The Little River That Could:
Nevada's Amargosa River

A Photo Essay, Part 1: Orientation.


Earlier in my life, with little children in the home, and later, with visiting grandchildren, it has been my pleasure to read to them the Little Golden Book version of "The Little Engine That Could."  The story is about a little train engine that had to struggle and strain to be able to do what needed doing.  But in the end it met its challenge!

The Amargosa River is like that little engine.  Normally it is little and dry, and has no way of overcoming the powerful forces that make water disappear out of Death Valley.  But sometimes, with a little help from several friends, it puffs up and with great determination completely overpowers the sun's drying force and fills that valley with a big lake!  It is the little river that could, and occasionally does!

The Amargosa River is the only river currently flowing into Death Valley, and its flow is mostly underground.  During ice ages, however, the stream flows just like a real river, and it is aided in its lake-making project by the Mojave River which is also usually dry during this current climate.  During an ice age the Mojave comes north across several low barriers, fills several dry lakes to overflowing, like the Soda, the Silver, and the Silurian dry lakes, finds Salt Creek, and through it joins the Amargosa before it reaches Death Valley.

And sometimes, not every time, an ice age is so deep and powerful that the Amargosa's western cousin, the Owens River, which now fills Owens Lake and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, spreads into its neighboring valleys filling China Lake (now dry) and Searles Lake (now dry), and with about a 600 foot rise manages to enter Death Valley through Wingate Pass to join the Amargosa.  Well, if it is such a great ice age, the lake (Lake Manly) at the bottom of the valley may actually be the recipient of overflow from the west.

So what makes this a story worthy of your attention?  Simply this:  looking at the Amargosa River today would never in a million years suggest to you that it is The Little River That Could, And Occasionally Does!!

Let's take a look.  Since the little river covers a lot of territory, we'll look in two parts:  first its northern beginnings as a named river not far from the city of Beatty, Nevada, and then its southern terminus in a salty and muddy place aptly called Badwater, in Death Valley, California.

This section is illustrated by two satellite photos taken from 425 miles up.
It serves to provide a large-scale look.  The sections on the pages that follow will illustrate the details, in words, yes, sorry about that, but also in pictures.


The text you are about to read, if you choose to read it, is based on the landmarks identified in the picture shown above.

The named Amargosa River begins with several drainages that come together just north of Beatty, Nevada.

One branch, about 3 miles north of Beatty, comes from the east where it drains a portion of Timber Mountain.  Timber Mountain is an ancient volcanic caldera (a collapsed volcano, like Crater Lake in Oregon, but smaller and dry) that was part of a system of calderas that, for millions of years centered around 13 million years ago, pumped huge amounts of volcanic rock fragments and powder, called ash, into the skies and down its slopes, covering the region and piling ash up quite high nearby, thus forming mountains like Yucca Mountain and many others.

That is the eastern branch.  The main northern branch drains a portion of the volcanic mountains making up Pahute Mesa.  Although these drainages sound like they are major waterways, on the February day in 2001 on which I visited them the northern tributary was a meander through a meadow, and the eastern tributary discussed above was a dry gulch.  This in spite of lots of snow melting in the upper reaches of the volcanic mountains to the north and east.

But, the northern drainage, coming through Oasis Valley, and hence the Amargosa River, had some running water in it that disappeared underground just south of Beatty.  There the bedrock that was shallower before, in, and through Beatty took a dive, and deep sediment layers became the bed of the river, allowing the water to move down and continue its journey south below the surface.  The Amargosa River below Beatty has entered the Amargosa Desert, the Amargosa Valley.

In subsequent pages, I will show photographs of these areas, but I did not venture far from the highway or an occasional graded dirt road for several good reasons.  The drainage in Oasis Valley that continues north and then west, as well as the aforementioned tributary coming in to the river from the east just above Beatty, can be followed on jeep trails.  But they cannot be pursued too far, because they either meet the Nellis Air Force Range or the Nevada Test Site boundaries, making both off limits to the public from those points on.  But advice from someone who knows the area is that even with a jeep he wouldn't make book on being able to drive these drainages all the way to those boundaries.  And being confined to a sedan as I was, I did not venture far off the paved road system.  Caution is the better part of safety.

Timber Mountain and the higher elevation areas of the mountains of Pahute Mesa is high enough to capture more snow and rain than valley bottoms do.  This supports the growth of Pinion pine and Juniper trees.  During ice ages, these trees migrate downward a few thousand feet since rainfall amounts increase to double, or in an extreme ice age triple, normal amounts.  The summer heat is also moderated.  Rivers that are now dry flow, and dry lakes become wet lakes.  What a great place to live while much of Canada and many northern states of the US are completely covered with ice making life impossible!

But, back to the present!  Below Beatty as it enters Amargosa Valley and moves southeast, the main channel is met by a tributary from the east that drains the upper reaches of the Amargosa Valley that lie against the Grapevine Mountains.  A little farther to the south the river follows the slopes of the Funeral Range and meets another tributary from the north, Fortymile Wash.  Speculation has it that Fortymile, which has a sizable canyon associated with it in its upper reaches on the side of the high calderas, flows year 'round during ice ages.  But in the present climate it may have an occasional flash flood in it, once or twice per decade.

