Treasures of the Mojave Desert: Part 3 in a series

Darwin landmarks are portals through space and time

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Treasures of the Mojave Desert: Part 3 in a seriesTaking in the scene of a cascading waterfall in a secluded fern gully, it’s hard to believe you’re still in the middle of the desert, and not the Amazon rainforest. But for anyone looking for a similarly restorative day trip, we in the Indian Wells Valley don’t have very far to travel.

After 30 years in the desert, I’ve learned that what might appear to the casual observer as a monochromatic wasteland is actually a trove of beauty, history and wildlife. Few of these treasures lie more hidden than Darwin Falls.

I must first confess my unrepentant bias toward this locale, as it was the site of my first outing with my (now) husband almost exactly 18 years ago — back when only I was aware of our simmering romance. In part because we had not been back since, I chose it as the destination for our Mother’s Day hike (which, years later, includes our six children in tow).

Despite having been there before, I had forgotten how the exotic grandeur of this gem on the edge of Death Valley sits in vibrant contrast to its harsh and barely habitable surroundings.

Spring of 1999 must have also been a comparatively dry season, since that disparity was not nearly so dynamic on our first trip. I remember the “hike” being more of a casual stroll through a somewhat sparsely vegetated pathway, hemmed in by plutonic canyon walls, that led to the lower falls.

This year, the short(ish) hike from the parking lot abruptly turns from a desert trail to a riparian forest complete will all manner of critters (not counting those of the two-legged variety we temporarily imported).

The trade off for the extra-lush landscape is that the latter part of the precarious trek requires more agile navigation. Signs at the trailhead warn visitors not to swim, but a footfall or 10 mucking through the gaps in the dirt pathways, rocky ledges and fallen branches left us none the worse for the wear.

And in those moments when our hands were free, we captured plenty of images of birds, bugs, beasts and butterflies to shore up our memories.

The vision at the end of the trail is awe-inspiring. Only part of that comes from the novelty of seeing a landmark so out of character for the desert. I think the greater surge is by such a compelling reminder of the rejuvenating, lifegiving power of water — made more precious to us for its scarcity.

Up until recently, I had always assumed that the falls took their name from the famed evolutionist. But it turns out the landmark, along with the nearby wilderness and living ghost town that share the moniker, were named for the explorer Dr. Erasmus Darwin French.

On a whim, we decided to continue our adventures on Sunday with a visit to the town of Darwin, where we learned more about Dr. French and the significance the settlement played in early California history.

French was born in New York in 1822, attended seminary, studied medicine and served in the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Mexican-American War.

After coming out west to “make his fortune,” he crossed paths in the 1840s with some lost settlers who mistakenly wandered through the perilous Death Valley.

He reportedly heard about a silver lode in the midst of the valley and led at least two expeditions to find it (neither of which was successful). The town that bears his name, however, became a center of mining activity in the area for decades.

According to a plaque outside the town, dedicated in 1981 by the New Coso Heritage Society, recorded production of the mining district between 1875 and 1951 yielded 5,914 ounces of gold, 7.6 million ounces of silver, 117.6 million pounds of lead, 52 million pounds of zinc and 1.4 million pounds of copper (the total of which, in today’s dollars, would be valued around $332.3 million).

The town’s population peaked at several thousand residents during the 1870s, but is down to only a few dozen today. The mine, though abandoned, still stands on the hillside on the left side of the main street leading into town. Farther in are many other residences, some modern and occupied, others antiquated and long-vacant. Among the structures is one that resembles a desert Stonehenge, complete with shade and surrounding sculptures.

To get to the falls from Ridgecrest, head east on Highway 178 and continue on that road through Trona and onward until you reach the 190, where you turn west. The access road to the Darwin Falls trailhead is unmarked (until you’re already on the road), but it’s the first left about 1 mile past Panamint Springs. The town of Darwin is a couple of miles off the 190 and also poorly marked from that direction, about 45 minutes further west on the 190.

The time to take in the sights and travel along the roads, including enough time to stop at Father Crowley Vista and maybe even a short jaunt into Saline Valley (which is atypically green just now), makes a perfect day trip.

Just as the town of Darwin is a reminder of the temporal existence of humans and the societies we create, the falls themselves stand for the constancy of nature. Hopefully, that site will continue to bring beauty and inspiration to travelers for generations to come.

Story First Published: 2017-05-19