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Birding Around Saratoga Springs
Birding Around Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park
Birding Around Saratoga Springs
Birding Death Valley National Park, Saratoga Springs
Parking and trailhead (view south).

Description

With few exceptions, the floor of Death Valley is an extremely hot and dry place that is unencumbered by the burden of dirt and vegetation. To most birds, the entire valley probably looks barren. Saratoga Springs, with springs, ponds, and a marsh, stands in stark contrast to the surrounding desert and brings in waterfowl and other migrating birds.

Several springs emerge from the base of volcanic hills on the eastern edge of Death Valley. Many years ago, broad, shallow depressions were dug in the valley floor, and the excavated sand was bulldozed into a dike. The depressions filled with spring water, and the dike held back water to form a marsh. The resulting alkali-marsh wetland now consists of three ponds with a total surface area of about 6 acres.

Birding Around Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Marsh (view north from low ridge above the parking area).

The vegetation inside the dike is typical of marshes (i.e., mostly sedges, reeds, and saltgrass) with a few saltbushes and desert holly at the interface of the desert and the marsh. Outside the dike, sandy flats are sparsely vegetated with a few scattered creosote bushes and other shrubs. The water is crystal clear. There are no trees.

Until you get up on the dike, you can't really get close to the ponds, so spotting scopes are useful here. The saddle on the ridge just beyond the parking area (see photo) and the end of the road off the northeast side of the marsh (see photo) provide good, elevated positions for using a spotting scope without disturbing birds on the water.

Birding Around Saratoga Springs

Location

Saratoga Springs is located in the far south end of Death Valley National Park, about 1.5 hours south of Furnace Creek Visitor Center, but not in the main park area.

The easiest way to get there from Las Vegas is to drive north on Highway 95 for about 90 miles to Highway 373 at Amargosa Valley (Table 1, Site 689). Turn left onto Highway 373 and drive south. At the California-Nevada state line, the road changes to Highway 127. Continue south on Highway 127 to the town of Death Valley Junction (Site 345).

Birding Around Saratoga Springs

From Death Valley Junction, drive south on Highway 127 for 54 miles. You will pass the turn off for Highway 178 (which heads onto the southern end of Death Valley), Shoshone, the two turnoffs to Tecopa, and you will drive over Ibex Pass. Beyond Ibex Pass, the road drops into a broad, flat, sandy valley with sand dunes. The road crosses the Amargosa River (probably dry) and starts up the hillside on the other side of the valley. Watch for a Historical Marker on the west (right) side of the road (Site 715) at the intersection with Harry Wade Road. There are no street signs here, just a historical marker about Harry Wade. If you drive up from the south, this point is about 30 miles north of Baker, California.

Turn right onto Harry Wade Road and drive west for 5.7 miles to a T-intersection with Saratoga Springs Road (Site 716). Turn right onto Saratoga Springs Road and drive north for 2.7 miles to the edge of the hills and a fork in the road (Site 718). Stay to the left at the unmarked fork and drive west, winding along the base of the hills for another 1.3 miles to the parking area at the end of the road (Site 588). A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.

Birding Death Valley National Park, Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Marsh (view south towards the low ridge [arrow] that divides the parking area from the ponds.

From the parking area, walk west and up the trail (old road) for a few yards to a ridgeline where you can see the wetlands (Site 717). Continue walking on the old road as it skirts around the base of the hills on the east side of the marsh. Near the north end, you can cut across to the sand dike and follow it back up the west side of the marsh to return to the parking area.

Hours

The park is always open, but Saratoga Springs should be considered day-use only.

Fees

After getting into the park, there are no additional fees (nobody is going to collect the entrance fee down here).

Death Valley National Park, Saratoga Springs
Sand dike on southwest side of the marsh (view north). The arrow marks the end of an old road that makes for a good place to scope the ponds.

Specialties

Saratoga Springs is good for finding migrants and desert species, but the species mix depends on the season, and during migration it depends on just who is moving through. Review the park bird list for the time of year that you are visiting.

Watch the pools and marshes for bitterns, herons, ducks, Pied-billed and Clark's Grebes, and even Double-crested Cormorants and Wilson's Snipe, also Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds. Watch for sparrows in the grass, and watch for warblers and swallows during migration. In addition to birds, watch for the Saratoga Springs pupfish (a subspecies unique to this spring), five rare invertebrates (two snails, two aquatic bugs, and a beetle), red-spotted toads, Pacific tree frogs, and kit foxes.

Birding Death Valley National Park, Saratoga Springs
Saltgrass meadow bordering the marsh.
While you are here, consider the plight of old Harry Wade. After getting stuck in Death Valley with the ill-fated 1849 caravan, Harry Wade left the rest of the party and headed south along what is now known as the Harry Wade Exit Route. With their ox-drawn wagon, the Wade family made their way south to the Spanish Trail (present-day Highway 127). They say that by his daring, he saved his life and the lives of his wife and children. I recall reading somewhere, however, that it was the determination and strong will of Mrs. Wade that really saved the family. Of course, they could have just stayed with the rest of the caravan, but this makes for a good wild-west story. Regardless, while you are here, consider the difficulty and hardship of walking across this land in 1849; these were some tough people.

Table 1. GPS Coordinates for Highway Locations (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Highway GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Site # Location Latitude (°N) Longitude (°W) UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (feet) Verified
345 Death Valley Junction 36.3046 116.4143 552586 4017696 2,197 Yes
588 Saratoga Spring parking area 35.6807 116.4202 552467 3948485 223 Yes
712 Death Valley Visitor Center 36.4616 116.8657 512030 4034954 -186 Yes
715 Highway 127 at Harry Wade Road 35.6328 116.2897 564318 3943258 145 Yes
716 Harry Wade Road at Saratoga Road 35.6469 116.3912 555113 3944754 259 Yes
717 Saratoga marsh 35.6840 116.4211 552380 3948860 180 Yes
718 Saratoga Spring, fork in access road 35.6847 116.4019 554122 3948945 233 Yes

Happy birding! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 110216

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