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, there was this oasis of a said-to-be year-round 25-30ft waterfall making 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.
What made the falls’ existence even possible in such a harsh environment was that it was fed by springs, which 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 (including Mt Whitney, which is said to be the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states), which would put anything east of these mountains in its rain shadow. Nonetheless, during the Winter months, snow could accumulate on the Panamint Ranges (further to the east of the Sierras and the Owens Valley) before melting and feeding the aquifers, and the Summer monsoon could also help add a little more water to the drainage as well.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.
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 allowing 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 when we brought kids along for this hike. While they were able to do it without issue for almost the entire hike, 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 (going upstream).
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, especially since 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 (as opposed to nearly an hour or so on the way to the falls). 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.
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. 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, and 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.
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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