As Fortymile enters deeper into Amargosa Valley it spreads into many shallow meandering channels, and it does not offer a clearly defined place where it merges with the Amargosa River channel.  The river is itself also a number of meandering shallow branches as it enters the central part of Amargosa Valley just prior to reaching the foot of the Funeral Range.  When I told a knowledgeable friend of my doubts about there being a flowing river here, ever, he said that perhaps there are deeper channels during such times, but they are covered in with wind-blown sediments during the drier climates.  Well, hmmm.  Maybe so, since this is the area with active sand movement during frequent wind storms, and sand dunes are the local outdoor recreation spot.  OK.

Subsurface flow usually parallels surface flow.  Almost all the underground flow of the Amargosa River drainage through Amargosa Valley is thought to evaporate at Franklin Lake Playa at the south end of the valley, ending at Eagle Mountain (see bottom right of above photo for locations).

The playa is the whitish streak above the dark rock of Eagle Mountain.  It is a place where sediments overlie a bedrock that doesn't allow much water flow into it, is shallow, and forces flow sufficiently near the surface that the sun can evaporate it, leaving a salty badland over quite a large area.  The Amargosa River channel cuts through this area of obvious evaporation, and carries runoff from large or localized storm events out of the valley.  And, according to my geologist friends, it flows continuously during an ice age even though the playa still continues to carry out its evaporative role.  Much flow is underground even if there is surface flow, in fact underground flow is even greater during those times, and evaporation continues, perhaps at a lesser rate because it is somewhat wetter and cooler throughout the year.

The photo may suggest that there is not much of a barrier between this south end of the Amargosa Valley and Death Valley.  There appears to be a canyon from Eagle Mountain into Death Valley.  And there is a canyon there, the road to Furnace Creek from Death Valley Junction runs through it.  But the canyon has a divide, it crosses over a mountain pass.  The elevation difference between the pass and Franklin Lake Playa is a thousand feet!

In several locations along the Amargosa drainage, there appears to be flow upward from a regional, large, carbonate aquifer (water flowing through limestone rock, the type laid down in shallow seas a very, very long time ago).  Water that comes to the surface in seeps and springs then flows along the surface, disappears underground, and flows downward to the Amargosa drainage.  This is plain to see at the northeastern boundary of Amargosa Valley, at a place called Ash Meadows, which seems to be a major southward feed into Franklin Lake Playa (see above photo as well as photo below).

It is time to move into the southern reaches of the Amargosa drainage.  Remember Eagle Mountain, I am using it is the divide between the northern and southern reaches.


Water coming out of the ground from the region's carbonate aquifer, as observed in Ash Meadows, also seems to occur in the Tecopah Valley, south of Eagle Mountain, which is also drained by the southward flowing Amargosa River.   In the Tecopah Valley, some springs and hot springs show chemical evidence, as do the Ash Meadows springs, for being from the region's deep limestone rock flow system that seems to be dominated by water perhaps coming from as far away as the northern faces of the Spring Range, with its extensive 10,000 foot and higher reaches.   There are also more local seeps and springs that seems to represent local water capture by mountains around the edges of the valley.

There is enough inflow from springs and seeps in the Tecopah Valley that at its southern reaches the river is actually carrying water much of the year.  In its northern Tecopah valley reaches, seeps support grasses, brush, and trees in and near the river.  Thus, where there is water in the Amargosa River in Tecopah Valley, it is likely to be water that never saw the upper reaches of the river, but was captured locally or farther away by ranges like the Spring Range (toward Las Vegas) that entered the region's carbonate aquifer and slowly flowed west then south, deep underground, until it reached places where that aquifer comes very near the surface, allowing water to seep out into the overlying sediments, and in some places to flow onto the surface out of springs.

Tecopah Valley used to be thought of as a location for a large lake during ice ages, and the official Death Valley website, a joint venture between the National park Service and the US Geological Survey, says that during the last ice age all Nevada valleys were filled with lakes.  That is an overstatement.  That same US Geological Survey, according to one of its scientists, is now coming to the idea that Tecopah Valley may have seen swamps and seeps at all its margins, but the drainage provided by the Amargosa River through a rocky canyon to the south allowed a lake that was, at best, a few times larger than the current, seep-fed lake in the valley.

As the Amargosa turns from its southward course as a flowing river through rock, in Amargosa Canyon, and turns west to enter Death Valley, it again flows through deep sediments and goes underground, except during large regional or very local storm events or ice ages.  It is in its initial turn west that it would meet the mighty Mojave River, during an ice age.

As the drainage enters Death Valley it spreads into several meanders, again, and as the valley deepens the underground flow comes nearer the surface and evaporates, leaving more and more salt on the surface as it moves lower and lower.  Finally, the salt and water of Badwater, the lowest point in the valley as well as in the U.S., is where all the water still in the Amargosa drainage finally evaporates.

That is even true for the permanently flowing Amargosa River of the last ice age that represented the little river that did, overwhelm the evaporation rate that is.  As the ice age waned, Lake Manly receded and finally disappeared into the atmosphere, leaving Badwater for us to gawk at with well-earned awe and reverence!

The above picture does not show the pass through which the Owens River may have lent the little river that could, and did, a helping hand.  We will show that location on the next page.

 Go Home

CURRENT  --  Go to first Amargosa River page: Orientation

NEXT  --  Go to second Amargosa River page: Helpers

Go to third Amargosa River page: Northern Reach

Go to fourth Amargosa River page: Amargosa Valley

Go tofifth Amargosa River page: South of Eagle Mountain

Go to sixth Amargosa River page: In Death Valley