January 12, 2016

Strange Amargosa River creates series of Mojave oases

The Amargosa River winds its way through a canyon near China Ranch Date Farm on its way to Death Valley. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file photo)

By Margo Bartlett Pesek
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Amargosa River, a strange desert stream that runs mostly underground, meanders 185 miles through the Mojave Desert. Starting in the hills near Beatty, it courses south and loops north to end up in California at Badwater in Death Valley National Park, only about 50 miles from where it began.

Where the river runs on the desert surface, it creates a series of oases with running water, wetlands, lush vegetation, even a waterfall in Amargosa Canyon, a protected 26-mile section between Shoshone, Calif., and Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area.

Set aside by law in 2009, the portion of the river through Amargosa Canyon is listed as one of America's Wild and Scenic Rivers. It is considered an area of critical environmental concern because of several species of endangered animals and plants found nowhere else. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management as the Amargosa River Natural Area, the canyon is open to public use for a wide variety of recreational pursuits compatible with species protection aims.

Off-highway driving is restricted to the high sand mountains and extensive sand seas that make up the Dumont Dunes south of the protected area. This attraction draws crowds of enthusiasts during cool-season weekends and holidays. The nearby Amargosa River Natural Area and other public lands are closed to off-roaders. Motorized vehicles must stay on roads and trails marked for their use. There are many miles of paved and unpaved tracks open to scenic touring and exploration in the area.

To reach the region from Las Vegas, head south on Interstate 15 to state Route 160, the road to Pahrump Valley. Watch for the turnoff from Route 160 onto the Old Spanish Trail Highway toward Tecopa and Shoshone, named for the famous overland route between Santa Fe, N.M., and Los Angeles used during the 1800s. You can also continue to Pahrump and turn on state Route 178 to reach Shoshone at the junction with state Route 129, then turn south to reach Tecopa. Some travelers continue south on I-15 to Baker, Calif., then turn north on state Route 129 toward Shoshone, a route often preferred by off-roaders heading for Dumont Dunes.

Humans have been living in and traveling through the Amargosa area for thousands of years. Visitors today see signs of their passing in occasional petroglyphs, grinding holes pockmarking stone in traditional camping areas, scattered rock chips from making stone points and tools and roasting pits where food was cooked in the ground. Early hunters and gatherers followed the water to find game and the natural foods that grew along the ancient stream. The Amargosa River has been cutting its way through ancient layers of stone in this area for a long time as it carved its deep little canyon.

The plants, birds and animals remain attractions drawing humans to this area, but today they come to watch, admire and photograph the creatures drawn to the oasis. Visitors walk, hike, climb, ride horses and mountain bike along trails in the area. At least 250 kinds of birds have been sighted, both residents and migrants. Many rabbits, rodents and other small creatures live there. Nighttime brings out myriad stars, several kinds of bats and nocturnal hunters such as owls, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.

The old grade of the long-defunct Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad now provides pathways to points of interest along the river, including the 6-mile Amargosa River Trail with its trailhead at China Ranch, a date farm in a side canyon south of Tecopa Hot Springs off Furnace Creek Road.

Ask at China Ranch how to reach the 4-mile round-trip Slot Canyon Trail. Allow yourself time to sample the baked goods, dates, gifts and milkshakes at China Ranch.

The Grimshaw Lake Watchable Wildlife site is near the old railroad grade, about a mile along a dirt road west of the highway halfway between Tecopa Hot Springs and the community of Tecopa. Private and public bathhouses and resorts are a draw at the hot springs. Details for hikers, climbers and rockhounds can be found at blm.gov/barstow/amargosa.