Death Valley to Yuma via the Salton Sea

March 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After repositioning ourselves closer to the southern parts of Death Valley National Park, we took some time to explore a bit more of this rugged and beautiful valley, along with some of it's interesting mining history.  While we did not do "all" of Death Valley, we did enough to see why this would be a harsh environment to make a living. 

Click on images to go to their respective galleries.  Links in text will take you to more information about that subject. 

Our first destination was Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Ranch.  Along the way we made a quick side trip to go along part of the original 20-Mule Team Road. The famous Twenty Mule Teams first pulled massive wagons hauling borax from William T. Coleman's Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave, California, a grueling 165 mile, ten day trip across primitive roads. Although the teams only ran for six years from 1883 to 1889, they made an enduring impression of the Old West and Death Valley. 

Death Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team RoadDeath Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team RoadFor many people, nothing symbolizes Death Valley more than the famous Twenty Mule Teams. These "big teams" first pulled massive wagons hauling borax from William T. Coleman's Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave, California, a grueling 165 mile, ten day trip across primitive roads. Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander. Death Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team Road 2Death Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team Road 220-Mule Team Road in Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Dave Alexander.

Death Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team Road - 2Death Valley, CA - 20 Mule Team Road - 2Twenty Mule Team Raod in Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Dave Alexander

In the 1920s, as it became apparent to the Pacific Coast Borax Company that the emphasis of borax mining was swinging away from Death Valley, it was decided that it might be a good time to start encouraging tourist travel to the area in order to make some money. 

The primary concern of the company centered around providing adequate and comfortable accommodations. It was first thought that the natural and easiest solution would be to house people at Furnace Creek Ranch, and plans were accordingly made to add 10-12 bedrooms plus dining facilities. On further thought, however, this locale seemed too remote from Ryan, and thus impractical as a tourist headquarters. After lengthy consideration of alternative locations at Ryan and Shoshone, it was finally decided that the small mound and former Indian ceremonial area at the mouth of Furnace Creek Wash would be an ideal site.
Construction of the hotel started in September 1926, and its official opening was held on February 1, 1927. In the fall of 1927, five more terrace rooms on either side of the parking area were added and more construction would continue over the next decade.
 
The Pacific Coast Borax Company extensively promoted use of its own standard-gauge Tonopah & Tidewater and narrow-gauge Death Valley railroads to transport tourists to the site. At that time, tourists could purchase a package that included transportation, hotel accommodations for one night at Furnace Creek Inn, meals for two days, and bus tours to nearby attractions for $42.
 
With the proclamation of Death Valley as a national monument in February, 1933, highways in Death Valley were constructed by the federal government and taken over by the California State Highway Commission. 
 
In 1956 Fred Harvey, Inc., took over management of the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch for the borax company and in 1969 purchased the properties outright. Today, the property is owned by the Xanterra Corporation and part of the Furnace Creek Resort.  A massive fire destroyed the historic laundry facilities across the highway in December of 2014. 
 
 
Nearby, you'll find the Furnace Creek Ranch. After establishing a location for the Harmony Borax Works about 1.5  miles north of the mouth of Furnace Creek, William T. Coleman next addressed the need for a supply point to provide essential provisions for his mules and workmen at this plant and at his Amargosa Borax Works.
 
 
A logical place for this operation was the spot near the mouth of Furnace Creek Wash that had been homesteaded in the 1870’s by a man named Bellerin Teck. The ranch consisted of a large adobe house with a wide northern veranda, and was first referred to as "Greenland" and occasionally as "Coleman." It was given its present name by the Pacific Coast Borax Company sometime after 1889.
 
The presence of water, shade trees, and grass in the area led to temperatures that usually ranged from eight to ten degrees cooler than elsewhere in the valley, and by 1885 the farmstead was rich in alfalfa and hay, while cattle, hogs, and sheep were supplying fresh meat for the tables of the Harmony Borax workers.
 
The promotional possibilities offered by this cool oasis greatly appealed to Coleman, who at one point envisioned eventually establishing a resort here. However, Coleman's fortunes waned and the property wound up with Francis "Borax" Smith by 1890.  It would finally become a resort around 1933 and today, like the Furnace Creek Inn, is part of the Furnace Creek Resort, complete with golf course, RV Park and more.  
 
