If you’re like me, and you spent any amount of time in California in the 1990’s, chances are you saw two bumper stickers: “Keep Tahoe Blue”; or “Save the Pupfish”. Sadly, I don’t see as many Pupfish bumper stickers today as I used to, but perhaps that’s because most people don’t know where the pupfish are or what they are. There’s no reason to despair though – a visit to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail will clear up the salient facts about Pupfish, but may provide you with other mysteries of the science fiction variety.
I’m a little hesitant to call the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail a hike, as it’s a half mile walk (.5) roundtrip over a wooden boardwalk that rests beside and above Salt Creek. If it were up to me, I’d call it more of a leisurely stroll back through time, but that’s not nearly as catchy or as informative as “Interpretive Trail”, so it’s probably good that the National Park Service doesn’t consult with me on naming items. But, if you take the trail, you will indeed be traveling back in time. Salt Creek is a portion of the surviving remnants of ancient Lake Manly, which I talked about yesterday when discussing Golden Canyon (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/3/14/golden-canyon-to-zabriskie-point-death-valley-national-park.html), which existed some 186,000 years ago (http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/parks/deva/ftsho1.html). At this point, some people may find it surprising that Death Valley has standing water as it is now one of the driest, most inhospitable places on earth. But, let’s think about this rationally for a second: one of the most well-known portions of Death Valley is what? Badwater, another pool of standing water that is, yep, you guessed it, also some of the remnants of Lake Manly.
Salt Creek has something though that Badwater does not: Pupfish. These little guys are the survivors of ancient pupfish who lived in Lake Manly, and have adapted – and survived the climactic changes of over 186,000 years – no mean feat! Granted, life’s a lot harder for these little guys these days, as Death Valley is a lot hotter – and drier than Lake Manly – but, if you time it right, you’ll see them darting around Salt Creek in the early days of spring, before the thermometer edges up into the triple digits of summer, and large portions of the creek evaporate off. If the above facts about Pupfish weren’t enticing enough for you, let me hit you with one more: the Pupfish that live in Salt Creek have to drink to get their water, and they excrete the excess salts produced from the salty marsh they live in. Think about that for a second: how many fish do you know have to drink water to survive?
Directions: The turnoff for the Salt Creek Trail is thirteen miles North from Furnace Creek off the 190; and approximately (12.7) thirteen miles to the South of the 190/Scotty’s Castle junction if you are approaching from Stovepipe Wells. From the 190, the road is gravel, but is well graded, and is passable by any vehicle. The trail starts from the parking lot, which contains a pit toilet, and is an elevated boardwalk for the entirety of the half mile loop. It is impossible to get lost upon, and it is suitable for all ages, as it is very easy.
Tips: The Pupfish like to hide under algae mats (their food), or under overhanging plants by the creek, as well by the boardwalk pylons. They are quite quick, and you have to be keeping a close eye out for them as they do dart from place to place rapidly. Don’t expect to see many – if any of them if you visit the creek in the summer, as most, if not all of the creek will have evaporated off.
And now for the mystery portion of Salt Creek. If it happens to be a particularly wet year in Death Valley, or if you time it right, you will find the Salt Creek area overrun by mysterious yellow creature during the spring. These creatures have no fear at all, and will not hesitate to attack each other with their horn, or in the case of the author, his boots. 2010 was a particularly wet year, and when I was at Salt Creek, these yellow creatures were swarming all over the entirety of the marsh, which made me feel like I was playing a part in a B-grade science fiction movie: The Yellow Menace that Came From Death Valley!!!! What are they? They’re actually the larval stage of the Sphinx Moth, which are some of the larger insects of the desert, with wingspans of two to eight inches (http://www.flickr.com/photos/edhiker/3441825365/), and are not something you get to see every day. So, while it may not be a hike; Salt Creek is a great place to travel through time in real life and science fiction style.