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: -117.52416

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.

Death_Valley_17_103_04082017 - Darwin Falls
Darwin Falls

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.

Darwin_Falls_045_03242006 - On our first visit to Darwin Falls back in March 2006, we saw frogs in Darwin Creek, which demonstrated the lush ecosystem within Darwin Canyon
On our first visit to Darwin Falls back in March 2006, we saw frogs in Darwin Creek, which demonstrated the lush ecosystem within Darwin Canyon

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.

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.

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.

Death_Valley_17_046_04082017 - The family making their way up the dry wash towards the closing in of the canyon, which harbored the Darwin Falls. Notice the water pipes coming in from the right, which proved that this area does have water despite its harsh desert environment
The family making their way up the dry wash towards the closing in of the canyon, which harbored the Darwin Falls. Notice the water pipes coming in from the right, which proved that this area does have water despite its harsh desert environment

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.

Death_Valley_17_066_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

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.

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

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.

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

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_088_04082017 - Direct look at the Darwin Falls where the kids were throwing rocks while the adults just basked in this oasis
Direct look at the Darwin Falls where the kids were throwing rocks while the adults just basked in this oasis

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.

Death_Valley_17_158_04082017 - The family making their way out after having their fill of Darwin Falls
The family making their way out after having their fill of Darwin Falls

Indeed, this had to have been one of the highlights of a visit to Death Valley National Park.

Authorities

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.

Death_Valley_17_019_04082017 - In the morning of our early April 2017 hike, there was some limited shade on the eastern side of the Darwin Wash. So we took advantage of it while also noticing some wildflowers blooming along the way. By the way, this photo and the next several photos took place on this day
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 walls of Darwin Canyon closed in the further we went
Death_Valley_17_035_04082017 - The presence of water pipes on the western side of Darwin 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 during our April 2017 visit
Death_Valley_17_057_04082017 - Right at the mouth of the narrowing of Darwin 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_062_04082017 - By this point of our April 2017 hike, Darwin Canyon was now dominated by lushness as Darwin Creek had a persistent presence while there was a lot of vegetation fed by the creek
Death_Valley_17_069_04082017 - The family negotiating another one of the tricky parts of the scramble upstream to Darwin Falls as the closed in canyon and the presence of Darwin Creek posed some obstacles along the way
Death_Valley_17_077_04082017 - Finally making it to Darwin Falls on our April 2017 visit
Death_Valley_17_084_04082017 - As you can see, not much has changed regarding the shape of Darwin Falls over the years as this long exposure shot of the falls was taken during our April 2017 visit
Death_Valley_17_122_04082017 - On our April 2017 visit, we brought the kids so they could enjoy the oasis
Death_Valley_17_125_04082017 - Looking up at some people scrambling up this cliff to get past the main drop of Darwin Falls. We didn't pursue this considering how much rougher the scrambling became past Darwin Falls
Death_Valley_17_156_04082017 - The family making their way back downstream as we left Darwin Falls for the trailhead during our April 2017 visit
Death_Valley_17_162_04082017 - We spotted this unusual wildflower surrounded by prickly cactus on the return hike from Darwin Falls in April 2017
Death_Valley_17_164_04082017 - We spotted many people going up to Darwin Falls while we were making our way back to the trailhead in April 2017. This underscored just how popular this place had become over the years
Death_Valley_17_182_04082017 - The family re-entering the dry parts of the Darwin Wash after having our fill of the Darwin Falls in April 2017
Death_Valley_17_184_04082017 - The family going back towards the mouth of the Darwin Wash after having had their fill of the Darwin Falls in April 2017
Death_Valley_17_193_04082017 - Interesting patterns on the cliffs flanking Darwin Canyon that we spotted as we were back in the Darwin Wash in April 2017
Death_Valley_17_203_04082017 - The family making the final ascent to the trailhead parking for Darwin Falls to end off our April 2017 visit
Darwin_Falls_001_03242006 - Julie hiking in the wide open Darwin Wash. This photo and the rest of the photos from this photo gallery were taken on our first visit here back in March 2006
Darwin_Falls_004_03242006 - Julie hiking into a part of Darwin Canyon where the walls have closed in and the vegetation became more persistent along with the sudden appearance of Darwin Creek
Darwin_Falls_005_03242006 - During our March 2006 visit, we noticed frogs in Darwin Creek
Darwin_Falls_009_03242006 - Making it to Darwin Falls on our March 2006 visit
Darwin_Falls_013_03242006 - Partial view of Darwin Falls from the end of our walk in March 2006
Darwin_Falls_015_03242006 - Another look at the miracle of Darwin Falls during our March 2006 visit
Darwin_Falls_029_03242006 - Broad view of Darwin Falls as seen during our first time here in March 2006
Darwin_Falls_040_03242006 - A toad sitting in the stream, which we spotted on our first visit to Darwin Falls back in March 2006
Darwin_Falls_048_03242006 - During our March 2006 visit, we even spotted this pair of frogs apparently mating inside Darwin Creek
Darwin_Falls_049_03242006 - Julie heading back to the car to conclude our visit to Darwin Falls in March 2006

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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.

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 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.

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

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.

Death_Valley_17_009_04082017 - The parking area at the trailhead for Darwin Falls
The parking area at the trailhead for Darwin Falls

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.

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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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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