The Little River That Could:
Nevada's Amargosa River

A Photo Essay, Part 4: Amargosa Valley.

There is some overlap in the satellite photos of this and the previous parts.  The image below shows more detail in the Amargosa Valley, such as the Sand Dunes, Franklin Lake Playa, and Death Valley Junction.  The distinctive dark mountain that ends the valley is called Eagle Mountain:


Anyone taking one of the public tours of Yucca Mountain will see the Amargosa Valley like this, which is a beautiful sight, but completely misses some of the charms of the up-close view, like the one shown on the photo that follows:

Looking across a farm field while in the shade of a large Salt-Cedar tree, with the Funeral Range as backdrop, can be downright captivating:

Admittedly, the valley is not this charming from every angle, but the point is that this greenery comes courtesy of the Amargosa River and its subsurface drainage.  Amazing, really, since as it enters the farming area of the valley it is but a collection of small and large meanders as it comes south from the sand dunes:

The meanders look like this:

And the merge of the Amargosa and Forty-Mile Wash is a collation of meanders like this, which may well be a part of what is left of the wash, near the river:

Near the area where the farms are, the river is still a shallow meander with most of its flow underground, and shallow enough to allow its withdrawal by wells used to irrigate crops like pistachios and alfalfa.


On the map/photo at the top of this page, an area called Ash Meadows is marked on the east side of the valley.  It is an area where there is vegetation and a lake fed by springs that release water onto the surface from the region's limestone rock aquifer.

The lake, Crystal reservoir, and its tributary, spring-fed creek, is a real pleasant surprise in this otherwise dry place:

The salt on the ground in this picture reminds us of how dry this area is:  seepage and near-surface flows evaporate leaving behind the salts dissolved in the water.  But just a little way away there is enough water (left side of picture below) coming to the surface to overwhelm the evaporative forces:

On the slope of the hill above the left end of the water is a very unique place where there is a hole exposing the regional aquifer as it flows through a cave system made by earthquake fault movements:  Devils Hole.  This is the same aquifer that feeds the springs and seeps of Ash Meadows.   Looking back to the lake shows these two locations to be just about two miles apart:

Devils Hole itself isn't much to look at:

It is a hole with water in it, and a big ugly fence around it.  But it is an important hole:  agriculture in Ash meadows was stopped by a Supreme Court decision to protect the pupfish that live in the hole.  Withdrawing water from this aquifer by pumping was endangering this unique species of small fish.

The water in this aquifer is barely saturated with calcium carbonate, and has been essentially forever (in human life spans).  Calcite slowly formed on the cave walls over a half million years, and a core taken through it shows when there have been ice ages over that span of time into the past.  This is what makes Devils Hole worth protecting, even if it is with an ugly fence.

So, water flows from Ash Meadows to the south, and, as can be seen at the map at the top of this page, it meets the Amargosa River flow at a place called Franklin Lake Playa.  On its way there, the flow from Ash Meadows and other nearby springs creates a large playa before it reaches Franklin Lake Playa, however:

The mountain in the above picture is Eagle Mountain, against which sits the Franklin Lake Playa.  To the right of Franklin lake Playa's northern boundary lies the town of Death valley Junction.  But before we go there for a break, we need to catch up with the Amargosa River.

The Amargosa River, by the time it approaches the California border, is back in a distinctive channel, surrounded by vegetation on both sides, as can be seen from the patio of the Long Street Inn and Casino on the Nevada side of the border.  This is the front of the inn, a very pleasant place:

And this is the view from the patio, with the Amargosa showing as a distinctive line of vegetation in the background, about halfway between the hotel and the Funeral Mountains:

After the river crosses the border, it looks like this for a while, with a distinctive channel:

Just a few miles later, however, near Death Valley Junction, it has broken into several meanders again, one of which looks like this, with Eagle Mountain in the distance:

Why did these last two pictures look a little washed out?  Maybe because the sun had just set on the waning moments of this impressive dust storm:

But, let's clean up, rest, and take a culture break in Death Valley Junction!


Here it is!

But this is what makes the place memorable, Marta Beckett's Amargosa Hotel and Opera House:

Marta is now 83, I believe, and still does her own performances.  But in addition, she personally decorated this hotel.  And I mean decorated with some flair and serious artistry, like these two scenes in the dining room:

And if you get room number 9, as I did, you await the arrival of the dancer who shares your room:

But even if she is delayed, you sleep soundly in your bed, also decorated in her inimitable style:

And the next morning you are refreshed and ready to tackle the last few miles of the Amargosa River's journey, underground, into Franklin Lake Playa, which is almost directly outside your hotel room.

Well, here I am at the southern edge of the playa, looking north to Death Valley Junction, which is visible as some white specks to the left of the phone lines.  It is a few short miles, is all:


Looking across Franklin lake Playa from the west, the low mountains to the left of center is where Ash Meadows is located.

Closer up, it is readily seen that the playa is a badland of soggy mud and silt caked through and through with salt left behind as the water, forced to be near the surface by a shallow bedrock, evaporates:

You can see numerous flow channels in this terrain, but the larger one is the Amargosa River, here with some water form a storm that hit the area just a few days before the picture was taken.  With the subsurface flow saturating the area, and rainfall at all results in runoff that needs, or creates, channels:

The angle of the sun in this photo shows how wet the ground surface is here (my shoes were a mess), it is thought likely that much more than 90 percent of the subsurface flow reaching this area is evaporated out:

A railroad used to run from Death Valley to Baker, early in the 20th century, here the remains of its berm are shown in front of Eagle Mountain:

The Amargosa, when it flows, also goes past Eagle Mountain as it leaves the Amargosa Valley:

It will travel about 20 miles to reach the Tecopah Valley, and the narrowness of the valley that forms the link between Amargosa and Tecopah valleys assures that the drainage has some definite shape and depth to it, even though it is only flowing after serious storms:

We will catch up with the Amargosa again just a mile or so north of the Tecopah valley and the town of Shoshone, where wonderful things will happen to our little river that could, and sometimes does.

 Go Home

Go to first Amargosa River page: Orientation

Go to second Amargosa River page: Helpers

Go to third Amargosa River page: Northern Reach

CURRENT  --   Go to fourth Amargosa River page: Amargosa Valley

NEXT  --   Go to fifth Amargosa River page: South of Eagle Mountain

Go to sixth Amargosa River page: In Death Valley