Just one of the interesting things to do here is visit the Borax Works Museum at the Ranch.    Furnace Creek, CA - Furnace Creek Ranch Borax MuseumFurnace Creek, CA - Furnace Creek Ranch Borax MuseumBorax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park, California. This building was constructed in 1883 by Francis "Borax" Smith, founder of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The oldest house in Death Valley, it originally stood in 20-Mule Team Canyon where it served as an office, bunk house and ore-checking station for miners at the Monte Blanco deposits. In 1954 the building was moved to Furnace Creek Ranch to serve as a museum. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander. Furnace Creek, CA - Furnace Creek Ranch Borax Museum RailroadFurnace Creek, CA - Furnace Creek Ranch Borax Museum RailroadDeath Valley Railroad on display at Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.
Right next to the ranch is the Harmony Borax Works. The discovery of borax north of the mouth of Furnace Creek was made in 1881 by Aaron and Rose Winters, whose holdings were immediately bought by William T. Coleman and Company for $20,000. He subsequently formed the Greenland Salt and Borax Mining Company (later the Harmony Borax Mining Company), which in 1882 began operating the Harmony Borax Works, a small settlement of adobe and stone buildings plus a refinery. The homestead, later known as the Furnace Creek Ranch, immediately to the south was intended as the supply point for his men and stock.
A land of extremes, Death Valley is one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth. With summer temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees and a long history of human suffering in the vast desert, the valley is aptly named. However, this place of eroded badlands, sand dunes, and golden hills also has a haunting sense of beauty. Just down the road a piece from Furnace Creek Inn, Artist's Palette is a prime example of the rugged beauty here. The Palette drive rises from the desert floor to the edge of the Black Mountains where the rock has been colored by oxidation of various metals. This is the area of the valley's most explosive volcanic periods. Death Valley, CA - Artist RoadDeath Valley, CA - Artist RoadA road in Death Valley National Park, California near Artist's Palette. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.
Death Valley, CA - Artist Palette RoadDeath Valley, CA - Artist Palette RoadRoad into Artist Palette in Death Valley National Park, California. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander. Death Valley, CA - Artist PaletteDeath Valley, CA - Artist PaletteArtist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California is noted for having various colors caused by the oxidation of different metals. Sitting on the face of the Black Mountains, this area is the result of Death Valley's most explosive volcanic periods. Known as the Artists Drive Formation, chemical weathering and hydrothermal alteration are also responsible for the variety of colors.
From there you continue to go down into the valley's lowest point, Badwater Basin. As you stand looking at the desert, be sure to turn around to see the cliff behind you and the "Sea Level" marker 282 feet above you. 
There's more evidence of mining in Death Valley, including the small ruins of Ashford Mill. In January, 1907 a man named Harold Ashford wandered into the Death Valley region, and attracted by the gold strikes at the Desert Hound Mine, prospected in that vicinity. Within a few months, he discovered that the Keys Gold Mining Company had failed to do the required assessment work on several of its claims, and Ashford relocated them and started to work on his own. It took the Keys Gold Mining Company almost two years to discover that someone else was working their former claims, and when Ashford refused to vacate, the company took him to court In January, 1910; however, the judge found in favor of Ashford and he retained title to his claims.
 
The mine continued to be worked for years, and a mill was established on the floor of Death Valley, five miles and 3,500 feet below the mine, where the ore from the mine was trucked for preliminary treating. The mill included a jaw-crusher, a ten-foot Lane mill, a Wilfley table and a Diester slime table. The ruins of Ashford Mill stand on the floor of Death Valley. Structures here consist of the crumbling walls of a concrete office building, and the ruins of the mill itself. Not much is left of the mill, with the exception of the large concrete foundations and a very limited amount of debris.
There's plenty more to see and do in Death Valley National Park.  We suggest spending several days of exploring in the Spring or Fall for the best enjoyment. 
 
