On our Annual Mojave Desert Range Rover Expedition in March '96, Joe Maulhardt and I decided to relive history by retracing the famous 20 Mule Team Borax route. Established in the 1880s to haul borax from the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley and the Amargosa works near Shoshone to the railhead at Mojave, the 20 Mule Teams soon became a legend. Each team of 18 mules and 2 horses hauled a 30 ton load (2 borax wagons and a 500 gallon water wagon) over 165 miles of desert in 10 days, with only an overnight unloading stop before returning. (Photo: Looking back to Mojave from Granite Wells)
Setting out from Mojave, we lunched in California City before picking up the historic trail heading arrow-straight eastwards toward distant Pilot Knob, visible for 50 miles and long a prominent navigation mark for desert travellers. The road had steadily worsened from pavement to gravel to neglected dirt by the time we crossed Highway 395. Driving across Cuddeback Lake, we climbed gradually to Blackwater Well, the route's first water stop -- 50 miles (and 3 mule team days) from Mojave. Our aluminum "mule team" had reduced the journey to under 3 hours! Another day's mule team journey (15 miles) eastward we reached the vicinity of Granite Wells at the foot of Pilot Knob. Here we encountered the government fence marking the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Travel over the next section of the borax trail up to Wingate Pass (historic gateway to Death Valley) must await the reopening of this vast area to the public, perhaps through some future sudden outbreak of world peace or Pentagon budget stringency!
Meanwhile, we skirted south around the reservation on dirt roads winding among the tall mesquite bushes. At its southwest corner, we turned east to join the unmaintained dirt road heading south to the great scenery and petroglyphs of Black Canyon. It was here that we first noticed what was soon to become a familiar sight; several red plastic "route closed" signs on trails leading away from the main road through the canyon. Since our itinerary involved reaching Death Valley that night, we had no time to hike up these side alleys to see what was being protected from intrusion. Emerging into the vast open plain we headed east to pavement at Irwin Rd, after a hundred miles of dirt.
Next day we picked up the borax trail on the opposite (eastern) side of the bombing range, beginning with the Amargosa branch from Saratoga Springs to Owl Hole Springs. We crossed the Owlshead Mountains (newly added to Death Valley National Park) towards the upper reaches of Wingate Wash -- down which the Harmony branch descended to Death Valley proper. Well short of the military reservation, a red plastic "route closed" sign halted progress. We retreated -- noticing that the 4WD side trail to Lost Lake (a delightful small dry lake I had visited last year) had also sprouted a red sign. Stopping near Owl Lake for afternoon tea, we tried to think of a realistic environmental reason for closing these roads which occupy perhaps 0.01% of an area where the next vehicular routes are many miles away. On my visits here I have never even sighted another vehicle; the dirt access road is only used occasionally to service the AT&T relay station situated on a peak overlooking Wingate Wash, 45 miles from the nearest pavement.
Foiled in our borax trail quest, the next day we crossed into Nevada and the Pahrump Valley. Attempting to retrace an abandoned section of the Old Spanish Trail, our route steadily deteriorated until disappearing into a maze of 4WD trails winding tortuously through the ancient lake deposits of Pahrump Valley. Which of the successively fainter branches was the "main" route was increasingly unclear as we clambered up and down soft sand banks, each trail often doubling back on itself to overcome the terrain. Deep, steep sandy gully crossings were punctuated by old boards lying beside the road marking the efforts of earlier travelers to unstick themselves. We heaved a sigh of relief when we finally began to emerge into flatter terrain and picked up a road with signs of more recent use!
Continuing south on a maze of unmaintained dirt roads, we knew we must have crossed back into California when the now-familiar red signs reappeared, blocking our path again. Regrouping, we headed back towards Death Valley along the graded dirt Mesquite Valley Road, turning onto Western Talc Road and dropping down Sperry Wash into Amargosa Canyon. This spectacular and pleasurable four wheeling route passes through the ancient badlands left by ice age lakes. Water erosion has given the landscape wildly contorted forms, with fluted columns and cliffs. At the old townsite of Sperry, we joined Amargosa Canyon proper, cut by the once-mighty Amargosa River on its way towards the vast sink of Death Valley. Chosen as the route of Borax Smith's famous Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad -- built to replace the 20 mule teams -- this Canyon was the railway's most difficult section; it took many months to build the grade, and many old bridge ruins and cuts can still be seen. Huge washouts attest to the recency of massive flash floods adding to the geologic processes forming this beautiful area. The road, remarkably (if temporarily) free of the red sign blight, picks its contorted and not always obvious way through the banks and boulders, 10 times crossing the surprisingly prolific waters of the Amargosa. On some sections one can still see the remains of pavement which once surfaced parts of the route. After a leisurely tea stop we finally hit pavement near Dumont Dunes.
The following day we planned to revisit a favorite haunt, Greenwater Canyon, to photograph petroglyphs. Approaching via Deadman Pass (a delightful route whose loneliness is guaranteed by a lengthy section of deep sand at its eastern end), we turned north on the sometimes-graded Greenwater Valley road and soon noticed the reappearance of the ubiquitous red signs closing off the side roads. Sure enough, when we reached Greenwater Canyon, the entrance to this historic, 90 year old vehicular route had been decorated with red plastic. Reluctantly, we changed plans yet again, turning west to visit the interesting remains of Kunze. This was the initial townsite for the Greenwater copper boom of 1906-7; the town was later moved downhill a few miles into the more open Greenwater Valley to allow room for future expansion!
Pausing here for lunch, we reflected on the Desert Conservation Act and the zeal with which it has been implemented. My disillusionment upon finding so many roads and trails closed -- including many historic and long-established routes such as Greenwater Canyon -- was magnified after being told that only a modest number of vehicle routes would be affected. Even after the Act was passed, Four Wheeler Magazine (Feb 1995) published a letter from the Superintendent of Death Valley National Park, reassuring readers about keeping the old jeep roads open. In the excellent and brand new (1995) Death Valley Guide book by the Bryans, with a foreword by the Park Superintendent, it is stated that no decisions on any road closures in the expanded Park would be made before 1997 or later. Instead, large numbers of routes have been rapidly shut down. In many cases, such as the numerous old side roads which lead nowhere in particular, the only reason one can imagine for closure is a wish to avoid patrols or rescue missions. Certainly, one would be hard pressed to come up with any rational scientific reason based on the real environmental impact of these seldom-used, remote dirt roads which are like needles in the vast surrounding haystack of desert.
As environmentally responsible explorers who care about continued access to backcountry roads, it is our duty to spread the word and encourage as many people as possible to make their views known to our elected and unelected public officials. We need to dispell from their minds the mythical image of destructive and irresponsible four wheeling vandals that has been ingrained by television and pressure groups. Let them know that we, the real-life, responsible, taxpaying, Light-Treading 1990's users of the backcountry roads are all for environmental preservation but are upset about being excluded from so many of our roads. If enough people express their views, officialdom will respond.
So write in to the Park Service and your elected representatives and let them know your feelings. That's the way democracy works! Why not take a minute right now and email the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources, simply by clicking here, to tell them of your concerns? Write or email your Congressman and the government agencies implementing the Desert Act and other land use measures. Other officials to write or email to:
Senator Diane Feinstein
311 Senate Hart Office Building
Washington DC 20510
Richard H. Martin, Superintendent
US Dept of the Interior, National Park Service,
Death Valley National Park,
Death Valley, Ca 92328
If you have comments or suggestions, email author John Brabyn