This hidden oasis near the southeastern corner of Death Valley National Park includes a massive date farm planted from seeds in the early 1920s, tipi lodging, incredible hiking opportunities within the Amargosa River Valley and one of the best date shakes around.
We were looking forward to checking into our tipi after a long day of hiking and mine exploration in nearby DVNP, but we first had to check in with Cynthia Kienitz (owner of the tipis and ranch house) at her office in the quirky old mining town of Tecopa, CA. Her office is surrounded by converted vintage trailers and a bunk house that includes six hostel-style beds which are also available for rent. We instantly liked Cynthia, who ditched her career as a principal of a successful design firm to reconnect with nature after falling in love with the area.
Our accommodations were located three miles north down an unpaved road that wound its way through a very narrow slot-like canyon that contains dozens of old gypsum mines along both sides of the road.
These were all part of the Gypsum Queen Mine which operated primarily between 1915 and 1917. The mines were closed shortly after October 31, 1917 after two men were killed in a cave in.
The history of China Ranch can be summed up as follows: A Chinese borax miner with a name like a sneeze (Ah Foo) planted vegetables and raised cattle here in the late 19th century, Vonola Modine (grandmother of actor Matthew Modine) put in the date palms in the 1920s, and the Brown family of Shoshone took over a half-century later.
We continued down the dirt road past rows and rows of date palms until we reached a bottle fence that fronted the Ranch House.
We were told we would have the entire property to ourselves since the other two tipis weren’t booked and Cynthia, who usually sleeps in the Ranch House, would be staying at her other property in Tecopa.
The Ranch House – circa 1920 – is just steps away from the tipis and is open to all guests staying within the Ranch House compound.
There’s a lovely sitting room…
…along with a dining room and bathroom for guests to share. There’s also games, books, and lanterns that are available to guests during their stay.
The outdoor kitchen also comes with a fridge to keep your goodies cold, as well as a microwave and sink.
The three 24-foot-high Plains Indian tipis sit between the back of the house and rows of date palms within a small grove of cottonwood trees.
No keys come with the tipis but that’s not really a concern in a place like this.
The spacious interior included one queen and two single beds, all of which came with heated mattress pads in case we got cold (which we didn’t). The beds were quite comfortable and the entire experience of sleeping in a tipi in the middle of the desert with no one else around was pretty amazing.
After a refreshing warm shower and a few drinks we decided to take a little hike around the ranch before it got too dark. White muslin bags cover the dates to protect them from birds and insects. The bags also help to catch any dates that ripen prior to the beginning of the date harvest.
We originally set out to find the reservoir which supplies all of the irrigation for the date groves but never found it. We did find a frog hiding amongst some fallen palm fronds which was pretty cool. This little oasis in the desert is actually full of life. More than 225 species of birds have been logged here, some coming from as far away as Central and South America. The ranch is also home to a large variety of other desert animals, including gray and kit foxes, bobcats, kangaroo rats and pack rats, coyotes, cotton tail and jack rabbits, and, of course, the infamous horsefly. Surprisingly, poisonous snakes are rare, and several non-poisonous varieties are much more common here in the canyon. The normal varieties of desert insects are also abundant, including tarantulas, scorpions, black widow spiders, and solpugids, or vinegaroons. Though their bite or sting may be painful, with the exception of the black widow, none are truly dangerous to man.
By the time we got back from our hike, we realized just how exhausted we were from our long day in the desert.
Since we had another full day of hiking planned the next morning, we headed off to our tipi for some much needed rest.
The following morning we headed south towards one of the many trails that lead out to the Amargosa Canyon Area.
This part of the Mojave Desert was declared an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — to protect plants and animals found here, that are listed under the “Endangered Species Act” of 1973.
About a third of the way down the trail from the gift shop we came across two old cars, which included this bullet-riddled Studebaker…
…and another rusty old junker half-buried in decades of rigid mud.
Let the cairns be your guide.
We soon came upon the historical assay office and saloon.
The assay office was used by the mining companies in the area from 1900 until about 1920. The miners were looking for deposits of nitrate salts in the ancient lakebed sediments for use in the production of explosives.
The blocks were made from locally quarried tuff.
The building which was built in 1903…
…has started to lean after years of being exposed to the harsh elements of the Mojave Desert.
Stabilization efforts over the years appear to be failing.
Please tread lightly around this historic building…
…and help preserve any artifacts you may come across along your journey.
The trail eventually makes its way to the top of a mesa…
…which provides a pretty spectacular view of the barren mud hills that surround the lush canyon floor.
The mesa also overlooks the historic Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (T&T) bed.
The T&T operated between 1905 and 1938 servicing mines and communities along a route which extended north from Ludlow, California into western Nevada.
It faced great challenges throughout its life. Flash floods, flooded “dry” lakes , landslides, erosion of the railroad bed, train derailments and mechanical problems were all too common on the T&T.
Much of this was the result of the construction, operation and maintenance of a railroad in the harsh desert environment. Many of the conditions which resulted in damage to the T&T line were directly attributed to adverse geologic factors along the route.
The railroad’s greatest menace though was the unpredictable Amargosa River. The river was known to turn from a dry wash into a raging torrent within minutes of a heavy downpour. Once the mining boom ended, the railroad struggled to survive, as borax shipping came to comprise the majority of its business. After the borax mining and operations were moved from the Death Valley region to the Boron, California mine and facilities in 1927, the line relied upon whatever traffic could be found. A flood in 1938 finally put the T&T out of business.
We had heard there was a cool slot canyon in the area, so when we saw this sign we decided to see if we could find it (it was actually straight ahead, right in front of us).
We continued along what we thought was the trail.
But eventually couldn’t figure out which way to go and decided to head back. We found out later that you have to cross the river in order to get to the slot canyon.
The view of the river and canyon on the way back was amazing.
We decided to take an alternate trail back…
…that lead us across the valley floor and provided us with a little more shade on the hike back to camp.
We eventually made our way back to the where the China Ranch & Furnace Creek roads intersect.
Which just happens to be where the China Ranch Gift Shop and Bakery are located.
Hello date shakes!
The gift shop is a great place to sample the goods…
…and perhaps do a little shopping…
…while waiting for your shake to be made.
The date shake was delicious and a perfect treat after our early morning 4-5 mile hike.
Before leaving the ranch, we stopped by “A Modest Museum”…
…which includes exhibits and artifacts from early Indian sites and archeological digs…
…and photographs of the pioneer families that were here in the early 1900’s.
While we were waiting for our shakes in the gift shop, Brian Brown (the owner of China Ranch) showed us this map and suggested we check out a nearby area that overlooks the canyon area, “It’s our Grand Canyon,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding. The view from here ended up being the perfect way to close out this portion of our trip. Good-bye for now China Ranch.