Greetings from Death Valley National Park

My eyes open and I turn slowly in bed only to notice that sometime during the night, I’d pulled up the blanket around me for warmth. The relentless heat is subsiding; that repressive air that makes you feel that you are living in an oven is cooling. Air conditioning units aren’t blasting all day; plants and trees seem to sigh with relief as they perk their branches up and actually give us another spurt of blossoms. It’s autumn in the Las Vegas Valley and that means it’s time to go outside and explore the hidden desert treasures. But I take my time, sip some coffee out on my patio in the soothing shade. There’s no rush, because today, my treasure lies only a 1 ½ hour from home.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. What, you say? Where, you ask? Not many people know about this hidden gem. Most people fly into Las Vegas, grab a car and zoom over to Death Valley. But on the way to Death Valley, just 116 miles from Las Vegas and 13 miles from Death Valley Junction, lies this verdant paradise just waiting to be discovered. Yes, I said verdant…in the middle of the Mojave Desert, there are natural springs, fed by underground aquifers, that grace this barren land. This area has provided a home to many unique species of plants, animals, reptiles and fish as well as Native Americans, who successfully survived the brutal surrounding conditions by staying close to the life blood of these springs and wetlands. Pioneers moved in and used this area to settle while seeking riches in the mountains. The history of this area, like much of the West and Southwest, is filled with notorious characters who viewed this area as an opportunity for accumulating wealth. Thankfully, the Nature Conservancy stepped in and negotiated the protection of the area, right when it was slated for commercial development, and in 1984 it was purchased by the US Fish and Wildlife and was designated a refuge.

About 22 miles past Pahrump, I turn into the unassuming entrance to the refuge and begin my exploration along the signed turnoffs that take me to meandering boardwalks surrounded by mesquite and ash trees and over 300 species of flowers and shrubs like saltbush and creosote. Everywhere you go, there is water…clear crystalline streams of ancient water provide a unique habitat for species that you will not see anywhere else in the world. My first stop, Point of Rocks Boardwalk, snakes through lush greenery, following a small stream which ends at Kings Spring, a natural pond where the ancient pupfish live. These tiny little guys date back 20,000 years and can only be seen here at Ash Meadows. This endangered species, like 26 other endemic species here, have managed to adapt and survive in this environment. Continuing on my journey, I take a right turn to Devil’s Hole. It is here that the pupfish were first discovered and thankfully, in 1952 Devil’s Hole becomes part of the Death Valley National Monument in an effort to protect this unique fish and habitat. I walk along the dry, dusty trail and look at the barren land surrounding me and wonder how they even found this place, a hole in the mountainside that engulfs the springs flowing below. Devil’s Hole is now fenced and it’s impossible to get into the dark cave but I feel a sense of relief knowing that these fish at least have one less challenge to face as their fragile habitat seems to always be in question.

Returning to the main road, I head towards the Crystal Spring Boardwalk, an amazing open area with two large reservoirs. It is truly a confounding site…these clear blue lakes filled with water fowl and reeds in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I take a seat on a rock, pull out my water and lunch, and take in the breeze and serenity of this place. Not far from the lakes is the Visitor Center, which is a great place to view information about the refuge, nice interactive displays for kids and a boardwalk that goes to the springs. Jack Longstreet, one of this area’s colorful characters, was a prospector (and possible horse thief and hired gun as well!) who built a stone cabin in 1896 along the springs. It has been restored and can be visited as one of the last stops in the refuge.

The sun is starting to set on this gorgeous valley and I leave the refuge, content to have spent my time in this amazing place. I pull back out on the road to Pahrump…dry, barren…and all the refuge’s shades of green and blue are swirling in my mind’s eye. The ride home will be pleasant. Maybe I’ll stop at the Pahrump Winery for a wine taste and then work my way up the pine forests of Mountain Pass, then on past the colorful Red Rock Conservation Area. But those are desert gems waiting for me to discover and re-visit at another time.

Sincerely,
Michele

Death Valley National Park

A world of extremes, Death Valley is the nation's driest, hottest and lowest place, but also features mountains over 11,000 feet high that experience below-zero weather and snow, as well as colorful badlands, sand dunes and canyons. Its dramatic mountains, valleys and dunes are world renowned for their complex and diverse geology. The park also contains a wealth of well-preserved archaeological sites and petroglyphs.

State(s): California Nevada,

Established: 1933

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