Not long ago, I and my wife set off on a unicorn hunt. We tracked the spoor of unicorns, northward on a trail that led us to a fantastic alcove hidden away near the western edge of the North American continent. Nobody knows just what this geological region is, but humans have taken to calling it the Amargosa Valley.
Located at a parallel of about 36 degrees north and a meridian of about 116 degrees west, the Amargosa Valley torches the northernmost finger of the great Mojave Desert. By “torches” I mean heat. It readily gets into triple-digit heat in the summer, and has mild winters that barely cool it off.
But no wonder it gets so warm. The elevation ranges from about 1,700 feet to 2,700 feet, making it a semi-low desert. Also, it’s right next to one of the hottest places on Earth, its sister valley to the west, known as Death Valley.
Over the past several hundreds of millions of years, all kinds of uplifts, subductions, metamorphism, faulting, rifting, erupting, glaciating, and eroding has gone on in this area. And the geological dyskrasia has created many crazy things.
Death Valley itself is thousands of feet below sea level, to its bedrock. But over the eons, eroding sediments from surrounding mountains have covered the bedrock and brought the valley floor up to 282 feet below sea level, at its lowest point. This is a hellish locale known as Badwater Basin, and is the lowest spot on the North American continent.
Badwater Basin is a playa of crusty alkali and salt water that is filled from the south by the Amargosa River.
The waters of the Amargosa River, when you can find its waters, are bitter to the taste, due to their alkalinity. Hence the name. Amargo is Spanish for bitter. Agua amargosa means “bitter water.” The river bed is usually dry on the surface, except during those rare, wet winters and springs when the annual precipitation greatly exceeds its normal average of 4.29 inches of rainfall.
But below its dry bed flows a year-round miracle. For the Amargosa is mostly an underground river.
The waters are born at Thirsty Canyon, about 14 miles north of Beatty, Nevada, and flow southward, below the surface. They pass the Bullfrog Hills, and are fed by the likes of Sober-Up Gulch and Beatty Wash. They slosh above ground near Beatty, then submerge again, as they navigate the Amargosa Narrows. Below ground, they’re welcomed by the roots of the Amargosa Desert, with Bare Mountain flanking their east and the Grapevine and Funeral Mountains of Death Valley flanking their west.
Now these subversive waters, lurking below the feet of horny toads, roadrunners, and human beans, pass Big Dune, the town of Amargosa Valley, and enter Inyo County, California.
The ancient, life-giving waters of Carson Slough, from Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, pour into this river, providing it with a bountiful fillip as it threads its way lower and lower and further and further south.
The journey south is exhaustively long, for this underground waterway. After traveling for more than 40 miles from its headwaters, before trespassing into California, it continues for 36 more miles.
It crosses beneath Death Valley Junction, past the Greenwater and Nopah ranges , and the town of Shoshone, then rises above ground through Amargosa Canyon, for about a 20-mile stretch, where you’ll find the riparian Amargosa River Natural Area.
Diving below the surface again, it passes Tecopa Hot Springs, along the Old Spanish Trail, between the Sperry Hills and Dumont Hills, until it finally hooks north near the Dumont Dunes of San Bernardino County. This is only 30 miles north of Baker, California, home of the world’s largest thermometer.
Now it must revert, heading 50 miles back north by northwest, to reach its final destination at Badwater Basin. This peregrination carries it between the Owlshead Mountains and Ibex Hills, while it absorbs new waters from occasional thunderstorms and flash floods that spring up in the Confidence Wash and Rhodes Wash.
Into Death Valley National Park it finally crawls, gasping for new water from Willow Creek, while piercing the gap between the Amargosa Range to the east and the Avawatz Mountains to the west. It continues its quest, conquering the underground space between the steep escarpment of the Black Mountains on its right, and the high-riding Panamint Range, with its 11,049 foot Telescope Peak, on its left, before finally pouring into Badwater Basin. And here these magical, fugacious waters emerge, then disappear into the ground again, replenishing an ancient aquifer that was once known as Lake Manly.
This is the second installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 2: Birth of an Oasis. Click here, to read the first installation.