After Death Valley we headed through the Mojave National Preserve to boondock our travel trailer at Amboy Crater.  Along the way we stopped in Kelso for a quick peek at the past at the Kelso Railroad Depot Depot Museum and the remains of this once important stop.  Around the turn of the 20th Century, construction began on what would become the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. Union Pacific made a deal to purchase half of the railroad, and the Salt Lake route spread across the Mojave Desert by 1905.  Siding #16 became Kelso, with the first depot opening in 1905, followed by a post office, engineer house, eating house, and eventually a small town.  By the 1940's, Kelso had a population of around 2,000. But with the closing of a nearby mine, and diesel engines replacing steam engines on the railroad, Union Pacific began moving employee's and jobs away.  It wasn't until 1985 that the railroad completely closed the depot.  In 1994 the California Desert Protection Act created the Mojave National Preserve, putting the depot into the hands of the National Park Service.  Renovations to the historic structure began in 2002 and opened as a new visitor's center to the preserve in 2005. 
Ludlow, CA - Motel SignLudlow, CA - Motel Sign
After making our way out of the Mojave National Preserve we decided to do a small bit more of Route 66, this time back tracking from Ludlow to Amboy.  During our visit, parts of the Mother Road were still closed due to flooding in the fall of 2014, but the path from Ludlow to Amboy was enough to wrap up this day's adventure. 
 
Though Ludlow is a virtual ghost town, you will see a few open businesses due to its proximity to I-40. Founded in 1882 as a water stop for the Central Pacific Railroad, the water was hauled from Newberry Springs in tank cars. Before long, gold was discovered in the area and Ludlow began to grow until the mining petered out in the early 1900s. Declining for the first time, Ludlow saw a revival when Route 66 came through, becoming a busy rest stop along the new highway. Ludlow died a second death when I-40 replaced the Mother Road. Though there are still a few people living in the area, supporting the service businesses along the interstate, the town is mostly littered with the decaying buildings of its former past.
 
On the other side of the railroad tracks behind the old settlement of Ludlow is an interesting cemetery surrounded by a rusty wire fence. Here, nameless graves are marked by a couple of dozen wooden crosses, leaving no testament to those who died here many years before.
 
To end the day we paid a visit to Amboy. The town was originally owned by Roy and Velma Crowl in the 1930s and the cafe, motel, and service station were built somewhere around 1938. The Crowl's had two children who helped them with the business - Lloyd Irwin and Betty.
 
Over the years the station, motel and cafe served thousands of customers who would rave about Roy's burgers and the service that they received along that desolate stretch of Route 66. In those days, Amboy was an oasis in the desert where hot and tired travelers could stop for food, a cool drink, mechanical services, and gas, while a big smile and a kind voice awaited them at Roy's Cafe and Motel.
 
Today, Roy's Cafe and Motel are under new ownership, and while they  aren't serving food yet, during our visit they were working on the Motel and we were told that despite water issues, they are still trying to re-open it.
We boondocked our RV at Amboy Crater nearby.  Estimated to be around 79,000 years old, the crater was a popular spot for those traveling Route 66 before I-40 came along, and is one of the few extinct volcanoes along the route.  It has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years as people re-discover the Mother road. 
After Amboy we decided to make a quick jaunt over to the Salton Sea on our round about way to Yuma, Arizona.  Situated in the Sonoran Desert in southeastern California is the Salton Sea, the largest lake in the state. The Salton Basin has held various waters over the last three million years as the Colorado River changed its course and spilled over, filling up the basin with fresh water lakes that would eventually evaporate. Then, the process would start all over again. By the time European explorers came to the area in the 16th century, the Salton Basin was completely dry, though just a half a century before it had been some 26 times larger than the size of the current Salton Sea.
 
In the late 19th century the California Development Company and its ambitious president, Charles R. Rockwood, determined to make the Imperial Valley into an agricultural oasis in the desert. A series of canals were constructed in 1900 to allow for irrigation and for a few years the river flowed peacefully, regulated by a wooden head gate, and watering the fields of fruits and vegetables. However, the flowing waters contained large amounts of silt, which soon blocked the head gate. To correct this problem, the California Development Company then cut a new channel a few miles south of the Mexican border. Unregulated by U.S. authorities, the new channel crossed an unstable river delta and when the Colorado River waters began to peak from heavy rainfalls and snowmelt in the summer of 1905, the dike broke and the Salton Basin began to fill at an alarming rate.
 
