China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa CA is an unusual oasis in the Mojave Desert. It is about 85 miles west of Las Vegas and it is an easy day trip. It is also a short drive from Death Valley National Park. We visit the date farm approximately once a year to have a short hike along the creek and to enjoy a nice date milkshake afterwards. We use the trip to stock up on the many varieties of dates (an excellent natural sweetener for smoothies and baking) and a loaf of date bread or two usually falls in the bag. The store also has a variety of locally made art, semi-precious stones and antiques. All in all the store is a very pleasant browsing opportunity.
China Ranch History
The legend goes that a Chinese man came to this canyon after many years of working in the Death Valley borax mines. He developed the water, planted fruits and vegetables, and raised meat for the local mining camps. It became known as Chinaman’s Ranch. The water at China Ranch is sourced from Willow Creek. Sometime in 1900, a man named Morrisonarrived and apparently he ran the Chinese farmer off at gun point and claimed the Ranch for his own. Since then, the canyon has had many owners and has fulfilled many different purposes,including a fig farm, cattle ranch, hog farm, alfalfa farm, and others. 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 remains under the ownership of these families today. The date grove was planted from seed in the early 1920’s by VonolaModine, youngest daughter of Death Valley area pioneer RJ Fairbanks.
Over the years, several national magazine companies as well as movie studios have taken advantage of the fantastic scenery here as a back drop for their projects. The scenery available includes austere badlands, lush desert oases, palm orchards, rocky gullies and canyons, a running desert stream, historic buildings, and others. In 2001 Paramount Studios used China Ranch for the desert scenes of their hit movie "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.
In March and April both the male and female trees produce a dozen or more large brown flower pods which split open to reveal the flowers inside. The long stems of male flowers, heavy with pollen, are gathered and placed inside the female flowers to assure complete pollination. One male tree can supply enough pollen for 40-50 females. By mid May, the developing dates on the female plants are marble sized and the flower stalk has grown to a length of 4-6 feet. In late August the bundles are nearly full-sized, but are still green and immature. Depending upon the variety, the dates will now turn either bright red or golden yellow. At the farm, the dates are covered with heavy paper wraps to protect them from rain, birds, and sunburn. In the fall, the fruit is fully ripe, turning either deep brown or jet black, and softening and sweetening into luscious fruit. The harvest season lasts from September through December, as each of the different varieties ripen. Typical adult trees will produce100-300 pounds of fruit each season.
A trail guide at the China Ranch gift shop list several hikes in the area. Their web site (http://www.chinaranch.com/) also lists 6 hikes, including the short 200 yard creek trail that has nice interpretative signs and the more ambitious 4-mile Slot Canyon trail.
The Slot Canyon Trail is a four mile round-trip hiking and equestrian trail that leads to a unique and interesting canyon. To get here, take the Amargosa River Trail, from China Ranch, to the Amargosa River. Go north, along the T&T railroad grade, to the rock-lined side trail, leading west. Follow this trail a short distance to the river, cross the river, and follow the wash, up along the west bank. Cross the river with care. This is a shallow river, and you should have no difficulty. Continue up the wash, which ends in a narrow and twisted "slot canyon," with vertical walls.
The Amargosa River Trail was established on the historic T&T railroad grade, through Amargosa Canyon. The only trailhead available to access the Amargosa River trail is located at the China Ranch Date Farm. This trail retraces portions of the Old Spanish Trail. Six miles of trail are maintained up the canyon to the north. This includes a two-mile loop trail from China Ranch to the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River, and then back up the east side of the creek. The nearly level grade provides easy hiking and horseback riding opportunities.
The Amargosa River begins in Nevada, draining several thousand square miles of central Nevada. It flows south into California for over 100 miles, then it flows north for 80 miles, ending its journey at Badwater in Death Valley. Along the way it is fed by numerous freshwater springs, geographically isolated from other areas. The Amargosa River is often called the “hide and seek” river because of its inclination to travel underground, occasionally resurfacing to create lush oases surrounded by a harsh dry desert environment. The Amargosa River is one of only two perennial rivers in the Mojave Desert, and one of the only free flowing desert rivers in the US southwest.