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Amargosa River
A Unique Stream in the Mojave Desert


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Amargosa River Locator Map


The Amargosa River originates in Nevada, flowing south and west into California's Mojave Desert, and then forming a giant "u" as it heads north into Death Valley National Park. Interestingly, the Nevada origin of this 200 mile-long desert river is only about 50 miles away from its eventual endpoint near Badwater in Death Valley, California.

Like most desert rivers, much of the Amargosa flows only when rare rains flood the desert washes. But more than a 20 mile segment of the river beginning near the town of Shoshone, flows perennially through public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In this region of California, the river sustains biologically rich wetlands and riparian forests, and flows through a rugged canyon defined by precipitously eroded cliffs. The Amargosa even creates an unusual but scenic desert waterfall, accessible to adventurous hikers via an abandoned railroad route which has been transformed into a foot trail.

Amargosa River
The Amargosa is an ancient river, flowing though an "antecedent canyon" that has always been its ancestral route. Along the way, the Amargosa erodes through layers of sedimentary rocks and colorful claystones deposited by the Pleistocene Lake Tecopa. Further downstream, the river cuts through younger volcanic rock, forming spectacular cliffs. Many of the geological formations are rich in fossils. One layer of volcanic ash deposited by an ancient eruption near Mammoth holds the fossil footprints of a mastodon. Another layer produced the first fossilized skeleton of a mammoth to be found near Death Valley.

"Amargosa" is Spanish for bitter. Although humans should avoid drinking from the river, countless species of wildlife and plants depend on the river for sustenance. The wetlands, springs, and riparian habitat along the river supports more than 260 bird species, including several that are considered sensitive, threatened, or endangered, including the willow fly catcher, yellow-billed cuckoo, and least Bell=s vireo. Its waters also harbor two sensitive fish species, including the desert pupfish and speckled dace. The rare Amargosa vole is found in wetlands adjacent to the river and nowhere else in the world. Golden eagles cruise the canyon sky, surveying a landscape that has changed little in thousands of years.

Amargosa Hikers
Humans have lived along the Amargosa River for more than 10,000 years. The area is rich in Native American culture. A casual walk along the desert floor near the river will often lead to cleared sleeping circles, fire stones, mortars, and other indigenous relics protected by federal law. Europeans first discovered the river when the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California was established in the early 1800's. This trail was used by many famous and infamous mountain men, and was later christened the "Mormon Road" by pioneers.

The industrial age crept into the Amargosa Canyon on the steel rails of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which began service in 1907. For 34 years, the T&TR was the lifeline for the remote Death Valley communities. Today, the rails are gone, but the rail bed provides an excellent route for a foot trail under construction by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Eventually, the trail will connect the town of Shoshone with the old railroad townsite of Sperry, just north of the Dumont Dunes. It will offer a 17 mile journey along one of the most unique and magnificently scenic desert rivers in the nation. Currently, an eight mile segment of the trail between Tecopa and China Ranch offers the opportunity to visit this canyon and experience its wonders.

Amargosa Cliffs
Friends of the River played a key role in the development and passage of the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act, which passed Congress and was signed by President Obama in March 2009. The bill protected 26 miles of the Amargosa River between Shoshone and the Dumont Dunes as a Wild & Scenic River. To learn more and to send a thank you letter to the elected representatives that made this possible, click here.

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09 Headwaters Cover

This article was published in the 2009 Spring edition of Headwaters.  To read more featured articles, click here.

How To Get There
Directions to China Ranch on the Amargosa River: The best way to access the Amargosa River is via the China Ranch Date Farm, Inyo County’s only working date palm farm. A trailhead leads from the Ranch’s store (a great place to buy date bread and date shakes) for about 2.5 miles to the Amargosa River. For more information, visit From Los Angeles, take I-15 north to Baker. Exit at Baker and take Hwy 127 north 48.2 miles to Old Spanish Trail Highway. Go right (east) on Old Spanish Trail 5.4 miles, through the small hamlet of Tecopa, to Furnace Creek Road. Turn right on Furnace Creek road and drive 1.2 miles to the intersection with China Ranch Road. Veer right on China Ranch Road and follow the signs 1.5 miles to the China Ranch Store and Amargosa River Trailhead. 

This is true desert country. Visitors should always check road conditions, carry plenty of water, and be prepared for a wide variety of inclement weather.

Recreation And Visitor Information
For up to the minute access and general recreation information, contact:
Bureau of Land Management
Barstow Field Office
2601 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311
Phone: (760) 252-6000
Fax: (760) 252-6098

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