Covid Escape: Darwin Falls via Ridgecrest and Return via Coso Junction

By Paul Gipe

Darwin Falls on the western edge of Death Valley National Park is a 3.5 hour drive from Bakersfield via Ridgecrest, California and the Panamint Valley. This requires one charge stop at Inyokern in a Chevy Bolt or equivalent EV. You can make a big loop by returning via a charge stop at Coso Junction. The falls are a two mile roundtrip hike. This is a trip in an EV that’s best done with an overnight in Ridgecrest.

We suggest the Clarion Inn, 901 N China Lake Blvd, (760) 446-7910. It’s on the corner of Drummon Ave. There is an engaging restaurant, Mac’s, west on Drummon, and Lugos a little further west. Lugos is also open for breakfast. Both are within 0.5 miles of the Clarion.

Darwin Falls and its water is a rarity in the desert in normal times. These are not normal times. California is in the midst of a historic drought. Yet the falls were running and there was water, not much that’s true, but there was a stream gushing over the falls.

Darwin Falls in Death Valley National Park.

The hike is straightforward until you enter the oasis created by the falls and the narrow canyon. There footing can be slippery and there are at least two use routes around any obstacle. And it can require some minor wading even late in the year. I wouldn’t try this hike during the spring or after a heavy rain. There’s evidence of high water.

The falls are in the national park, consequently no camping or dogs are permitted. The falls are the drinking water supply for Panamint Springs, be mindful of this as you traipse about.

The drive alone is worth the trip. This route crosses some of the most spectacular scenery that California—or anywhere—has to offer.

If you’re driving a Tesla there are superchargers in Inyokern and Lone Pine. If you driving a non-Tesla vehicle, there are DCFC stations at Brady’s and at the abandoned airport in Inyokern. We couldn’t get the EV Connect charger to work. It was on, but visibly sun damaged. It wouldn’t recognize my phone, my RFID card, or my credit card. There was no cell phone service so we couldn’t call for assistance. This forced us to pack up and drive 10-15 miles to Brady’s. There the single ChargePoint station was also sun damaged but it finally did recognize my phone and started charging. Stopping the charge after we reached the state-of-charge we needed was another issue. The video screen is sun damaged and try as I might I couldn’t get the thing to turn off. Finally I resorted to pressing the button on top of the CCS plug. That worked thankfully. These stations sorely need solar canopies to protect the video screens from the intense desert sun. It doesn’t make sense to put a device designed by people living in a benign environment in such a harsh place as the Mojave Desert without some protection.

Panamint Valley from Father Garces Overlook.

We left Bakersfield in the afternoon and had planned a leisurely evening in Ridgecrest. There’s a good French restaurant in town but a French dinner doesn’t work with a late arrival. So we’d planned plenty of time. Unfortunately, an unreliable charge threw a kink in our plans. We dined instead at Mac’s, which has a changing menu of international dishes and we’d been pleased with them in the past. When driving a non-Tesla EV, one learns to be prepared—and be flexible.

The Bolt performed well, even driving the seven rocky miles to the Darwin Falls trailhead. When we got there, all the other vehicles were big SUVs. As we were leaving, a brand new Tesla Model Y pulled up still with its paper tags.

Sand Dunes in the Panamint Valley.

The car turned in a better efficiency than A Better Routeplanner had predicted and we arrived at Coso Junction with ample charge. There was no white knuckle range anxiety. We planned the route, and we drove the plan.

We charged 30 minutes in the shade of the Coso Junction rest area and then drove the two hours back to Bakersfield and its pea soup haze.