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Amargosa River Natural Area

Discover the DesertThe Amargosa River Natural Area is located at the south end of Tecopa Valley, and occupies the heart of the Tecopa Basin, east of the southeastern corner of Death Valley National Park. The area has a harsh climate, unobstructed views of desert mountains, and few human settlements.

Flowing river with rocky cliffs.
Flowing river with rocky cliff

The narrow Amargosa Canyon is known for its dense greenery and the shallow Amargosa River, complete with "hanging gardens" and a small waterfall. The river flows year-long, dropping south from Nevada, and finally flowing into Death Valley National Park.

The precious water from this desert river has allowed people to live here, on and off, for the past 8,000 years. Nature offers a variety of scenic landscapes here. Important natural systems include the river, marshes, mud hills, "riparian areas," and "salt-encrusted mud flats."

                                                       ACEC Map AMARGOSA

Amargosa River ACEC Map

The Natural Area is located in the Amargosa River Valley of southeastern Inyo County, California. This part of the Mojave Desert was declared an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern" by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- to protect plants and animals found here, that are listed under the "Endangered Species Act" of 1973.

Things to Do

Recreational activities in the area include hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, rock collecting, horseback riding, scenic touring, nature study, astronomy, and photography. Amargosa Canyon, with its wide open spaces, is a perfect place to seek tranquility. In contrast to the abundant off-highway vehicle opportunities available immediately to the south at Dumont Dunes, this area is appropriate to the serious hiker, horseback rider, and casual weekend explorer.

Children watching Waterfall.

Fun in the Sun   

Bring a sense of adventure and have fun! Here you may enjoy the serenity of the natural world. Explore wild lands, hike trails, watch sunsets, and ponder vast, unpolluted, night scenes. From October through the month of May, this area is available for your enjoyment and exploration. The climate here is not suitable for outdoor activities during the hot summer months of June through September.                                                                            


The Natural Area is "primitive," and is closed to motorized vehicles. There is wilderness here: vehicles of any kind are not allowed. There are no developed campgrounds or facilities here on public land. The community of Shoshone, California, has a gas station, a grocery store, a restaurant, a campground, an internet cafe, and a post office.

There is also a museum and a ranger station. Not far from Shoshone are the small communities of Tecopa and Tecopa Hot Springs. Nearby are located some modest commercial lodging opportunities, including a motel and facilities (with hookups) for campers and motor homes. A bakery, gift shop, and small bed-and-breakfast can be found at China Ranch, fifteen miles to the south.

Historic Trails

Looking today much as it may have thousands of years ago, the Amargosa Valley offers the opportunity to explore the wonders of the Mojave Desert. Here are found transecting traces of ancient paths. It is believed that these routes served the earliest Americans, dating from the last Ice Age. These routes were known to early Spanish explorers and later became an important feature of Mexican trade. Even later, these routes of travel were used by the U.S. Army, early American surveyors, and Mormon settlers. Seen from a broad historical perspective, they supported and carried the weight of European expansion, from the earliest explorers to migrations of modern times.

Dry wash with vegetation.

Old Spanish Trail
Many existing trails, as we have seen, are anchored to the human history of the area, and represent the coming and going of various civilizations. One important route adopted by newcomers in 1829 was named the "Spanish Trail" (later to be called the Old Spanish Trail).Initiated as a trade route, this mule trail connected Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Los Angeles, California -- both cities, prior to 1821, being part of New Spain. Between 1821 and 1848, the entire Spanish Trail was part of Old Spanish Mexico.

In 1848, the old pack trail evolved into the "Mormon Road," when settlers and soldiers flowed through the area. Much of this old trail served as a blueprint for roads and highways used today. In addition to this, more recently constructed and more visually apparent is the grade of the historic Tonopah and Tidewater ("T&T") Railroad, built by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith in 1906-1907, which also followed earlier, north-south routes of travel.

Hiking Trails Today

Several different hiking experiences are available in the Amargosa River Natural Area. While plans are being developed to create a trail network in the Tecopa Basin, existing trails are limited to hiking and horseback riding.

