Death Valley: Part I: The Twenty Mule Team Canyon… The Desert Series

Prepare to be dazzled with a kalaidiscope of color on a drive through Twenty Mule Team canyon in Death Valley.

Prepare to be dazzled with a kaleidoscope of color on a drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley. Various minerals are responsible for the colors.

Death Valley is a land of superlatives. Think hottest, lowest, and driest place in North America. It holds the world record for heat at 134 ˚ F (57˚ C). Ground temperatures have actually been measured at 201˚ F. As for rainfall, there are years without any and the annual average is 2.36 inches (60 mm). Finally, a trip into Badwater Basin, easily reachable by car, will drop you down to 282 feet below sea level.

Given these extremes, a person might wish to travel to Death Valley for the sole purpose of saying he or she has been there. (Or conversely avoid Death Valley passionately.) But from my perspective, the reason for visiting Death Valley is its exotic beauty. Over the past three weeks, I’ve taken you to the Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon. Not bad on scenery, eh? Consider it a warm up.

I’ve been to Death Valley numerous times and have blogged about it in the past. On our recent trip, we climbed out of the valley and explored other parts of the National Park including Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point and the unusual Charcoal Kilns high up in the Panamint Mountains.

Today, we will begin our journey with a drive through the colorful badlands of Twenty Mule Team Canyon. Imagine for the moment, taking 18 mules and two horses, hitching them to a huge wagon, and hauling 10 tons of borax over desert terrain for 160 miles. That is how borax was hauled out of Death Valley between 1883-1889 and it has become part of the local lore and legend. Francis Smith, the founder of Pacific Borax was also a first class promoter and sent his mule teams out to major cities across the US to push his soap products.  At one point, they paraded down Broadway in New York City.

This early, unattributed photo in the public domain, provides a view of the team with its Death Valley backdrop.

This early, unattributed photo in the public domain, provides a view of the 20 mule team with its Death Valley backdrop. The driver had a very long bullwhip to encourage his mules along the way.

Old Dinah steam tractor in Death Valley National Park.

The mules were eventually replaced by a steam tractor. “Old Dinah” is featured at Furnace Creek. Dinah, in turn, was replaced by a railroad.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon was never part of the route the mules followed. So why the name? It could have been to honor the teams but I suspect it was the bright idea of a tour agent. Whatever, no harm was done. Twenty Mule Team Canyon provides a kaleidoscope of color, a laboratory of erosion, and a fun drive.

Road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

The 2.8 mile road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a fun drive but it isn’t made for large RVs or fifth wheels. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Scene on Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Every corner you turn brings a new view and most are quite dramatic…

Dramatic view along Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley.

Case in point.

Road shot traveling through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Another road shot. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

View along the Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley.

I liked the effect of these contrasting light and dark colors.

Photo of blue skies with puffy clouds provides backdrop for Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

Blue skies, light clouds provide a backdrop for gold, reddish-brown and tan rocks.

Trail in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

A number of trails wander off into the rocks, inviting visitors to stay for a while and explore. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Funeral Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

Mountains provide the backdrop here. These, BTW, are the Funeral Mountains.

Distant mountains appear purple in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

More distant mountains appear almost purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy Mekemson checks out the view at Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

Peggy admires the view.

A final view of the riotous colors found in Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

A final view of the riotous colors found in Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

NEXT BLOG: We check out what is probably the most photographed area of Death Valley, Zabriskie Point, and climb 5000 feet above the valley to Dante’s View floor for a bird’s eye perspective.

29 comments on “Death Valley: Part I: The Twenty Mule Team Canyon… The Desert Series

  1. I visited Death Valley in 1978 and have always remembered it. By serendipity we went in the spring and the cacti were in bloom – beautiful. As is the landscape.
    Your photos remind me of the ever changing landscape of the Atacama Desert – so much variety and beauty.

  2. Pingback: Death Valley: Part I: The Twenty Mule Team Canyon… The Desert Series

  3. Apart from the tortoise, the jackrabbit and those wonderful red rocks, I just didn’t resonate so very much with your previous post on Las Vegas. Different strokes, and all that. But these photos are absolutely stunning. I’d love to visit here, although I think I’d be a little cautious about wandering off alone on those paths.

    Twenty Mule Team Borax was a part of life when I was growing up. I’m not sure if my mom used it, but my grandmother certainly did. What fun to see a photo of a real mule team. I’m not sure I ever appreciated the reality behind the marketing campaign.

    Speaking of marketing campaigns, it took me a little while to remember. Zabriski Point… Zabriski Point… Oh, yeah! I can’t wait for your post about that! 😉

    • Different strokes indeed, Linda. As for the paths, they are easy to follow. The point for the uninitiated is not to wander too far. You might end up seeing those mirages the desert is famous for. LOL Or you might run into the rattlesnake Peggy and I found and will feature in the blog after Zabriski Point. Bzzzzzz. 🙂 –Curt

  4. Interesting “Old Dinah” was steam. I thought that required huge amount of water. Where to get it? You and Peggy are true appreciators of nature. Most people would be put off by traveling there, but your enthusiasm is catching.

    • Good question on the water, but there are occasional springs in the desert. An interesting note: the twenty mule teams carried a 1200 gallon tank of water along for the mules. Maybe the steam engine did as well. Glad our enthusiasm is catching. And we do indeed love to wander in far and remote places, the more natural, the better! 🙂 Curt

  5. I fondly recall the 20 mule team Borax commercials… I see them from a marketing perspective as the model after which Budweiser made its fortune. One aspect you wrote about is oddly echoing what I’ve always felt about Death Valley: stay away. It is but a hop, skip and a jump away and the furthest I would go into a desert would be Joshua Tree but I have never wanted to go there. Funeral Mountain is calling me.

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