The Little River That Could:
Nevada's Amargosa River

A Photo Essay, Part 2: Helpers.


If you have ever driven the freeway (interstate highway) north out of Barstow, California, you have seen the bed of the Mojave River, a relatively deep and amazingly wide channel.  It is usually dry.  From Barstow it goes to Baker, but, obviously, not over the mountains the road traverses.  There it terminates in Soda Lake, a great salt flat today.

During the last ice age, maybe twice, for a couple of thousand years each time, the Mojave River flowed.  And filled Soda Lake (now dry), by Baker, California to the point where it overflowed northward into Silver Lake (dry now) and from there over a low divide northward into Silurian Lake (dry now) into Salt Creek and through it into the Amargosa River and finally on into Death Valley.  The times?  According to a US Geological Survey (USGS) website on the Mojave National Desert Preserve it was from about 18,000 to 16,000 years ago and from 13,700 to 11,400 years ago. [See USGS page at]

The place where this Mojave River overflow entered the Amargosa is shown on the photo, below, that was in turn taken of a photo by a satellite at 425 miles above the earth.


In a previous, colder and wetter ice age, farther north, desert wetness was added to melting ice packs and glaciers of the Sierra Nevada to make the Owens River and its tributaries into raging torrents that filled valleys with water that are now separated by barriers hundreds of feet in height.  These valleys now sport a salt water lake (Owens) and dry lakes (China, Searles).  Geologic speculation has it that at times there was overflow into Death Valley via Wingate Pass, with the Owens River flow thus meeting the Amargosa River at the bottom of the valley along its final northward run.  This would require about a 600 foot depth of water in the Searles basin, which is also about the depth of Lake Manly, in the bottom of Death Valley during extreme ice ages.  During the last ice age Lake Manly was only about 110 feet deep.

Another photo of a satellite photo shows the potential location of the inflow from the Owens River drainage during a great ice age:

At the Death Valley National Park Visitors Center at Furnace Creek there is a very nice map on the wall that shows the linked lakes during the last ice age, and mentions the certainty of the Mojave River connection northward from Baker, with a huge lake called Lake Mojave taking the place of the present array of separate dry lakes.  The Visitors Center also mentions the geologic  speculation about a similar contribution being possible from the southwest, with the Owens River flowing over Wingate Pass.  Finally, also mentioned on the wall display is geologic speculation that it may have been possible for Lake Mojave to have reached a sufficient elevation to allow some drainage into the Colorado River basin toward the southeast.  Interesting, isn't it?

For an excellent view of why it might be easy for water to come from China Lake to Alkali Flat to Searles lake and over Wingate pass, see the 3-D picture at this link:


During any ice age, there is much more snow on the mountains surrounding Death Valley, and more rain into the valley and on its surrounding mountains as well.  So the local canyons, streams, springs and seeps that convey that locally captured water into the bottom of the valley also contribute to overwhelming the evaporation at the bottom of Death valley.  The valley is also the location of several springs associated with the region's carbonate rock (limestone) subsurface flow system.  So, the little river that can, and sometimes does, also has local, inside help!


It is time to move into the photo portion of this field trip, starting on the next page.

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Go to first Amargosa River page: Orientation

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NEXT  --  Go to third Amargosa River page: Northern Reach

Go to fourth Amargosa River page: Amargosa Valley

Go tofifth Amargosa River page: South of Eagle Mountain

Go to sixth Amargosa River page: In Death Valley