My husband and I are huge fans of waterfalls, so it should come as no surprise that we were immediately surprised and intrigued by Death Valley National Park’s Darwin Falls. We had to find this little hidden gem, nestled between the dry desert canyon walls and explore it for ourselves. Keep reading as I am sharing our hiking guide to Darwin Falls in Death Valley National Park for episode 5 of our journey to complete 52 in 52!
Getting to Darwin Falls Trailhead
One of the reasons why Darwin Falls has remained the hidden gem of Death Valley is its remoteness from the other popular attractions around the park. It might be just a 4-mile drive away from the small Panamint Springs Resort, however, you would have to plan about an hour if coming from Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek Campgrounds.
As you are following Highway 190 West, take a left onto Old Toll Road. The next 2.5 miles is a narrow gravel road that you have to drive along before reaching the trailhead. The road is quite rocky and the park recommends only taking it if you have a high clearance vehicle. We drive a small SUV and we were able to make it, but it was a very bumpy and slow-going adventure in and of itself. We were quite anxious about the drive after we lost our license plate the day before on another dirt road in Death Valley, but my husband had a quick discussion with the park rangers to ensure our car is suited for the adventure. Strongly recommend checking with them if you have any concerns!
After about 2.5 miles keep your eyes open for a small parking area to the right. The road continues and your GPS might suggest you follow it, but this is the official Darwin Falls Trailhead marked by a sign at the end of the parking lot.
When to Visit Darwin Falls
As a year-round waterfall, Darwin Falls is technically suitable for a visit any time. As it gets unbearably hot during the summer, Death Valley National Park does not advise taking this hike after 10 AM during the warmer months.
If you have read my last two episodes of the 52 in 52 series, you might already know that we visited Death Valley National Park in January. If you are also planning a trip to the “hottest, driest and lowest national park”, I strongly recommend the winter season to avoid unbearingly hot adventures.
Darwin Falls was the last stop of our itinerary before heading back home and we were treated to a beautiful, sunny “winter” day. We only managed to hit the trail just a bit before noon. The weather was extremely pleasant and though the parking lot was full, the trail was not as crowded as other sights across the park. I normally suggest getting an early start to beat the crowds and avoid the heat, but with Darwin Falls you can allow yourselves a few additional hours in the morning.
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About the Trail
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Duration: 1 – 2 hours round trip
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Access: Access is free once you have paid the $30.00 entrance fee to Death Valley National Park
Dogs: Not Allowed
Starting Point: 36.327824, -117.514060
The dry, wide canyon wash, which marks the beginning of the trail, is par for the course for those who have already spent some time in Death Valley National Park. Surrounded by the desert landscape, you might be wondering if you are really going to find a waterfall at the end of this hike! The answer is yes, so keep on walking! For about half a mile, the trail is flat and easy but it is also fully exposed to direct sunlight. Despite the lack of any trail markers, following the dirt wash is not difficult at all. Eventually, we came upon the scantest amount of water in the canyon wash. Words cannot describe how goofy and excited we got at the sight of water! The slow trickle of water caught our attention and we had to explore further. It was remarkable to find even the smallest amount of water in what my husband semi-affectionately calls a ‘hell-scape’!
As we continued along the trail, the canyon walls started to narrow and we entered the shaded part of the path. The change of scenery was almost immediate. In the deep shade away from the burning sun rays, small green bushes found a place to grow. Just a few steps further and we found ourselves in a lush passage, surrounded by thriving green vegetation. The quiet but steady burble of flowing water increased along with our excitement with every step, indicating that we were getting closer.
And just 0.7 miles into the hike, we reached a small and charming cascade. We knew we had not reached the highlight of the trail yet, but it was impossible not to stop and snap a few photos!
A short but challenging section of the trail follows. The path disappears behind a collection of massive boulders. Scrambling over the rocks is required to pass. The terrain is sandy and can be slippery with wet shoes so be cautious (especially if hiking with children or older adventurers). Old, fallen tree branches and a narrow stream cover large portions of the path for you to make your way past. You have to carefully pass over some rocks and cross from one side to another of the flowing water. The stream is extremely shallow and wearing good hiking shoes is crucial to find your way through.
Just another few steps are needed for the beautiful Darwin Falls to come into sight with all of its glory! Gorgeously cascading from a 25-foot tall cliff, the water falls on a rock and splits into two smaller streams before falling into a small pond beneath. Nestled in between the canyon walls and surrounded by lush vegetation, Darwin Falls is a hidden oasis in Death Valley National Park!
There is very little room at the base of the waterfall with barely anywhere to sit and admire the charming cascade. On the left side along the canyon walls, we found a route up the rocks suitable for climbing. We scrambled up a bit higher and spent some time soaking in and appreciating the uniqueness of Darwin Falls. It might not be the highest and most remarkable waterfall you have ever seen, but its existence in an arid desert is what makes it so special and extraordinary.
Our hike ended with the lower Darwin Falls. We were unaware that there is a larger, 80-foot upper waterfall about 2 miles farther up. Even with this knowledge, I am unsure how we would have made it there as all paths seem to end at the lower falls and it was not in the hiking guide we received from the Park Service. The lower falls were incredible and it was by far our favourite part of the park. We were astounded that something so vibrant and beautiful existed in a land filled with harsh extremes.
Following the same route back to the parking area took us less than 30 minutes, even though we kept stopping along the way for one last chance to immerse ourselves in the scenery. Both my husband and I agreed that Darwin Falls was the highlight of our Death Valley National Park adventure. On the way back home, we discussed how we were both able to recharge and rejuvenate our souls after this short little hike! We are people who definitely prefer being surrounded by lush green nature and Death Valley was a bit too hostile and dry for our liking. Even still, we could not agree more that our trip through Death Valley National Park was a truly remarkable one. The unconventional, yet spectacular beauty of Death Valley is something that we have not encountered before and we were so grateful we had the chance to take this trip.
As we drove back home, we did not have any big grand hikes planned for a while as this hike was planned last minute, who knows where this year will take us! Definitely looking forward to all the upcoming adventures in our attempt to complete 52 hikes in 52 weeks! In the meantime, you may also want to JOIN THE 52 HIKE CHALLENGE for Yourself!