For two years, the Colorado River flooded the Salton Sink, destroying the town of Salton and the Southern Pacific Railroad siding. The railroad, having substantial business interests in the region, spent some three million dollars to stop the river's flow into the Salton Sink, finally succeeding in 1907. However, a "new" lake body had been created, which was called the Salton Sea.
 
The large sea, surrounded by desert terrain, was a natural site for fishermen, but without an outlet, the sea became more and more saline as fresh water was pumped out of the lake for irrigation and when the water returned through run-off it included dissolved salts from the soil, pesticides and fertilizer residue. As the saline levels increased, the fresh water fish died and over the years, officials began to experiment with bringing in various species of salt water fish, including salmon, halibut, bonefish, clams, oysters, and more. Unfortunately, these fish also died due to the high saline level.
 
However, in the early 1950s, certain species survived including gulf croaker, sargo, orange corvine and tilapia. As the fish began to thrive, it fueled a recreation boom in the 1950s and the inland desert sea became an inviting sport-fishing and vacation destination. In no time, its coastline developed numerous resorts and marinas catering to water skiers, boaters, and fishermen. Billed as "Palm Springs-by-the-Sea,” restaurants, shops, and nightclubs also sprang up along the shores. The lake enjoyed immense popularity, especially among the rich and famous as movie stars and recording artists flocked to the area. From Dean Martin, to Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys, the lake became a speedboat playground.
 
However, Salton Sea’s bright lights would quickly fade in the 1970s when the sea’s water level began rising from several years of heavy rains and increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, businesses, resorts, and marinas flooded several times until the water stabilized in 1980 after a series of conservation measures to reduce field run-off. However, for the many resort areas, it was too late. The salt and fertilizers of the run-off had accumulated to such a degree that they had reached toxic levels, which began a cycle of decay. As algae fed on the toxins, it created massive amounts of rotten smelling matter floating upon the surface of the lake and suffocated many of the fish.
 
Within just a few years, the resorts had closed, the marinas were abandoned, and those who could afford to, had moved, leaving in their wake, abandoned businesses and homes, and scattered junk. 
After a brief visit to the Salton Sea State Park, we moved on down the road toward the border, then over to Yuma, Arizona. Along the way we passed Imperial Sand Dunes, which looked like quite a bit of fun for off roading.
Just past the sand dunes, Yuma is home of the famed Yuma Territorial Prison.  From 1876 to 1909, this prison held criminals from all over Arizona Territory, including famous outlaws like Pearl Hart. Over 3,000 prisoners, including 29 women, stayed here during its 33 year history.  Due to severe overcrowding, the prison was closed in September 1909 and today is an Arizona State Park. 
We also paid a visit to old Fort Yuma. Fort Yuma was established near the Gila River in Arizona to defend the newly settled community of Yuma, Arizona and immigrants taking the southern route to California. However, shortly after it was established, it was moved across the Colorado river to protect the ferry crossing in March, 1851. However, the fort was virtually abandoned just a few months later due to the high costs incurred in maintaining it and by the end of the year, the troops were entirely gone. It was reoccupied by Captain Heintzelman on February 29, 1852. From 1858 until 1861, the fort was situated along the Butterfield Overland Mail route. In 1864 the quartermaster Corps erected a depot on the left bank of the Colorado River, below the mouth of the Gila River, which continued to provide supplies until the railroad made the supply depot obsolete. The fort was abandoned for the last time in May, 1883 and the land transferred to the Department of Interior the following year.
 
Today, the site of the military reservation is occupied by the Fort Yuma Indian School and a mission, which features the Quechan Indian Museum housed in the old officers' mess quarters. 
We did get to know the local Native American Authorities after someone reported that we may be hauling a body on top of our SUV.  No folks, that's just a carry bag with chairs and a table :)
 
After Yuma, we wrapped up our tour of the Southwest with a visit to Goldfield, Fort Bowie, and more...before finding winter again in Texas :( We'll show you some of that journey on our next Photo Blog. 
 
About the RV Parks we stayed at during this portion of our journey: 
 
In addition to our great boon docking experience at Amboy Crater, we stayed at Westwind RV and Golf Resort.  Fantastic stay, with a community that has lots of activities, bar, restaurant and more!  We definitely recommend this park, especially if you are thinking about having a second "home" for winter. 

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