-24
Date last visited: 2017-04-08

Waterfall Latitude: 36.32081
Waterfall Longitude: -117.52041

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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.

Death_Valley_17_103_04082017 - Darwin Falls
Darwin Falls

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.

Death_Valley_17_015_04082017 - The family making their way onto the wash en route to Darwin Falls. Note the lack of water in this stretch.
The family making their way onto the wash en route to Darwin Falls. Note the lack of water in this stretch.

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 wide wash where the canyon was wide open and thus 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 as the canyon walls flanking us were eventually 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

Death_Valley_17_071_04082017 - Scrambling upstream alongside Darwin Creek en route to the falls
Scrambling upstream alongside Darwin Creek en route to the falls

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.

Death_Valley_17_069_04082017 - The family negotiating some of the trickier parts on the way to Darwin Falls
The family negotiating some of the trickier parts on the way to Darwin Falls

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.

Death_Valley_17_074_04082017 - The family making it to Darwin Falls
The family making it to Darwin Falls

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. For information or inquiries about this area as well as current conditions, visit the NPS website.

Death_Valley_17_009_04082017 - The Darwin Falls Trailhead
Death_Valley_17_019_04082017 - In the morning, there was some limited shade on the eastern side of the Darwin Wash
Death_Valley_17_022_04082017 - During our early April 2017 visit, we definitely scored with some nice wildflower sightings in Darwin Canyon
Death_Valley_17_028_04082017 - The canyon walls close in the further you go
Death_Valley_17_035_04082017 - The presence of water pipes on the western side of the canyon suggested that Darwin Creek had reliable flow. We suspected these pipes (many of which looked new as of April 2017) were there to supply the Panamint Springs Resort
Death_Valley_17_036_04082017 - More wildflowers blooming in the Darwin Wash
Death_Valley_17_046_04082017 - Darwin Canyon was now closing in to the point where the wash would disappear and the creek would dominate
Death_Valley_17_057_04082017 - Right at the mouth of the narrowing of the canyon, we started to see Darwin Creek.  Further downstream, the water disappeared into the sandy wash, which explained why we didn't see water up until this point
Death_Valley_17_066_04082017 - To avoid wading in a deep part of Darwin Creek, we opted to scramble up this rock as the hike pretty much degenerated into a scramble at this point
Darwin_Falls_040_03242006 - A toad sitting in the stream, which we spotted on our first visit back in 2006
Darwin_Falls_045_03242006 - A toad floating in the cool pond
Darwin_Falls_013_03242006 - Partial view of Darwin Falls from the end of our walk
Darwin_Falls_015_03242006 - Another look at the miracle of Darwin Falls
Death_Valley_17_122_04082017 - On our 2017 visit, we brought the kids so they could enjoy the oasis
Death_Valley_17_084_04082017 - As you can see, not much has changed regarding the shape of Darwin Falls over the years
Death_Valley_17_125_04082017 - Looking up at some people scrambling up this cliff to get past the main drop of Darwin Falls
Death_Valley_17_158_04082017 - The family making their way back downstream as we had left Darwin Falls for the trailhead
Death_Valley_17_162_04082017 - We spotted this unusual wildflower surrounded by prickly cactus on the return hike
Death_Valley_17_164_04082017 - We spotted many people going up to Darwin Falls while we were making our way back to the trailhead. This underscored just how popular this place had become
Death_Valley_17_193_04082017 - Interesting patterns on the cliffs that we spotted as we were back in the Darwin Wash


To get Darwin Falls, you’ll have to take either of two approaches east of Hwy 395 either at Olancha (188 miles or under 3 hours drive north of Los Angeles) or Lone Pine (211 miles or over 3 hours drive north of Los Angeles).

From Olancha, we drove about 14.6 miles on CA-190 before turning right to continue east on CA-190.

Death_Valley_17_001_04082017 - Driving along the unpaved Darwin Falls Road after leaving the Hwy 190 about a mile west of the Panamint Springs Resort
Driving along the unpaved Darwin Falls Road after leaving the Hwy 190 about a mile west of the Panamint Springs Resort

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 (there’s a sign indicating this was the Darwin Falls Road though my GPS referred to it as the Old Toll Road) for about 2.5 miles to the car park.

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 you take it slow.

Death_Valley_17_012_04082017 - Approaching the trailhead for Darwin Falls
Approaching the trailhead for Darwin Falls

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.

From either Lone Pine or Olancha, reaching the trailhead would require around an hour in each direction.

Fully examining the falls and the immediate surroundings while sharing the place with family and strangers

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Tagged with: death valley, panamint springs, inyo, sierra, desert, telescope, olancha, lone pine, california, waterfall

Visitor Comments:

Death Valley National Park November 1, 2010 12:15 pm by Jenny Lenavena - I along with my family have been to Death Valley National Park in Summer. It was too hot that time and completely dry. We didn't find any waterfall over there. I guess we missed out on the beautiful scene and well as your toad floating in ponds (kidding). Apart from this scenery we managed to… ...Read More

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