The Little River That Could:
Nevada's Amargosa River

A Photo Essay, Part 6: In Death Valley.

This last part shows some views from the area covered by this map:


When I arrived here in search of the little river that could, and sometimes did, a tourist from Georgia asked me what I was taking pictures of.  I said, "the Amargosa River."  He laughed.  He thought I was lying.  This is what we were looking at:

Obviously, it was a river.  Flowing northward into Death Valley from the south, at this point.  It was not only a river, but it was the river, the Amargosa River.  The place where we were looking at the river was the remains of the Ashford Mill:

This is what the ruins of the mill looked like from near the edge of the river:

And this is a view in the same direction from across the river:

It was early February, 2001.  There had been a storm two days before, and it was snowing and raining to the west on the Panamint range with its 11,000 foot telescope peak obscured in the clouds.  But the valley floor, and thus the  river, at least at this location, was dry.


Signs show where the Lake Manly shoreline was during the last ice age.  Not a great ice age in terms of allowing the Owens River to help the Amargosa fill the lake, but great enough to allow the Mojave to contribute.

The view behind the sign is across the suthern portion of Death Valley, with the same mountains in the background as in the drawing on the sign.  The yellowish deposit is the continuation of the Amargosa River, this location is only about a mile from where the river lies in sands, some of which are carried onto the darker sediments of the valley bottom here.


For at least the last ten years there has only been a trace of rain in the bottom of the valley itself, at the place where the official weather for Death valley is measured a bit to the north of this locale.  According to the climatology book that only showed a previous ten year period in the 80's and 90's, that is.  A period of some very dry years and some wetter years.  Death Valley has essentially the same weather as upper Egypt in terms of rain (a little) and heat (a lot).  Salt on and in the ground indicates areas where water is coming up to the surface and evaporating, discharge areas for what are largely underground rivers except during very large storm events:

But, and it is a big but, the terrain in the pictures above is wet.  It is muddy though salt encrusted and saturated.   And in some very few places it has real water:

We are getting closer and closer to the end of the river.


Speaking of weather, there was snow falling to the west on the Panamint's upper reaches, but the bottom of Badwater kept on evaporating and collecting salt:

At this termination place it all ends.  Water from the north and from the south flows here, mostly seeping below the surface, and evaporates leaving its salt loading behind.  This is the place called Badwater, where pools of water are saltier than the ocean!

Badwater is a salty place, and its "soil" is so salt indurated that it holds in water, making it "wet" even during the height of summer.  No wonder we need salt in our bodies in summer, it keeps moisture from evaporating away.  So keep drinking that Gatorade when you sweat.

Badwater is a great place to visit.  How low can you go is answered here:

And if you don't know just how low 280 feet is, just look up the wall behind you:

The little white sign shows where sea level is.  And the eastern wall is also the location of Dante's View, a great place to look out over Death Valley, at just under 6,000 feet above where this photo was taken:

The farther range at the little saddle in the center of the photo is where a road takes you that gives you this view for example:

This photo was taken just a week earlier, and shows the snowy mountains that surround Death Valley in the wintertime.  But we are up here to see the Amargosa River, so let's look:

Way down below, over a mile down, lies the bottom of the southern slopes of Death Valley with what looks like three rivers coming from left to right, south to north, until they all stop at Badwater.  The river closest to us is the Amargosa, but so is the one in the middle, and so is the one at the far end!   The river meanders and bifurcates several times upstream.  The meanders nearest the mountains on both sides also carry water from local runoff channels.  One arm of the Amargosa seems to terminate in a shiny lake.  A little round one.  Maybe so, but on the ground I could not find a lake, only wet-appearing salt flats in the drainage approaching Badwater:

Is this whiteness the "lake" we saw from above?  Maybe.  I don't think so, since it isn't round, but this is in the Amargosa drainage and very close, essentially right next to, Badwater:

