The Amargosa desert in Nevada is located just over the Funeral Mountains from Death Valley—an area famous for being one of the hottest and driest locations in the Western Hemisphere. This makes it difficult to believe that directly below its surface lies a system of sprawling water-filled caves which are home to many species of ancient and evolving fish. One gateway into the flooded caverns is a highly protected fissure called Devil’s Hole.
Devil’s Hole is a detached unit of Death Valley National Park within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to protect the endangered pupfish that are found exclusively in its waters. Scientists estimate that these fish have lived under the desert in isolation for upwards of 25,000 years.
The vast size and depth of this geothermal water system have never been fully reached or recorded, though a few have died while exploring the caves.
In 1965, 20-year-old Paul Giancontieri and 19-year-old David Rose went “skindiving” in Devil’s Hole. Equipped with only snorkel masks and flippers the two teenagers dove into the hole which is said to extend to a depth of over 900 feet, and is shaped like an inverted funnel. Despite a rigorous rescue effort (there are pockets of air trapped within the cave where someone could theoretically survive for a time) neither of the men was found.
Though it is fenced off completely and the entrance is heavily monitored, it has fascinated several travelers over the years, including the infamous one-time Death Valley resident and convicted cult leader, Charles Manson. When Manson arrived in Death Valley he became obsessed with finding a mysterious hole that would lead his “family” to water and a safe place to live in the desert. He wandered the wastelands for days on end looking for this place—and finally found it at Devil’s Hole. Rumor has it that he spent three days sitting cross-legged, staring, and meditating inside the fenced-in observation point near the 60,000-year-old fissure. He was sure that the waters were just blocking the door to the underground kingdom that would provide shelter and water for his group when it was needed—and all he had to do was find a way to drain it first. Given the huge estimated size of those waters, this would have been quite a feat.
Devil’s Hole has one other unique claim to fame—it measures seismic activity throughout the world. Earthquakes as far away as Indonesia have caused the waters to splash over six feet above normal levels. These seismic waves have been likened to mini-underground tsunamis and have continued to happen even when the earth shakes halfway around the planet.
For both safety and environmental reasons, it is not possible to approach Devil’s Hole, but it can be seen from an official overlook.
Know Before You Go
Although Devil's Hole itself is a detached unit of Death Valley National Park, it is located inside the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The refuge contains several other smaller, shallower pools in which pupfish are easily visible, and populations of other animals including coyotes and bighorn sheep. Information, restrooms, maps of the refuge, National Park "passport" stamps, and souvenirs such as plush pupfish are available inside the refuge's visitor center.
Roads to Devil's Hole may be rough, but are usually passable in a 2-wheel-drive sedan.