Valley Spring is a unique habitat located 5 miles northwest of Saratoga Spring that contains ponds, streams, grasses and plants, and rare pupfish. Difficulties encountered on visiting the area include having the proper HC (high clearance) or 4WD vehicle to reach the parking area, avoiding sinking into areas of mud and water, and treading lightly on all areas around the ponds. A topographical map of the walking route can be found by clicking on the button above. GPS coordinates for the parking area are 35.732009, -116.537305. GPS coordinates for the downstream beginning of the hike are 35.736179, -116.526448. GPS coordinates for the end of the hike at Valley Spring are 35.721428, -116.500063.
Valley Spring is the only place in Death Valley National Park where you can see the Amargosa River flowing year-round. That fact alone makes it worth a visit. The Amargosa River begins in the hills near Beatty, Nevada and takes a horseshoe-shaped route as it heads south, then west, and finally north into Death Valley. Most people only take notice of the Amargosa River when they are driving across the (usually dry) river crossings, such as on the Harry Wade Road in the Owlsheads and on the lower portion of West Side Road. This is because the Amargosa River is an intermittent desert stream. For most of its length, the river flows underground except when it has been raining in the area, after which there can be a lot of surface water flowing downstream. An exception to this occurs at Valley Spring, where there is always surface water. The highlights of visiting Valley Spring include being able to enjoy a 2-mile walk along the banks of the Amargosa River, seeing several large scenic ponds, checking out the plant and bird life (such as the Common snipe pictured below), and seeing the rare Amargosa River pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis amargosae). Before I get into a more in-depth discussion of these highlights, a word of caution is in order. The Valley Spring area varies between easy-to-difficult walking terrain. There are areas where you can comfortably walk alongside the river and enjoy the ponds and streams. But there are other areas where the brush is overgrown and the terrain is challenging with soft ground, sinking mud, a high water table, and no clear routes. Even though wild burros tend to trample all over the place, it is best to try to minimize impact and leave as few footprints as possible. As an example of what can happen, I took one step on ground that looked stable. It wasn't and I sunk several feet down into mud and hidden water. Upon returning home, I had to throw away my shoes as they had been destroyed by the harsh minerals. Getting back to the highlights, a visit to this area allows you to see some beautiful ponds, narrow streams, colorful grasses and reeds, and even tiny waterfalls. Three of the most spectacular ponds are located near an area of soft hills, which allows you to climb the hills for an impressive overview. (Just be careful and don't get too close to the edge of the hill cliffs, as the terrain could easily collapse and send you falling.) Being that Valley Spring is a place that most people have never even heard of, it makes it even more special to be one of the few who have ever visited.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of a visit to Valley Spring is finding and seeing the Amargosa River pupfish. That is not an easy task, but we were successful after spending several hours searching around. The substrate (or soil where the pupfish thrive) is made up of small particles that include silt, clay, and sand. Blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) is present and provides food for the pupfish, and some of the streams and ponds are covered by what might be referred to as "pond scum". Here are a few notes about the Valley Spring area and Amargosa River pupfish paraphrased from scientific research papers: (1) The water has a salinity ranging from 3-18 ppt depending upon the season. (2) Water temperatures vary from 50-100°F annually though they may drop to near freezing in severe winters. (3) The pupfish have a very short generation time (less than one year and usually just a few months) and can grow to a length of 50-65 mm. (4) In addition to their usual food source mentioned above, pupfish can also feed seasonally on lesser amounts of small invertebrates and mosquito larvae. They are known to forage continuously throughout the day but are less active at night. (5) Peak breeding season happens during summer, when water temperatures are higher and food is abundant. However, breeding may occur year-round and they are capable of multiple generations in a year.
For our visit to Valley Spring, we started at the lower (northern) end where the Amargosa River goes back underground. We then worked our way upstream (heading south), crossing back and forth across the river where it was possible based on the walking terrain. We checked out all of the ponds and stream channels we could find. Part of this included checking out several major forks, which each have unique scenery. Our hike ended near the source of Valley Spring as marked on topographical maps. And indeed, a short distance upstream of that spot, the Amargosa River went completely dry once again. It was a fascinating area to check out and made for a good half-day of hiking. For the starting point, we parked our vehicle 2.7 miles south of the Amargosa River crossing on Harry Wade Road and headed east through the interesting foothills until we reached the riverbed. As a side note, this area is best visited during the dry season (but not summer which can be dangerously hot), because during the rainy season the ponds and streams will be overflowing and the habitat will look completely different. It will also be much more difficult to cross back and forth over a heavily-flowing river. Our hike was a 6-mile loop and took place on November 20, 2017.
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
TRIP REPORT FORMAT