The 20 Mule Team Canyon… Death Valley Interlude

Our Toyota Tacoma pickup makes its way down a road that was once traveled by 20 mule teams hauling borax.

The red hood of our truck reflects a desert scene from the Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley. The short 2 1/2 mile side trip is one of our favorites in the National Park. Imagine, if you will, driving an 18 mule/2horse team hauling 10 tons of borax over 160 miles of desert. The total weight including wagons was 36 tons and the livestock and wagons stretched for over 180 feet! I asked my 278 horse power truck if it would like to pull such a load through Death Valley. The answer was a resounding no. Having struggled with hauling only myself and gear over the hills and mountains of the Park on my bicycle during my 10,000 mile bike trek, I heartily agreed.

This photo of the road suggests your team would be going right, then left, and then right— all at the same time. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
This early, unattributed photo in the public domain, provides a view of the team with its Death Valley backdrop.

The real treat in driving over the short distance is the almost unreal beauty. Peggy and I stopped the truck several times along the road to get out and take photos. I’ve posted before on the canyon but we took all of these photos on Sunday.

The golden rock working its way up the hill from left to right caught my attention.
Peggy captured this ridge, which is one of the dominant features of the drive. Two people, not shown here, were making their way along the top. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I took a similar photo and rendered it in black and white.
This hill, which seems to stand alone, was actually the start of the ridge.
Erosion creates very interesting rock structures in the canyon and throughout Death Valley.
This photo provides another example.Various colors reflect different types of rock laid down over millions of years through times when the area was covered by oceans, lakes, sand dunes and volcanos. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I took a closer look at the sensuous landscape..
Three different types of rock are quite clear here. I should note that different rocks have different hardness and erode at different rates, which also adds to the interest of desert landscapes.(Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A view looking out toward Death Valley.
Almost out, I’ll conclude with this rock and a peak rising in the background.

NEXT POST: I’ll conclude our journey through Death Valley National Park.

35 thoughts on “The 20 Mule Team Canyon… Death Valley Interlude

  1. Whenever I visit a place like this, I always get to thinking what it must have been like to travel through there back in those days! I don’t think I could handle it… beautiful pictures as always 🙂

  2. What a weird but dramatic landscape. (We went through Death Valley as kids in a car without AC. Dad had us get up before dawn and drove like crazy to get across before the heat got back…back then you might see people by overheated cars along the side of the road.) I remember that old mule train picture! Thanks for adding that!

    • You still see people’s cars overheating on occasion. They even have a water tank on the steepest hill, a straight up climb of four miles. I know how tough that hill is because I biked up it on my trip across the country, one painful pedal at a time! 🙂 And yes, Death Valley is not somewhere you want to be in the summer without air-conditioning! I’ll bet your dad was hightailing it. –Curt

  3. Sorry Curt, you and I are 75 [almost] but I suspect most of your readers won’t know the full significance of the phrase 20 Mule Team Borax had in our culture for awhile and the man it employed. But I was thrilled to see these areas too when we visited a few years ago.

    • With a very, very long whip. 🙂 Also one of the drivers kept a box of pebbles. He would pelt any misbehaving mules. The mules were well trained, Alison and the two lead mules probably the best trained. In addition to hauling duty, one team traveled the country showing up in parades and at fairs advertising borax. –Curt

  4. I’ve wanted to visit Death Valley my whole life, because of the connection with my parents, who stayed there during part of their honeymoon road trip in December of 1948. But it has never been on the forefront of my mind, and never researched. In this modern era, blog-reading so easily introduces images and ideas, moving things from the back of the mind to the front… and your pictures are beautiful and appealing!! Would you venture an opinion about the best time of year to visit?

      • hahahahaha – I did know that much 😉 My husband tells about the one time he was camping there, with four other (crazy) college friends, traveling in a VW bug with no AC. He said they couldn’t decide whether to leave the windows open to the blast furnace, or close them and simply bake.

      • My first amusing travel experience involved a VW bug. We were headed to Texas from Iowa, pulling a small U-haul trailer. I’d thought it would be all downhill, but no: there are mountains in Oklahoma. That poor car…

      • I suspect the VW had a few words with you over that, Linda. My first wife and I owned a bug as well in the 70s and had many adventures, which included traveling with an 80 pound basset hound that wagged the vehicle when he got to enthusiastic wagging! –Curt

  5. Have you visited the museum that highlights the history of the mule teams, the borax trade, and such? I recall that they have one of the wagons the mules pulled, although I can’t remember whether it’s a restored original or a replica.

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