Chapter 13: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
The forecast had called for mild, clement weather, with temperatures in the 70’s for the Amargosa Valley. But then a strong, Mojave breeze seized the region. The November wind was howling nearly gale force when I arrived at Ash Meadows. It would continue this way all day, and the temperature would never rise above 67.
But I wasn’t going to let that deter me. I surveyed the blowing dust ahead, steeled my determination, and pressed the gas. Within a hundred yards, my car left the pavement and vibrated over a dirt road, toward the Visitors Center about a mile away.
It’s a national wildlife refuge, not a national park (except the 40 acres around Devils Hole), so I didn’t expect amenities like paved roads, food kiosks, or public transportation. Nor did I want those things. They attract crowds, and I hate crowds when I’m trying to enjoy nature.
Although it’s a wildlife “refuge,” hunting is allowed, ironically. At Ash Meadows you can deploy a shotgun and bird dog to bag quail, geese, ducks, coots, moorhen, snipe, dove, cottontail, jackrabbits, and jackalopes. But at least no fishing is allowed, so the fish have a true refuge here, safe from humans.
The Visitors Center surprised me. It was a huge, modern building, and promised things like maps, souvenir shopping, and public restrooms. But it was closed, due to Covid. But that was okay, because I had procured a map at a rack near the entrance. And I have little use for souvenirs.
Behind the Visitors Center was a boardwalk, leading toward a patch of green in the distance. The wind flung my hat off, and I had to chase it down. I waved a white flag of surrender to the breeze and walked my hat back to my car for safekeeping. Then off to the boardwalk I returned, struggling against the near-gale, with bald pate exposed to the skin-cancerous sun.
This was the Crystal Spring hike. A 0.9 mile loop, according to the sign. During the first of this walk I was surrounded by a low-shrubbed, beige desert, sprinkled with salt. An informational sign revealed that this was a rare alkali meadow, due to the presence of salts. As such, it was a unique kind of meadow that harbored rare plants.
It’s one of the starkest sort of landscapes you might ever witness. Takes a bit of getting used to, to find the beauty in it. But it’s there. After all, how often do you see a white-covered landscape, where the white is salt, and not snow?
Beyond the alkali meadow lies Crystal Spring. According to the informational sign, the bottom of the spring is 15 feet deep, and every minute, 2,800 gallons of fresh water flows into this spring from the earth below. It comes from limestone bedrock, that has been collecting water for thousands of years, in an aquifer. “Fossil water,” they call it, due to its age. The water is 87 degrees, year-round. The Amargosa pupfish swims in this water, having evolved and adapted to the unusually warm temperature.
There were informational signs at every one of the three featured hikes at this refuge, by the way. The signs were well-maintained and educated the visitor about this unusual environ. All three hikes are short boardwalk strolls, and make for easy walking. And the boardwalks were in good repair. In fact I was impressed with how well-maintained I found nearly everything at Ash Meadows. And there were pit-toilet style restrooms available at every trailhead (Except the Visitors Center, which likely has more modern restrooms. However, like I said, it was closed).
Crystal Spring overflows into a creek that eventually trickles into the Crystal Reservoir. This is a man-made reservoir, constructed by farmers back in the 1960s. It makes for a surprisingly large lake that visitors are allowed to swim, and even boat on. But today there were no boats, due to the high winds and swollen waves sweeping over the water’s surface.
I made it back to my car without blowing away, and proceeded to Devils Hole. This was a 3.6 mile drive from the Visitors Center, over a fairly bumpy dirt road. Devils Hole is both impressive and a letdown. It’s a short, five-minute walk from where you park, but you can’t go down into the hole itself and get close to the water.
The water is where the famous and extremely rare Devils Hole pupfish reside. Tourists can’t be trusted to get near that water, or who knows what foreign objects they might throw in there, that would disturb the fish. So you are relegated to an observation platform, high above and away from the Devils Hole opening, with a cage-like structure that prevents any tossing of anything into the home of the pupfish.
You can’t see any pupfish from that distance, unless maybe with binoculars. Which I did not bring. Nor can you hear them barking, if indeed pupfish bark. But I did feel amazed, knowing I was staring at a hole in the ground that had been there for 60,000 years, and where one of the world’s rarest fish evolved. How that resilient fish managed to stick it out in this confined, isolated hole in the ground for this long, is truly one of the wonders of this world.
My next stop was a four-mile drive to Point of Rocks. This is a 2/3 mile boardwalk hike that leads to Kings Pool. Kings Pool is another warm, artesian spring. In ancient times, natives believed this body of water possessed special powers, and they gathered here for celebrations and other solemn occasions.
The waters of Kings Pool are crystal clear, with a hint of turquoise. The contrast of this pool, against the surrounding barren desert, is stark. Like Crystal Pool, Kings Pool overflows into a stream that meanders away toward Carson Slough.
I could tell just by casual observation that one hell of a lot of restoration work had been completed at Ash Meadows, over the past 36 years that it has been a national wildlife refuge. But much more work remains. The Carson Slough is still mostly straight, due to the modifications made by Spring Meadows, Inc. Restoring it to its former, windy, twisty watercourse where it can create the kind of swampland that once attracted large flocks of migratory birds, remains a project for the future.
If such restoration was left to nature, it would take many thousands of years. The human hand destroyed this watercourse, so the human hand must be employed to bring it back to its former self in any of our lifetimes.
But there was one restoration project that had been completed, that I wanted to see next. And that was Jack Longstreet’s restored cabin. It had been destroyed by a flash flood in 1984. But fortunately, there were enough extant photos of it that it was able to be restored, in 2006, to look very much like Longstreet’s original design.
The drive to his cabin and Longstreet Spring was 3.4 miles, one-way, from the Visitors Center. The road was bumpy and I dared not damage the suspension of my precious car by driving faster than 10 to 15 miles per hour, even though the speed limit sign allowed 35 mph.
I parked at the trailhead, and only had to walk about 3 minutes to reach the cabin and spring. Visitors can step inside and get the same view through the door and windows that ol’ Jack must have enjoyed more than a century ago.
One bonus to my excursion this day, was that there was hardly anybody else at Ash Meadows. This must have been due to a number of factors including: Hardly anybody knows about this wildlife refuge; it was the middle of the week; the wind was blowing hard as a cheap whore; and Covid. I met nobody on the trails, and only passed by three vehicles on the dirt roads, the entire time I was there.
I spent about six hours at Ash Meadows, enjoying the hikes and scenery, in spite of the powerful, cool wind. Once I exited and found paved road, the drive back to Longstreet Casino was an easy 10 minutes. But by the time I got back I had a splitting headache, probably from the effects of both the wind, and my frickin’ heart rhythm going out of whack, due to all my physical activity.
But it was worth it. I love nature, and I’ve fallen in love with Ash Meadows. I only hope this beautiful jewel of the desert will soon be completely restored to all of its former glory.
The migratory birds are anxiously waiting.