Darwin Falls is an oasis of life at the edge of Death Valley National Park. The cool river water flowing through Darwin Canyon irrigates a trench of green amid sharply carved plutonic rock. The Upper and Lower Falls are the tallest in Death Valley and draw many visitors, but further climbing continues up the wash into solitude. A four mile roundtrip goes far beyond the Upper Falls, and near the end of the oasis.
- 2 miles roundtrip to the Lower Falls, we did about 5 miles roundtrip climbing beyond the Upper Falls
- Hazardous rock climbing optional beyond Lower Falls
- Tallest waterfalls in Death Valley!
The journey to Death Valley was an adventure in itself, involving a flat tire and possible alien abductions, but I won’t get to that in this space. Our adventure started early in the morning, as most good ones do. Up the 14 to 395, into Olancha, and finally, 190 into the park. If you’ve never been to Death Valley before, this entrance is particularly dramatic. Before reaching Panamint Springs, which is at the edge of the basin, the Old Toll Road is a dirt road on the right. It takes about 15-20 minutes to drive down to the trailhead, and is completely possible to do without a 4×4 in dry conditions.
After making sandwiches at noon we set off into Darwin Wash, a mostly dry bone in the desert dotted with scrub. Soon we were in the haven of an oasis; as water flows through this canyon, so does life. The foliage of trees nestled in the bottom provide welcome shade and coolness from the hot sun. Reaching the first waterfall, the Lower Falls, is a piece of cake. I’ve seen all ages and conditions make it here.
We stopped briefly at the first waterfall, and climbed up the rock canyon walls to the left. You’ll see very quickly that this is either not your thing, or that you’re in for a challenge. Although there are a limited number of ways to get up safely, at this point the trail is open to interpretation as you scale the canyon walls. Specialized gear and training are not necessary here, but use caution. The rock is unstable in some places, so keep an eye out for loose hand holds.
The Upper Falls are taller than the previous, and you’ll get a great view of them from a balcony elevated above the river bed. We continued climbing from this vantage and made it over the Upper Falls. From the top of the canyon we had a glimpse of distant peaks, but also of the green river bed snaking through desert. Climbing down, we wandered around shallow pools that most visitors don’t see.
We descended in late afternoon to begin the search for a campsite, though lightning storms prevented us from staying that night.