A traveler who has spent several days in Death Valley might be startled by the sweet and unexpected sound of running water.
Devils Hole, a tiny outpost of Death Valley National Park, is separated from the rest of the park by the California-Nevada line and 25 miles of lonely, wind-whipped desert. There, in an isolated, water-filled cavern, the entire population of a tiny species of pupfish lives on a small rock shelf just below the surface.
Thereís not much reason for a traveler to visit the cavern, though. Itís surrounded by sturdy fencing and electronic monitors and equipment constantly protecting, tracking and communicating the well-being of the tiny denizens, making it look more like a supervillain's solitary prison than a wildlife refuge.
Devils Hole, however, is surrounded by the biggest oasis in the Mojave Desert. And that oasis, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, certainly is worth exploring, especially for visitors returning from parched, sere Death Valley.
The refuge contains a number of artesian hot springs, most of them smaller than the average backyard swimming pool, but each teeming with life in and near the water. In all, Ash Meadows is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals, including 26 that, like the Devils Hole pupfish, are found nowhere else in the world.
Behind the refugeís large visitors center, I strolled a long boardwalk loop that curved past a dazzlingly azure spring, following the resulting tiny stream as it meandered through the surrounding alkali meadow. The gentle burbling of the stream reminded me how long it had been since I had heard the sound of running water.
Although the Devils Hole pupfish was in protective custody, I easily spied the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish at King Spring, which wells up at a site in the refuge called Point of Rocks. I also spotted a roadrunner and a black-tailed jackrabbit ó personal firsts.
Ash Meadows has long attracted human visitors and residents. The original stone cabin of one early settler, the legendary frontiersman Jack Longstreet, still stands at Longstreet Spring, a vividly blue and alluring upwelling that convinced the gunslinger to settle down, at least for a spell.
Before Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984, the valley was farmed and ranched, often with little regard for the delicate natural environment. Many of the springs were plumbed and pumped and the streams channelized.
A planned community with malls, hotels, an airport and 30,000 homes had been proposed.
Instead, the springs and streams have been restored to something approaching their natural state.
And so, at Ash Meadows, the rare, exquisite music of water flowing in the desert still plays.
For more information, call 775-372-5435 or visit www.fws.gov/refuge/ash_meadows.