Badwater has very little water, actually.  It is mostly this type of evaporative discharge terrain:

And to see just how extensive this salty plain is, one needs to hike (or drive) back up to Dantes View:

In this view, the creek that contributes water (and salt, inevitably) from the north is apparent.  The famous Death Valley sand dunes lie at the foot of the mountain at near the top center, sloping down to the right, and farther to the right and a bit more in this direction is the Furnace Creek resort area (where there is a dark squarish area surrounded by a sand colored area, a very large alluvial fan for those interested in such things, just above the rock on the right in the picture below):

Death Valley is a big place, a rift-like valley (but not a true rift valley) caused by the separation of the earth rather than by the cutting action of rivers.  It is dramatic in its height of mountains and depth of valleys, is still deepening and growing around its edges, and represents the extreme of the processes creating the mountains and valleys of the Basin and Range province that stretches, with its north-south running mountain ranges, from here to Utah's Wasatch range.

Because it was formed by the earth separating at fault lines, causing some blocks to rise and others to fall, and not by rivers cutting into a plateau like at Zion Canyon for example, it allows water to escape only by evaporation.  This is true for a number of valleys throughout the Basin and Range.

The National Park Service has cooperated with the US Geological Survey to create a phenomenally informative website on Death Valley at

On one page in that site it says: "By about 2 million years ago, Pleistocene time in Death Valley, the major topographic features of Death Valley had formed.  However, there were still big changes ahead. Earth's climate began to oscillate between warm conditions (like today's climate) and colder conditions (ice ages).  During these colder conditions, continental ice sheets expanded from the polar regions of the globe to lower latitudes, and the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains sported alpine glaciers. There were no glaciers in Death Valley, but with the cooler and wetter climate, rivers flowed into the valley year round.

"Since the valleys in the Basin and Range region formed by faulting, not by river erosion, many of the basins have no outlets, meaning they will fill up with water like a bathtub until they overflow into the next valley.  During the cooler and wetter climates, much of eastern California, all of Nevada, and western Utah was covered by large lakes.  Death Valley was the last of a chain of lakes fed by the Amargosa and Mojave Rivers, and possibly also the Owens River."

Today, however, while we are hot and dry between ice ages, only the Amargosa is shown on maps as a river flowing into Death Valley.  In addition, the same US Geological Survey is continuing to do work and continues to interpret its newest findings.  Based on those findings it may be necessary to modify the sweeping statement about Nevada valleys and their lakes.  It appears now that the Tecopah Valley, for example, did not have a sizable lake in it, but just had a lot of seeps and swamps at its margins, a larger lake than is there now, and a flowing and wider Amargosa River.  A subtle difference, but a difference.

But, back to Death Valley:  Another view of the lowest point in the valley is this, and one can see here, just to the right of the two rocks with snow in between them, the trace of one of the meanders of the Amargosa into the playa at Badwater:

So, we have seen where the Amargosa River came from.  But while we are up here at Dantes View let's look behind us:  There are three mountain ranges visible.  Between the first and the second one lies the Amargosa Valley from whence the river takes its name.  Between the second range and the snowy one with the clouds lies Pahrump Valley.  The snowy range is the Spring Range, with its Mt. Charleston at nearly 12,000 feet.  Mt. Charleston and the Spring Range dominates and defines part of the Las Vegas Valley farther to the east.

And now it is time to say good-bye to this fascinating part of the North American continent, where a little river that looks like it can't even grow a real tree occasionally asserts itself and makes a lake in a very unlikely place: the bottom of Death Valley.  A place where it is usually so hot and dry that summer tourists learn the survival value of sports drinks and copious amounts of water!  The sun pulls water out of a living body at an alarming rate during those times, and thinking of the little river and its occasional triumph here can crack a genuine smile into a sun- and wind-dried face!

 Go Home

Go to first Amargosa River page: Orientation

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

CURRENT  --  Go to sixth Amargosa River page: In Death Valley