Hiking trail in canyon.

Hiking Trail in the Amargosa Canyon
Hiking trails include the Amargosa River Trail and the Slot Canyon trail. Highways, county-maintained roads, and federally-approved routes of travel are available for motorized touring and mountain biking. These include California State Highways 127 and 178, the Old Spanish Trail Highway, Furnace Creek Road, Mesquite Valley Road, and the Sperry Wash Route, which follows the Amargosa River north from Dumont Dunes.

The Amargosa River Trail was established on the historic T&T railroad grade, through Amargosa Canyon. This trail retraces portions of the Old Spanish Trail. The nearly level grade provides easy hiking and horseback riding opportunities. The only trailhead available to access the Amargosa River trail is located at the China Ranch Date Farm. Six miles of trail are maintained up the canyon to the north. This includes a two-mile loop trail from China Ranch to the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River, and then back up the east side of the creek.

The Slot Canyon Trail is a four mile round-trip hiking and equestrian trail that leads to a unique and interesting side canyon. To get here, take the Amargosa River Trail, from China Ranch, to the Amargosa River. Go north, along the T&T railroad grade, to the rock-lined side trail, leading west. Follow this trail a short distance to the river, cross the river, and follow the wash, up along the west bank. Cross the river with care. This is a shallow river, and you should have no difficulty. Continue up the wash, which ends in a narrow and twisted "slot canyon," with vertical walls.

The Grimshaw Lake Watchable Wildlife Site is an easy, one-mile stroll on the relatively level, abandoned T&T railroad grade. Enjoy here the wide open views of Tecopa Basin. Access to the railroad grade is from a dirt road that turns west from Tecopa Hot Springs Road, located halfway between the communities of Tecopa and Tecopa Hot Springs, a distance of approximately one mile. Look for the sign which reads "Grimshaw Lake Watchable Wildlife Site." Take the dirt road around a small hill and park adjacent to the railroad grade, which has the appearance of an old, elevated road.


Bird watching habitat in Amargosa Canyon.
Bird watching habitat near the Amargosa River 
The Amargosa River Natural Area is a classic "vagrant bird trap". This area attracts birds which have wandered from their usual migrational flight paths. Here they find all three critical habitat requirements: water, food, and shelter. Surface water here supports abundant life, creating an ecological "island" in the midst of the Mojave Desert. The landscape is dotted with natural springs and areas of dense vegetation, which provide a variety of food for wildlife.

Due to the wide variety of available habitat, the canyon has an enormous number of bird species. This is the highest riparian species richness of any site in the Mojave Desert in California. You will find birds that are either permanent residents or seasonal visitors. There are common, uncommon, rare, and "vagrant" species found here. Approximately 250 different bird species have been observed in the area.

Some important bird species include: Least Bell's Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Western Tanager, Sage Thrasher, Virginia's Warbler, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike, Crissale Thrasher, Long-eared Owl, Prairie Falcon, Raven, Turkey Vulture, and Great-horned Owl.

Badger found in Amargosa Canyon.

The area is known for a variety of bats. They include Western Pipistrelle, Big Brown, Brazilian free-tailed, Spotted, and three species of Myotis. The Natural Area contains many species of rodents, reptiles, and insects, but deserts typically do not support larger animals. There are several rodent species here, the rarest being the federally-listed Amargosa vole.

Found nowhere else in the world, it is restricted to "tulle marsh habitats" where there is permanent, year-round water. The Natural Area is also home to three species of pocket mouse; three species of kangaroo rat; two species of deer mouse; and the Western Harvest Mouse, the Southern Grasshopper Mouse, and the Desert Wood Rat. All lead a burrowing and nocturnal life.

Two common rodents living here are the White-tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel and the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel. The Natural Area also contains the Amargosa Pocket Gopher and the Botta Pocket Gopher. Rabbits and hares include the Desert Cottontail and the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Larger mammals that may prey on rodents and rabbits include the coyote, badger, bobcat, and gray fox.

