The Salt/Saline Pools of the Devil’s Golf Course

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley

Death Valley is one of the most interesting places on the planet. From the lowest spot in North America (Badwater, -282 feet below sea level), to some of the hottest temperatures on the planet, it is a place where fact meets myth. Death Valley is, and has been a region with an amazing geologic history, and a rich cultural history. From charcoal kilns, mines, tall mountains, volcanic craters, sand dunes, a castle, and more, this is an area that has its own myths, and calls out for its visitors to come up with their own stories, myths, and adventures. While the idea of Death Valley as a place of myths, legends and more goes against the more mainstream perception of it as a place that is a sterile wasteland, the former is what Death Valley really is. One of the most intriguing facts and locations about Death Valley that could be a myth are the salt and saline pools of the Devil's Golf Course.

Devil's Golf Course, Telescope Peak, Death Valley

The Devil's Golf Course is an area of Death Valley that is close to Badwater. While it is not quite as far below sea level as Badwater, this is an area that is also below sea level. But like Badwater, it shares a common geologic past. Over twenty thousand years ago, the valley floor of Death Valley was not barren and desolate - but instead was covered with water - a large body of water known to geologists and historians as Lake Manly. Lake Manly was full of minerals from the surrounding terrain; and over the course of time, as it evaporated, it left those minerals - and sedimentary rocks behind. Today, what remains are salt crystals from the bottom of the lake - and borax crystal formations. These crystals have grown into an extensive – and hard network of structures. As you can see from the pictures above, the crystal formations have covered the area in a network of sharp formations that are between one to two feet high and are close together. As the area is difficult to traverse on foot, one can only imagine the difficulty one would have attempting to play any sort of golf game (hence the name). While the crystals are spectacular, where myth and fact meet are with the secret pools of water that remain interspersed among the formations.

Salt Pool, Devil's Golf Course (2005)

In 2005, I was out examining some of the crystal formations in the Devil’s Golf Course when I saw a break in the pure white crystal growths. At that moment, I was convinced I was dreaming, because what I saw looked like a pool of water. I looked away, and gently shook my head, convinced that when I looked back, the pool would be gone - a simple desert mirage. But, when I looked back, there it was again, roughly six feet wide by eight feet deep. Now, this was an early morning in November – it wasn’t hot, and there weren’t shivering rippling lines of heat rising from the ground. Nevertheless, I was convinced that it was a mirage. I mildly pinched my arm as I kept walking to it, because it had to be an illusion of some sort. Then, I was next to it, and there it was, a wide pool that was at least ten feet deep, of clear, almost pure green water. I didn’t believe it. I was out on the hardpan, one of the driest, hottest places on Earth, where in the summer, triple digit heat regularly falls upon the terrain in sky-dropping scorching fashion; and yet, here was this large pool of water, obviously connected to an ancient past. Simply put, there was water – lots of water where none should be. And if that isn’t something out of a myth to you, I don’t know what a myth is.

I sat there for a while; touched the water, considered diving in (which I ruled out due to a number of factors, including personal safety and salt content), and marveled at it. At that time, the thing the pool reminded me the most of was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. In one of the later chapters, the travelers find an island with a mysterious clear pool of water, which turns things to gold. Sadly – or happily, the pool in Death Valley does not have such mystic properties; but there could be many myths made about it. In 2010, when I was back in Death Valley, I went back to the Devil’s Golf Course to see if the pool was still there; because even though I had photographic proof that it existed, I doubted my memories that it had been really there. I spent a long time wandering around the area that I thought it was in; and was just about to give up, writing the pool off as a myth, when I found it again. It was slightly smaller, but it was the same pool. In February of this year, I stopped by to see again, if it indeed still existed, and sure enough, it was still there, albeit a lot smaller.

As an amateur geologist, my theory is that the surrounding salt crystals are slowly forming over the pool, but as to how the pools form, I’m at a loss. (If there’s an actual geologist out there reading my blog, or if anyone knows the answer, write in!). But again, here’s where myths come into play – except these are facts. According to Steve Hall, general Death Valley expert, the National Park Service is aware of these holes that form, and back in the day, as a tourist attraction used to physically blast the holes open with dynamite. Now, I can’t find any confirmation of that, but I’m very inclined to believe Steve, especially as he has a photograph at the bottom of his entry (it is the very last photo): Again, if that’s not making your own myth, I don’t know what is. Obviously, the National Park Service won’t do that today (much like the Yosemite firefall), but that is another interesting bit of history about the pools.

Directions: The Devil’s Golf Course is seventeen miles South of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. From the road, it is 1.3 miles to the parking area on a graded gravel road. As for finding the pool(s), my attitude about such rare things is that everyone should have their own adventure, and in some cases, the adventure is finding the location (and preserving the location). What I will say, however, is that you if you head roughly East-South-East from the parking area, you should find it, although it is well concealed in the crystal fields, especially as it is getting smaller. And if you do find it, make your own myth about what it is.