October is the time snowbirds begin to migrate from the Pacific Northwest to sunny and warmer roosts down south. Now envision swaying palm trees and the smell of fresh date bread in a desert oasis and you have the makings of a great place to visit while “down south”.
Welcome to the hidden gem of China Ranch, a family owned and operated small farm located in a lush date palm grove surrounded by the forbidding Mojave Desert.
Located in an isolated desert canyon near Death Valley National Park, China Ranch Date Farm surprises most first-time visitors. At the end of a twisty dirt road that slices between sediment laden cliffs seemingly void of plant life, this hidden oasis fills a little valley with groves of stately date palms, stands of cottonwoods and thickets of vegetation amid the sound of trickling water. Visitors can learn everything they have ever wanted to know about date farming including different varieties as well as growing, processing and cooking. In addition to dates, the ranch includes a bakery (the glorious smell of date bread cooking that greets you upon your arrival), snack bar, gift shop, landscaping nursery, a one-room museum and miles of hiking trails.
China Ranch history: The ranch has been cultivated for about 130 years since an enterprising Chinese man named Ah Foo came to this canyon after years of work in the nearby Death Valley borax mines. He developed an irrigation system and raised fruits and vegetables along with poultry and eggs for the local mining camps. It quickly became known as Chinaman’s Ranch, later shortened to China Ranch. In 1900, a man named Morrison reportedly ran the Chinese farmer off at gun point and claimed the Ranch for his own. Morrison eventually sold out, but the China Ranch name had stuck. Dates became part of the ranch in the early 1920′s when the first date grove was planted from seed by Vonola Modine, youngest daughter of Death Valley area pioneer RJ Fairbanks. In 1970, the property was purchased by Charles Brown Jr. and Bernice Sorrells, the son and daughter of area pioneer and long time State Senator Charles Brown of Shoshone. It has since been passed down to Brian Brown and his wife Bonnie. Since it takes palms many years to become mature enough to produce dates, managing the groves means a long-term investment of labor, a lot of planning and love. Brian has spent years gaining expertise in the growing of dates, while wife Bonnie has developed and tested ways to utilize the nutritious dates in various recipes, such as the breads, muffins, cakes and cookies which are available in the ranch bakery. Recipes for her yummy creations are recorded in cookbooks available for purchase in the gift shop.
The couple is committed to the ranch, spending five years constructing a spacious adobe ranch house for themselves. It is built from over 18,000 handmade adobe bricks, manufactured from native materials at the ranch. Completed in the mid 1990′s it contains four bedrooms, three bathrooms and encompasses about 4,500 square feet. The Browns opened the ranch to the public in 1996 and continue to own and operate it today.
The Ranch is also rich in history. The Old Spanish Trail is within walking distance, as is the historic Tonopah & Tidewater railroad bed. You can also visit nearby historic borax mines.
The Old Spanish is a historical trade route connecting the northern New Mexico settlements near Sante Fe with those of Los Angeles and southern California. Approximately 1,200 miles (1,900 km) long, it followed a winding route from water hole to water hole across the desert, and so was known as the “longest, crookedest, most arduous trail in the west.” The trail saw extensive use by pack trains from about 1830 until the mid-1850s. Some of the last to use the trail were parties of 49ers bound for the California goldfieldsduring the fall and winters of 1849 and 1850. Their journals contain numerous notes about the Amargosa Canyon and the area of China Ranch.
The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad traveled roughly 200 miles through remote reaches of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley and the Amargosa Valley. The railroad was built in the early 1900′s by Francis Marion Smith, the “Borax King” owner of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, primarily to transport borax to processing and market. By 1940, the rail line was out of service and scrapped for war materials in 1942. Sections of the abandoned rail bed, ties still in place, can be hiked to just downsteam from the ranch.
Borax has been mined in the Death Valley area since the late 1800′s. Who doesn’t conjur up images of the Twenty Mule Team wagons, Boraxo soap and the popular Death Valley Days radio and television programs through the 1950′s and 1960′s? Old borax mines can be found in several areas around the ranch.
Wildlife and Trails
Wildlife: With the China Ranch Creek and the nearby Amargosa River creating a wetlands retreat for resident and migratory birds, the China Ranch has become a hot spot for bird watchers. More than 225 species of birds have been recorded in the area, some coming from as far away as Central and South America. The water and vegetation of the ranch attract a large variety of native desert animals too, including gray and kit foxes, bobcats, kangaroo rats and pack rats as well as coyotes, cottontail and jack rabbits. Keep a diligent watch as you are far more likely to see their tracks than the elusive critters themselves. Poisonous snakes are surprisingly rare around the ranch with several non-poisonous varieties being much more common. Desert insects you may encounter include; tarantulas, scorpions, black widow spiders and whip scorpions. Though their bite or sting may be painful, none are truly dangerous to man with the exception of the black widow.
Trails: The Browns invite exploration of the area on foot and horseback. Inquire at the gift shop about maps for six trails radiating from the ranch. The easiest trail explores the ranch grounds and groves, where you will find sites for picnicking. Other trails of varying lengths and difficulty explore the Amargosa River Canyon, a nearby slot canyon, the route of the historic Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad and beautiful desert canyons and landscapes.
Once you have soaked in the history, hiked a trail or two and communed with the wildlife, don’t forget about the reason this unique place exists, the dates! China Ranch offers several varieties of California dates as well as their own hybrids. Try a sample of some delicious date nut bread, muffins or cookies, or take home one of their unique hand-crafted gifts. Finally, order a delectable date shake as you leave China Ranch for the desert drive back to your RV.
The nearby settlement of Tecopa Hot Springs offers numerous campgrounds for snowbirds to roost while visiting China Ranch.
Directions: From the eastern outskirts of Tecopa head east on Furnace Creek Road for a couple of miles to the China Ranch Road where you will find a sign directing you to the ranch. Take a right on China Ranch Road. This short unpaved route soon drops into a canyon and winds past old borax mines before arriving at the ranch. The China Ranch Road is suitable for smaller RVs, but with limited parking and rough spots in the road it is recommended to visit in your tow vehicle or dinghy.
For more information:
China Ranch Rd, Tecopa, CA 92389
Phone: 760-852-4415 www.chinaranch.com