Death Valley: Canyons, Wells & Borax

We decided to get out in it even more so today so we headed out to hike. I loved this description of hiking in Death Valley, "A labyrinth landscape of golden colored hills and winding narrow canyons create hiking options ranging from easy strolls to strenuous adventures."

We chose Golden Canyon, considered the most popular hike in the park. The 3 mile r/t route was gradually uphill through a rocky corridor of towering golden walls. Minor rock scrambling is necessary to complete the entire route as you climb over short ledges and duck under low overhangs.

There is a surreal peacefulness in these canyons. Wow!
For our next canyon explore, we traversed Twenty Mule Team Canyon in our RV. Winding through otherwordly badlands, this 2.7 mile unpaved one-way loop drive was weird and cool all at the same time. Definitely more amazing than a photo could portray. Steve was loving his truck at this point.
We saw on the park guide, that down a dirt road was the Historic Stovepipe Well. Hmm. We decided to go for it. On the way there, we discovered this grave. There is much controversy about it, but I found it intriguing. The story, it seems, is that Val was a miner out of Beatty, NV. He was last seen in August, 1931. A movie film crew found his remains, three months later and buried him where he was found, having died "A victim of the harsh elements.". Interesting and sad.
A must was to see the old well. According to its plaque, "This waterhole, only one in the sand dune area of Death Valley, was at the junction of two Indian trails. During the bonanza days of Rhyolite and Skidoo it was the only known water source on the cross-valley road. When sand obscured the spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker, hence its unique name." Eventually, it became an early camping location (1907) and was the first official tourist facility in Death Valley when someone built a small building out of mud and bottles and offered food and lodging there. Wild thought.

The plaque above describes these ruts. "The faint two-wheel tracks of the wagon road heading southwest to historic Stovepipe Well cross the modern road at this point. Etched into the desert by freight wagons and the Rhyolite-to-Skidoo stagecoach, the road followed the footpath of early desert dwellers toward the only reliable drinking water nearby."
We ended the day with a history lesson given by a park Ranger. And what a lesson it was... all about Harmony Borax Works. The plant and associated townsite played an important role in Death Valley history. After borax was found near Furnace Creek Ranch (then called Greenland) in 1881, William T. Coleman built the Harmony plant and began to process ore in late 1883. When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily.

Getting the finished product to market from the heart of Death Valley was a difficult task, and an efficient method had to be devised. The Harmony operation became famous through the use of large mule teams and double wagons which hauled borax the long overland route to Mojave. The romantic image of the “20-mule team” persists to this day and has become the symbol of the borax industry in this country.
Through the tour, we learned the ins and outs of borax processing and the life of the workers who made it all happen, many of them Chinese recruited from San Francisco, who toiled in the successful mining operation. They also made a road 160 miles long through the salt pinnacles and raked the borax off the valley floor from 1883 until 1888 when the last 20 mule teams rolled out of the valley. Incredible.
As the value of the borax mines decreased, it was the Borax companies who worked towards turning Death Valley into a National Monument (1933). They saw what possibilities existed in tourism. Their loss in revenue was the nation's gain in an incredible Park.

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Karen Booth said...

If I hadn't seen the bike parked by the sign and your reference to a tour guide I would have believed you and Steve were the only ones in Death Valley during your visit. Beautiful, but eerie seeing that isolation. Did you camp out in the middle of nowhere, or were you always at a campground at night?

Nick and Deb's Excellent Adventure said...

I was wondering where you camped too! It must have been a tough life there in the those days. RIP Mr Val!

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