This oasis at the southeastern tip of Death Valley is rich with history of the Old Spanish Trail, Mormon mines and what is believed to be the oldest standing structure in the Mojave Desert.
“Though they comprise less than 9 percent of the 270 million acres of public lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, riparian and wetland areas, such as Salt Creek, are considered the most productive resources found on public lands. The United States has lost more than half of its wetlands in the course of the last two centuries. While this decline has slowed in recent years, the conservation of wetlands in America remains a serious matter. Even at the current reduced rate of loss (one half million acres annually), America will see the last of its wetlands disappear within the next two centuries.”
The Salt Creek Hills area is one of those places that travelers often ignore as they make their way towards Death Valley National Park. Big mistake. This short two hour side trip is a great way to see one of Death Valley’s rare desert wetlands and a historic mining district discovered by Mormons as they made their west from Salt Lake. Visitors will find a well-marked trail with numerous interpretive signs heading northeast from the parking lot.
Water flow generated by several small desert springs, as well as winter drainage from neighboring Silurian Valley, come together at Salt Creek Hills to form a unique tributary to the Amargosa River known as Salt Creek. The Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) has designated Salt Creek Hills as an ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) in order to maintain the sensitive riparian wildlife habitat and to protect a variety of cultural sites located in the area.
Saltcedar, which was introduced into the United States in the early 1800’s for ornamental use and as windbreaks has successfully invaded nearly every riparian and wetland system in the Southwest. The Bureau of Land Management began to remove saltcedar from Salt Creek in 1992.
A grove of Athel trees provides shade and protection from the hot desert sun and is a great place to picnic before heading further along the hike. In past years owls have roosted, mated and nested in this small grove. Long-eared owls, great horned owls and many other birds and wildlife use areas like these, near wetlands and desert streams, to hide from predators, gain shelter from the harsh desert climate and raise families.
Originating from the Middle East, Athel’s were first brought to the Mojave Desert by settlers in the late 1800’s. Surviving on very little water, this tough and hardy tree is well adapted to harsh Mojave Desert conditions.
After leaving the shaded area, the trail crosses over a stream and winds its way through a short, narrow canyon.
The trail seems to disappear…
…but it’s not hard to find once you make your way out of the canyon.
Looking back towards the Avawatz Mountains.
As you continue along the trail you’ll begin to see the ruins of the Salt Creek Mining District.
In 1849, Jefferson Hunt led seven Mormon wagons along the Old Spanish Trail. While preparing to camp at Salt Spring, Hunt’s party discovered gold nuggets in the wash and in quartz ledges along the canyon. The resulting mines were worked off and on until 1920. They produced a large amount of gold from small rich pockets, but the isolated nature of the site, the poor quality of the water, a lack of readily available wood, and predatory Indians made it almost impossible to establish large scale mines here.
There are numerous adits, shafts and prospects in the area.
Most of the vertical shafts have been covered with large metal grates…
…but there’s plenty of other shallow openings to explore.
Remnants from the areas rich history can be found throughout the site.
The Amargosa House is also the oldest standing structure in San Bernardino County.
The Salt Creek Hills area usually doesn’t attract a lot of visitors, so it’s a great place to find solitude before heading into the park.
The trailhead for Salt Creek Hills is located along Hwy 127, approximately 29 miles north of Baker or 27 miles south of Shoshone. Signs for the parking area, restrooms and trailhead are easily seen along highway 127 as you’re making your way towards Death Valley National Park.