East of here, Nelson's Bighorn Sheep live in the mountains of the Kingston Range. In the Nopah Range, to the northeast, mountain lions have been sighted. And, finally, to the north in the Lower Carson Slough area, there is a small herd of wild horses. These animals are federally-protected and cannot be disturbed.

Scenic Values

Pothole in rock with water inside.
Pot hole in rock with water inside
One of the most scenic drives, in and around the Amargosa River Natural Area, is the route bringing you here. There are good views of the Amargosa River Valley from Furnace Creek Wash Road, off California State Highway 178. Another scenic drive is to go east, from Tecopa, up the Old Spanish Trail Highway, toward Pahrump, Nevada.

In the spring, a wide variety of desert flowers can be seen by driving east, up Furnace Creek Road, to the foothills of the Kingston Range. There are two, undeveloped overlooks in the Natural Area, both known for their impressive views (see map). Much of the surrounding landscape here is federal wilderness, and will remain unchanged.


Unique rocks found in this area.

Only a few places for rock collecting exist in this area. All known rock collecting areas have been "worked" for many decades. Beginning in the 1850s, miners scoured the landscape, looking to collect any mineral of potential value. Collectors have worked this area since the early 1950s -- while there are still good pieces to be found, you have to work harder to find them. The most popular rock is the "petrified palm," occurring along the Sperry Wash Route.

There are trilobites at the south end of the Nopah Range, adjacent to the Old Spanish Trail Highway. They may only be collected for personal use; if collected for sale, the collector must have an archaeological permit.

There are also scattered sites with good quantities of chalcedony, agate, and gypsum. For further information, check the Barstow BLM rockhounding website, refer to Mojave Desert rockhound groups, and rock-collecting books and guides. When rockhounding, you must remain on approved routes of travel.

Cross-country and off-road travel are prohibited on the public lands throughout this area, with the exception of the Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, immediately to the south. All approved routes of travel are marked with an "Open Route" sign.


View of mountains from Amargosa Canyon.

View of Mountains from Amargosa Canyon
There are some opportunities for climbing in this area. One local challenge is to climb Rainbow Mountain, located in Amargosa Canyon. This mountain overlooks the Amargosa River, with good views looking beyond Dumont Dunes. An easier, more moderate effort is the 3-hour round-trip climb up Tecopa Peak (pictured), just west of Tecopa Hot Springs. Another easy hike is the 20-minute walk to the top of Tecopa Hill, in Tecopa Hot Springs.

Tecopa Hot Springs

This small community in eastern Inyo County is best known for its hot springs. Residents of a small Indian village, called Yaga, made regular use of the natural hot springs. In 1829 the explorer Antonio Armijo stopped here on his inauguration trip of the Spanish Trail. Captain John Fremont and Kit Carson probably stopped here in 1844.

Commercial hot springs are available for public use for a fee. For decades, Inyo County operated a free hot spring facility in the Tecopa area; this site is now operated by a private concessionaire, and a fee is charged.

Desert Safety
  1. Carry a minimum of one gallon of water per person, per day.

  2. Use sunscreen lotion, hats, and sunglasses. Long-sleeve shirts and long pants are also recommended.

  3. Keep your gas tank as full as possible. Check your tire pressure and carry at least one spare tire.

  4. Tell someone of your travel plans and give them an accurate map of where you are going.

  5. Bring a first aid kit and any personal medications you may need.

  6. Stay away from mines and open pits.

  7. During a rain, do not drive through water flowing across the road. Stay on high ground.

  8. Only drive on designated, open routes of travel.

  9. If your vehicle breaks down or you get lost, stay with your vehicle.

Map - North half of Amargosa ACEC

If you are going off-road or to a remote location, take the following: Packaged food and emergency blankets; a vehicle jack, shovel, extra water, gas, air compressor, and tire repair kit; topographic maps; a cell phone or satellite phone.

Map - South half of Amargosa ACEC