When you think of Death Valley, you probably think of an arid desert and extremely high temperatures. Maybe you think of rattlesnakes, lizards, and scrub brush. All those elements seem appropriate for a place named “Death Valley.”
But one small area of the park defies these descriptions of Death Valley. It is an oasis of trees and lush vegetation, cool, flowing water and waterfalls, and colorful dragonflies. Darwin Falls is located in the Panamint Springs area of Death Valley near the western edge of the park, and as I discovered during my visit earlier this year, it is a surprising and refreshing contrast to the rest of the park.
After driving a couple miles on a dirt road, I arrived at the parking area. From there it was about a mile hike to the first of the falls. When I started hiking it was about 85 or 90 degrees outside, and the terrain was the typical Death Valley mountain and desert landscape. As I proceeded, I became aware of some changes in the environment, however. I heard crickets, and there were some large bushes that I wouldn’t normally expect to find in Death Valley. Then there were puddles of water on the path.
These changes quickly opened up into a completely different environment. I heard the running water of a stream, and I was protected from the hot sun by the shade of large trees. I crossed the stream a few times. There was a large pool of water, and I could see tadpoles swimming in it. I continued and began to hear the louder sound of a larger waterfall. Along the way, many dragonflies were flying around the area. I turned the corner and arrived at the Darwin Falls. As I approached, I imagined it might only be a mirage. The flowing water and green vegetation seemed completely out of place in Death Valley.
The water, fed by a spring that sustains the falls year round, poured down fifteen feet into a small but relatively deep pool. It was cold water, and several people came to take a dip in it while I was there. Both red and blue dragonflies inhabit the area. I noticed that the blue ones liked to land on logs and other things, and the larger red ones liked to fly around more. It was a completely surreal scene. It felt like a fantasy. Was this really Death Valley?
It was Death Valley, and it’s another one of the stunningly beautiful features of the Mojave Desert I have encountered in Death Valley National Park. Unlike those other features, however, this small area of refuge is truly an oasis in the desert.