The name, Darwin Falls, immediately brings to mind the famous English naturalist, Charles Darwin, who in the 1830s visited the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, fascinated with the variation in species on the string of isolated islands. This and other observations on his many journeys eventually led Darwin to publish his ground-breaking theory of natural selection in 1859 under the title, On the Origin of Species.
Though Darwin Falls was discovered by another Darwin, Erasmus Darwin French, in the 1840s and, unlike the Galapagos Islands, it is not surrounded by water, there are striking similarities. Erasmus Darwin French was not a naturalist, but a prospector in search of silver. He used the spring-fed oasis, Darwin Falls, as his base of operations. Darwin Falls is surrounded by a sea of arid desert, perhaps effectively isolating its species of plants and animal life similar to the isolation of each of the Galapagos Islands.
Darwin Falls oasis is fed by a spring so powerful that it cascades as a large waterfall 80 feet down a cliff face year-round, giving rise to a seemingly unique and isolated tropical community of birds, frogs, reeds, ferns and trees surrounding the large pond at the base of the falls. The stream and the unique life zone then meanders along another quarter mile creating a few smaller singing waterfalls before finally disappearing into the floor of the arid desert canyon below.
So powerful is the spring that it is the water source for the small village of Panamint Springs just a few miles below. You can see the water pipeline skirting the base of the canyon as it heads for Panamint Springs.
I suggest you make this adventure trip in the Fall through Spring seasons as Summer temperatures can rise toward 120 degrees and maybe beyond.
From Las Vegas take Hyw 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) to Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn left on Scotty’s Castle Road. Turn right again on Hwy 190 to Stovepipe Wells. Continue on Hwy 190 past Panamint Springs Resort. A little less than one mile after Panamint Springs Resort turn left onto an unmarked, unpaved Old Toll Road toward Darwin Springs. There is a marker identifying Darwin Falls Road about 200 feet up the road, but the marker is not visible from Hwy 190. In less than 2 miles of rather decent unpaved road reach the Darwin Falls Trailhead. My little Smart Car made it, so your car probably will, provided that the road has not been damaged by the elements before you make the trip. Yes, there are a few knarly spots along the way, but nothing to worry about. The trailhead has ample parking for about 20 vehicles (40 Smart Cars, by the way), but the parking area can fill up rapidly during the Fall through Spring seasons.
Darwin Falls Road to the trailhead is about 2 miles.
Darwin Falls Trail is a short round-trip of about 2 miles. From the trailhead proceed up the right side of the canyon along the route of the water pipe. For the first 3/4 mile until you reach the stream, the trail is pretty distinct. You can also head up the center of the canyon if you enjoy trudging through loose gravel. The trail is firmer ground. Note how the topography changes from bleak arid desert at the trailhead to thickening small plants and eventually taller trees.
At the base of the stream you can see exactly where the water disappears into the canyon floor. As you continue upward the stream becomes healthier and you quickly find yourself in a zone of tall trees and abundant brush on either side of the trail. At points along the final 1/4th mile to Darwin Falls the exact route will become a bit sketchy. There are a few choices as to which side of the stream to traverse and in places a few brief but totally manageable rock scrambles. The key is to keep your feet as dry as possible as you ascend from lower wet areas onto very smooth rocky sections along the route.
There’s a beautiful rocky section about half way through the plant zone with a 6-foot babbling waterfall and 200ft stream cascading and then meandering down through the solid rock base. I spent some time in this place as there is more sunlight, it’s usually warmer and a little more solitude as most of the visitors tend to congregate just below Darwin Falls. I recorded the sounds of water here and placed a 5-minute reel on my Water in the Desert page.
Just below this small lower falls I crossed over the stream to continue along the right side of the canyon for a bit, then crossed the stream again to ascend to an awesome vantage point above Darwin Falls. You can continue, instead, along the right side of the canyon right to the base of Darwin Falls, but the high vantage point on the left wall of the canyon is well worth it. Actually, it’s very easy to reach both vantage points below Darwin Falls.
For some reason, the return trip back down to the trailhead was much easier to navigate due to being down hill along with familiarity with the route.