To begin by saying nature is changeable would be to state the obvious, but I hope my readers will indulge me. Obvious or not, the cycles of nature can’t help but fascinate. And nowhere have they seemed more pronounced to me than in the desert.
Early this March, a week and a half after Las Vegas’ historic snowfall, I and a group of extended family members went on one of my favorite hikes in Red Rock Canyon, just west of the city. Red Rock Canyon consists of a thirteen-mile scenic driving loop off of which twenty-six marked hiking trails can be reached. Each offers something new and special: archeological information, unique rock formations, conservancy initiatives.
The Lost Creek Canyon hike ends in a waterfall—sometimes. Water is fickle in the desert. Most water in the Mojave flows underground, not in rivers, but in slow, spongey basins, only occasionally emerging from natural springs. For an early chunk of Las Vegas’ history, this spring water was tapped using drilling derricks, just like drilling for oil. In the wild, roots delve deep. Cacti evolve with long-term storage in mind.
But in the springtime and after thunderstorms, dry creeks and channels swell with surface water. Flash flooding becomes an issue. The desert comes awake. And Lost Creek Canyon has its waterfall.
On this day in early March, we could actually see the waterfall from the trailhead parking lot. February’s snow had fallen more thickly at higher elevations, and now it was melting. Water flowed more insistently here than we’d ever seen it.
The trail itself was muddy, the red sand sodden in the crisp springtime air. Soon enough, we came upon an actively flowing section of trail. We’d always known this was a sometime-streambed, but even when we’d seen the waterfall further up, we’d never seen this trail under water. The stream gurgled cheerfully as it flowed over the rocks, headed further into the desert to nourish everything downhill.
Strategy was required to transport the children across the stream, adults testing stones before instructing the kids where to plant their feet.
This is what I mean when talking about the pronounced cycles of nature in the desert. In other places, existing bodies of water swell and grow shallow, freeze over and fill with new life, but they seldom disappear entirely. In the desert, sometimes the only way you know water is present is by the tall, established trees tucked among the rocks, and moss clinging to shadowy rock faces. The ebb and flow of the water’s very existence supports the desert’s entire lifecycle.
Lost Creek Canyon is an easy-going hike, one my sister and I enjoy because my niece and nephew can scramble over the rocks relatively unaided. It has a clear destination. And the ending is always different.
By waterfall standards overall, the one in Lost Creek Canyon isn’t much. My sister recently took her kids to Utah Valley’s Bridal Veil Falls, and they were shocked at the scope of it (and even this one is fairly delicate as far as waterfalls go). But of the waterfalls I’ve seen, the one in Lost Creek Canyon is among my favorites, simply because of its ephemerality.
And also because of the miniature ecosystem it supports.
Past the streambed, you climb over boulders and under tree branches, moving through natural shadowed tunnels until you emerge into a roughly-circular stone bowl. At the far end is the waterfall (or an empty, silent rock face, depending on the season). Much of the area before you is covered in a rippling pond (or an empty basin full of dusty stones). Circling the pond are an array of trees, green with leaves, vibrant with purple and yellow flowers, or grey with naked bark. Between the trees and the stone bowl’s sides are boulders and smooth sand for climbing and exploring.
Every spring, the rocky pool fills with water. The water allows the trees to flourish. It also allows insects like dragonflies and damselflies to lay their eggs. As spring progresses, the waterfall slows and pool constricts, no longer flowing beyond this place. Insects hatch but stay near the water source. Birds arrive to eat the insects and build their nests in the safety of the cool, shadowed stone bowl. The insects and birds pollinate the trees. As summer progresses, the waterfall stops. The pool dries. The living things disperse, leaving the trees in relative quiet through the fall and winter. Then spring comes again—the sparse snow further uphill bringing the waterfall again to Lost Creek Canyon.
I love this hike, love the dusty stones and the rippling water and the changing, living desert. On this occasion, the waterfall was wild and the life had not yet arrived—the bowl was silent but for human voices and the clamor of water. The pool stretched downhill and passed beside us down a long-dry track, flowing as though it always had and always would.
The historic snow had brought this riot here, and I was amazed at the impact of one day of winter. Who knows when we’ll see the desert this way again? Moments like this, I think, are not uncommon—but they are fleeting, like so many other beautiful things.
The Mojave is always different somehow. We speak of the desert as though it is stagnant and lifeless. The desert is anything but. It is harsh, and brimming with life determined to live. In the late spring, the cacti bloom with flowers in every color. During springtime rains, yucca fills the air with perfume. Nature celebrates even as the watery bounty flows away and vanishes into the earth.
Is there a spot near you that allows you to observe nature’s cycles in a pronounced way? Or have you experienced such a thing anywhere in the world? Tell us about it in the comments!