Twenty Mule Team Road - Death Valley National Park

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This page last updated on 02097/2018

(Fig. 01)
MAP-20 Mule Team Road-2
(Fig. 02)
Directions: The shortest route to Death Valley from Las Vegas is only 2 hours or 120 miles. From Interstate 15 South , EXIT on NV Hwy 160 West. Drive 60 miles to Pahrump, Nevada and turn left onto Bell Vista Road (3 miles north of Hwy 372). Drive 30 miles to Death Valley Junction, California and turn right onto CA Hwy 127. Drive about 300 feet and turn left onto CA Hwy 190 and drive about 26 miles towards Furnace Creek. There is a short, unpaved, 2.7 mile one-way driving trail (Fig. 02), just off Highway 190 (Fig. 01), four miles this side (south) of Furnace Creek, called Twenty Mule Team Road. Turn left and reverse direction. This single lane road runs through the northern end of the Black Mountains as it passes through what is referred to as the Death Valley badlands area.
02/28/2014 Trip Notes: On today’s visit to Death Valley, we decided to take the short drive onto the Twenty Mule Team Road that takes you into the ‘badlands’ of the Monte Blanco mining district on the northern end of the Black Mountains. This short diversion, though never actually part of the original 165 mile twenty-mule-team Borax freight route used by The Twenty Mule Team Wagons(1) to haul borax out of Death Valley, provided some very interesting and unique geology. You can actually see bands of borax running through some of the mountainous areas surrounding the road. We also saw several foot trails leading into the mountain from some of the small turn-offs along the road, but decided not to stop and explore on today's visit due to the impending rains.

Twenty Mule Team Road Description: Created by the remarkable effects of wind, rain and erosion, this scenic drive through multicolored badlands, situated in the old Monte Blanco mining district, provides views of the stunning topography of Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley. A one-way, single lane road through the northern end of the Black Mountains, it goes through the Death Valley badlands area; an area of quickly eroding, soft mud mountains which were actually once the bottom of a seasonal lake that existed a long, long time ago (before the mountains were uplifted). In the late 1800s, the borax mining industry in the Death Valley area was booming; although Though the Monte Blanco area was ever mined to its full potential, possibly due to the difficulty of  reaching the site. There are a couple of small turnouts along the road that allow you to park and hike to the top of its tall mudstone hills and several mine adits. These provide wonderful views of Zabriskie Point and the rich mineral deposits visible within the sedimentary ledges of the surrounding buttes. Traces of mining activity can still be seen in the adits and dugouts that dot the surrounding landscape. The old Monte Blanco mining office and bunkhouse was located near the southern end of Twenty Mule Team Road - in 1954 the building was moved to Furnace Creek where it now houses the Borax Museum. Click here for pictures and info on the museum ... Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch.

Borax: Borax has a wide variety of uses. It is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, enamel glazes, insecticides, fire retardants, and more. Borax found in nature is an evaporite, meaning it crystallizes after evaporation of the solute it was dissolved in, in this case, after the seasonal lake dried up (multiple times over and over again in the past). Many deposits were created like this on the muddy bottom of the ancient seasonal lake. In modern day, the ancient lake bottom has been pushed up by tectonic processes and forms the soft muddy mountains, some of which have massive borax deposits mixed in the mud. Its really a neat thing to see, because the borax looks like a bunch of bright white streaks, like powdered sugar or something was sprinkled over and within the mountain. Click here for more information on Borax … Borax.

Mining the Borax: The way they did it was kind of interesting. Because a lot of the borax was interspersed with dried mud deposits, the miners had to come up with a process to remove the mud. First, they would dig out a bunch of the borax and mud mix, and together, they then hauled it to a processing facility near present day Furnace Creek. There they dumped it into huge pools or tanks of water where they let the borax dissolve and the dirt settle to the bottom. They did this many times to purify the water, so that only the salts and borax were dissolved in it, and not the unwanted dirt. Then they used the knowledge that borax crystallizes at a certain temperature, so they put a bunch of rods into the tanks and cooled the water down. When the water hit the correct temperature, the rods would act as surfaces which allowed borax crystals to grow on them, and this is the way they were able to extract pure borax from the water. When the Harmony Borax Works was in full swing, it employed 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily! In the heat of the summer, when the water couldn't be cooled to a low enough temperature, they moved the operation to a cooler location, near Tecopa, CA instead of Furnace Creek. Click here for more information on Borax and Borax mining that took place at Death Valley … Borax Mining at Death Valley.

20 Mule Team Wagon
(Fig. 03)
(1) The Twenty Mule Team Wagons: The twenty mule team wagons solved a transportation problem. Between 1883 and 1888 they hauled more than twelve million pounds of borax from remote and inaccessible Death Valley to the railroad at Mojave. When the Harmony Borax Works was built in 1882, teams of eight and ten mules hauled the ore. But with increased production, the first teams of twenty mules were tried. Stretching out more than a hundred feet from the wagons, the great elongated teams immediately proved a dependable means of transportation.
Ten wagons were built by J.W.S. Perry in Mojave at a cost of $900 each. The wagons' design balanced strength and capacity to cary the heavy loads of borax ore. The rear wheels were 7 feet high, the front wheels 5 feet high (Fig. 03). Each wheel had a steel tire 8 inches wide and an inch thick. The hubs were 18 inches in diameter and 22 inches long. The spokes were of split oak, the axle-trees were solid steel bars. The wagon beds were 16 feet long and 6 feet deep, and could carry 10 tons of borax. Fully loaded (Fig.04), the wagons, including the water tank, weighed 36.5 tons.
(Fig. 04)
These wagons had to grind through sand and gravel and hold together up and down steep mountain grades for the 165 mile long trek to Mojave. Traveling fifteen to eighteen miles a day, it took ten days to make the trip. The 20-day round-trip started 190 feet below sea level and climbed to elevations greater than 2,000 feet before it was over. After leaving the Valley the teams had to cross 100 miles of empty desert, where many of the overnight stops were at dry camps. Water tanks were therefore attached to the wagons, to supply the men and animals between springs. Three men operated these twenty mule teams – in actuality eighteen mules and two horses – the driver who wielded a formidable whip; the teamster, who harnessed and unharnessed the mules, rode one of the horses, and handled the brake of the lead wagon; and the swamper, who rode on the rear wagon, operated its brake on the downgrades, and was chief cook and dishwasher. Between 1883 and 1889, the twenty mule teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of the Valley. During this time, not a single animal was lost, nor did a single wagon break down — a considerable tribute to the ingenuity of the designers and builders and the stamina of the men and mules.
When borax was discovered in the Calico Mountains early in the 1890’s, twenty mule teams hauled the ore from Borate to the railroad at Daggett. Except for the brief interlude when the traction engine “Old Dinah” attempted the job, borax was carried solely by these teams until the Borate & Daggett Railroad was built around 1895. Among those who helped make the teams famous were J.W.S. Perry, PCB superintendent, who organized the first teams and mapped the routes; William Delameter, who constructed the wagons; Ed Stiles, driver of the first team; and teamsters Frank Tilton, Johnny O’Keefe, and “Borax Bill” Parkinson.

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