Death Valley National Park wildflower trip: Salt Creek Trail

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On the afternoon of my 3rd day visiting Death Valley National Park, after hiking in Titus Canyon my plan was to visit Salt Creek and go on a short hike there. When I got back in my car at Titus Canyon it was about 3pm and I had a 20-mile drive, with a short detour planned. Also, I wanted to explore the Salt Creek Trail with sufficient time before sunset at 5pm, so I needed to be careful about temptations to stop and look at too many other things on the way!

The detour was to a landmark noted on the park map as Historic Stovepipe Well. I thought that should be interesting since I was sure there was a story behind the name of the Stovepipe Wells village and visitor center. The landmark is about 0.8 mile down a gravel road from Scotty’s Castle Rd, a few miles north of its junction with CA-190. An interpretive sign explains that, in the days of mining activities at Rhyolite and Skidoo, now both ghost towns, there were very few known watering holes on the valley floor. Because they regularly got obscured by blowing sand, eventually someone stuck a stovepipe into the ground to mark the spot. Here is what it looks like today.

picture of Stovepipe Well

Stovepipe Well

It’s evident that the local area is very sandy. In fact, if you look southeast from this well, you can see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes only about 5 miles away. (I was already planning to visit them the next morning.)

Along the access road to the well I noted clusters of desert gold close to the side of the road. I also noticed that, just to the side of the road, there were sand berms about a foot high. I stopped to look more carefully and found that there was an interesting pattern of wind-generated ripples along the side-wall of the berm. The yellow flowers nearby are desert gold. I could see fields of desert gold a bit further away.

picture of sand berm with wind-generated ripples

Sand berm with wind-generated ripples

By the time I got to the trailhead for the Salt Creek Trail, at the end of a 1-mile long gravel road that connects to CA-190 between Mud Canyon and Beatty Junction, it was already 4pm. The interpretive trail, which is on a boardwalk, is less than 1 mile long, so I actually had time to explore a short section of an informal connecting trail that continues along Salt Creek for about 5 miles to the Devil’s Cornfield area. In the GPS track image the parking area, denoted by the orange dot, is at the right; the boardwalk portion includes the small loop in the middle, and the section at the left was the beginning of the trail to the Devil’s Cornfield. The elevation change for this walk was certainly less than 20 feet, but it is noteworthy that the base elevation was more than 200 feet below sea level.

GPS track

GPS track

It was quite surprising to see an actual creek flowing on the floor of Death Valley. Salt Creek originates from brackish springs about 1 mile from the trailhead, and the amount of water changes seasonally. Farther from the springs the water gets even more salty due to evaporation. In some places near the boardwalk the water flow was quite evident and surprisingly swift.

picture of Salt Creek

Salt Creek

In spite of the high salt content, some plants and animals can thrive. The most evident plants are salt grass and pickleweed (Allenrolfea occidentalis), also called iodine bush.

picture of pickleweed along the side of Salt Creek

Pickleweed along the side of Salt Creek

Perhaps the most surprising inhabitants of the creek are Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus), also called Death Valley pupfish. There are two subspecies, each of which lives only in a very limited area; Salt Creek is one of the areas. Because much of the creek dries up in the summer, the only year-round habitat for the 1.5-inch long fish is some pools very near the springs. The pupfish have adapted to very warm and salty conditions: Salt Creek can be saltier than oceans. It is likely that several subspecies that are currently isolated from each other used to be a single species living in Lake Manly, a lake that covered the floor of Death Valley until some 10,000 years ago.

Like other visitors, I looked into the creek and hoped to see pupfish – but I didn’t see any. However, a woman I encountered near the end of my walk was pretty sure she had seen one.

When I reached the far end of the boardwalk loop, barely a half mile from my car, I found the informal or use trail onto the salt flat and did a short exploration. The path of the trail is clear, with gentle curves through the crusty soil.

picture of use trail near Salt Creek Trail

Use trail near Salt Creek Trail

When I had been walking about a half hour I turned around. The trail continues nearly 5 miles to Devil’s Cornfield, but I didn’t have enough time to walk that far – or a car waiting for me there.

On the way back to the boardwalk I enjoyed views of hills generally to the east, nicely side-lit by the sun.

picture of side-lit hills near Salt Creek

Side-lit hills near Salt Creek

After returning to the boardwalk I continued around the loop on the south side. The main part of the creek was in the middle of the loop, and I noticed that there were reflections of the plants lining the creek banks. Again, it was pretty amazing to see water reflections in Death Valley!

picture of reflections of plants in Salt Creek

Reflections of plants in Salt Creek

When I got back to the trailhead parking area I spent a few minutes exploring nearby, since the creek actually flows right past. It was interesting to note that the shadow of nearby Tucki Mountain was moving across the eastern side of Death Valley toward the Funeral Mountains. There was still enough light to see the Funeral Mountains reflected in Salt Creek.

picture of sunset with the Funeral Mountains reflected in Salt Creek

Sunset with the Funeral Mountains reflected in Salt Creek

I got in my car and monitored the progress of the sunset as I started driving back toward CA-190 at the end of the gravel road.  The sunlight turned the hills almost red. Here is a view to the north, with Corkscrew Peak at the left of the skyline, in the Grapevine Mountains.

picture of Corkscrew Peak (left) and the Grapevine Mountains just before sunset

Corkscrew Peak (left) and the Grapevine Mountains just before sunset

There were some wildflowers next to the road so I investigated more carefully while I still had enough light to see. I found brown-eyed evening primroses (Chylismia claviformis) as well as some hybrids between brown-eyed and golden evening primroses (Chylismia brevipes). There was also a bit of desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra). After reaching CA-190 I did a short 2-mile jog east before starting north up Beatty Cutoff to Daylight Pass Rd. Even in the fading light of dusk I could see a huge field of wildflowers, primarily desert gold (Geraea canescens) and brown-eyed evening primrose, with a few flashes of purple indicating caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calvifolia). Once again distinctive Corkscrew Peak is at the left of the skyline.

picture of wildflowers along Beatty Cutoff Rd at dusk

Wildflowers along Beatty Cutoff Rd at dusk

Finally, nearly a half hour after actual sunset, I continued onward to my Beatty, NV, overnight accommodations without further stops. My evening odometer check showed 150 miles for the day. In the morning I would visit the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes and a couple of other sights before ending my stay at Death Valley.

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