Death Valley Puddles – Indian Pass

The Park Service website describes the route to Indian Pass in the Funeral Mountains on the east side of Death Valley as “moderately strenuous,” and gives an indication that there is a reliable source of water. This seemed to be the ideal backcountry excursion for the three days we would spend in the park for the long Martin Luther King Day weekend. There is no trail and finding the correct route into the mountains while standing on Highway 190 can prove slightly challenging.  For example, after initially consulting the map I mistakenly took a gap between the prominent Nevares Peak and the rest of the range as our route. Once we did locate the pass in the range by comparing our map data with GPS and compass, we ventured up the broad gravel alluvial fan toward the hills.

Hole in barren bluff running perpendicular to Funeral Mountains - photo Zach Schwing

A few miles up this broad drainage, we became boxed-in by a maze of low barren hills and bluffs running perpendicular to the range. The maze among these hills must have formed in part as the mountains were violently washed out by successive floods. At one point we hiked short distance up a “u” in the hills only to find a steep drop of perhaps 200 to 300 feet into the wash we were supposed to be hiking into. We were able to work around onto a broad ridge of blackened and baked gravel and drop back into the drainage we intended.

In our wandering we came across a road running up a small hill before the drainage really deepened at the very foot of the real mountains. This road ran for at most a quarter mile along the rim of the drainage, then was lost in an apparent washout. The existence of the road itself is rather mysterious, clearly it existed prior to the declaration of large portions of the park as a wilderness area. It was perhaps originally constructed as an unsuccessful prospecting road or perhaps it was merely a road used by jeep enthusiasts. Whatever its purpose, its relative utility seems to have not matched the efforts that went into actually constructing it – and this short section, already being slowly reclaimed by the creosote.

Early evening reflection on Indian Pass- photo Zach Schwing

The rest of the afternoon’s hike was rather uneventful once we found our way into the drainage. We passed the first mapped spring which had no available water as the mesquite trees were rather selfishly keeping it all to themselves. On approaching the spring, the change in atmosphere and the odor of damp gravel and robust plant life became immediately apparent. We did note a number of hoof tracks in the gravel most likely from desert sheep leading up the drainage to the water source.

We made our camp in a relatively sheltered “u” of rock washed down the canyon. The evening was ideal and we were able to sleep without the rainfly. We also regretted our 0° sleeping bags. The moon was nearly full in a the clear desert sky, so stargazing was made a bit difficult; even so, Orion, Gemini, Cassiopeia and a few of the night sky’s other winter evening champions still did make their appearances.

Tent in Indian Pass wash- photo Zach Schwing

The next day, the rest of our hike up the drainage to Indian Pass was fairly straightforward. The drainage winds back and forth up the mountain – not unlike a switchbacking road. The surrounding dry blasted black, blue and reddish mountains contrasted with the clean-washed gravel wash interspersed with green creosote bushes.

Cattails in a small pocket - photo Zach Schwing

After a short walk from our camp we came upon the upper – and more significant – spring.  Here there was water with actual flow, it ran over rocks and in and out of the gravel floor of the drainage. In this region of the mountain we also found standing puddles of rainwater in places that remain untouched by the winter sun. We marveled at the way the water flowed through this dry place. Soft green grass had just started to push up on the margins of this flow and we found pockets under the sheltered slots of the canyon where six foot cattails grow. We also found that in some of the standing puddles there were small aquatic animals which looked similar to brine shrimp. Beyond these significant signs of life that seemed completely disjointed with the surrounding landscape of blasted hills, the lime-green algae and scum growing on some of the puddles provided a finishing touch on the paradox of this environment.

Sheep skull- photo Zach Schwing

The presence of open surface water does attract all sort of animals. There were several hoof marks in the gravel and at one point we came across the skull and spinal column of a bighorn sheep. Unfortunately, we did not see any living specimens. Beyond the spring region the canyon opens and flattens significantly as it approaches Indian Pass. There were a few narrow patches in the rock – a few with nicely polished rock. We did not hike directly to the pass, since the wash itself narrowly misses the jeep track coming in from the east side of the Funeral Mountains.

Our hike back down the drainage was uneventful. We saw where we had made our error when we hiked in – the drainage is split by a couple of ridges and we had headed for the south side of the alluvial fan we were on, we should have followed farthest ridge to the north.

The entire hike was a very nice taste of the Mojave environment. So much of it resembles a planet that I am not familiar with. Its very desolation, its utter silence in the evening, provides a reminder that we can still escape the buzzing distraction of human civilization. Moreover, at least for me, I can still be completely marveled by small things – like finding a puddle of water in a canyon.


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