Twenty Mule Team Canyon is the original late 19th century bad lands route for the famous Twenty Mule Team wagons that hauled borax ore from the Harmony Borax Works in Furnace Creek out of Death Valley, 165 miles away to Mojave, California. Today you can drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon on a good unpaved road to see the same surroundings the original Twenty Mule Team Canyon wagon drivers viewed. You will also see signs of historic borax prospecting in the canyon.
The Twenty Mule Team wagons operated between 1883 and 1889 and hauled a total of 30 million lbs of borax from Death Valley to Mojave California.
Actually the term “Twenty Mule Team” is a misnomer as there were 18 mules with 2 horses at the front since horses responded better for leading and steering the wagons. The animals were yoked together in two rows of ten. This number of animals was needed to haul two 16-foot wagons, each of which weighed 7800 lbs BEFORE being filled with the borax ore. A huge water wagon was pulled behind these 2 massively heavy ore wagons for a total of 73,000lbs…pulled uphill on a soft road surface! The Twenty Mule Team outfit was nearly 100ft long. That’s a third of the length of a football field!
More recently, Twenty Mule Team Canyon was the filming location for scenes of Star Wars Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker retreated into a cave located in this canyon to transition into a true Jedi warrior.
Today Twenty Mule Team Canyon is simply a beautiful bad lands canyon – especially during the sunrise and sunset hours – yet filled with memories.
In this adventure I travel the canyon on foot to get the full experience.
From Las Vegas take Hwy 190 North Toward Pahrump. Continue on Hwy 190 through Pahrump and toward Death Valley. Twenty Mule Team Canyon is located past the Death Valley Park pay station and shortly before Zabriskie Point. Watch for a road sign for Twenty Mule Team Canyon. This is a 2.5 mile 1-way unpaved road, good for most 2WD vehicles (except for low riders). Enter at the lower entrance, exit above.
My strategy was to enter the upper exit of Twenty Mule Team Canyon in order to have the rising sun at my back. As Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a one-way unpaved road, one can only enter the exit and exit the entrance if on foot. I traveled down the canyon 2.5 miles to the canyon entrance, then looped up Hwy 190 back to the exit where I began. The entire trip took a couple hours including pictures, videos and side excursions up the surrounding golden hills. For those driving the canyon, the road on this day was very well graded and good for 2WD travel. There was only one point near the exit where the incline up the unpaved, loose rock road was very steep (10%?), which might have been difficult in a car with worn tires and a weak motor.
Having the rising sun at my back was a great strategy as I was able to see the entire sunrise from the moment the sun touched the tops of the golden hills to the time it descended to the floor of the canyon. Of particular beauty was the northern ridge of the Black Mountains, prominent as a spectacular backdrop. The video and pictures do not do it justice as there was a huge greenish cliff, possibly chloride. Other colors were the reds of iron in the mountains and white veins of borax in the golden hills surrounding the canyon.
The canyon was anything but flat as there were a few steep uphill and downhill inclines. Imagining the mule teams pulling 73,000 pounds of wagons (1/3rd the length of a football field!) up some of these hills was difficult. And the fact that the 100ft operation including horses, mules and wagons was required to wind some relatively steep curves made it seem even more difficult. In places near the lower part of the canyon it’s evident the original road way was about 3 feet higher. Following floods and grading of the canyon the road was dug deeper. Who knows, 100 years from now the road may sink even further.
The hills in the canyon were a combination of golden soil mixed with veins of white borax. About 1/4th mile in I decided to climb the surrounding hills for a higher perspective. I was not the first as there were trails up just about every hill and along every high ridge in the canyon.
The entrance of Twenty Mule Team Canyon is just above Zabriskie Point. The landmark Manly Beacon is visible from the entrance.
Curiously, there is a 6-mile unpaved road just about a mile up Hwy 190 from the entrance of Twenty Mule Team Canyon heading up into the funeral mountains East of the Canyon. Don’t know where it goes, but will check it out some day. In all my previous trips to Death Valley I’ve not noticed this road, which is a good reason to slow down and walk or run stretches of Hwy 190 at least once.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon would make a fun experience if you take the time to traverse it on foot and climb the surrounding hills. I’m not sure it’s much of an adventure to drive through in about 15 minutes, but if you’re saving the day to explore other areas in Death Valley this may be the way to go. If you drive the one-way canyon road you’ll need to begin at the entrance and end at the exit. In the morning the rising sun will be in your eyes, so you might want to drive Twenty Mule Team Canyon in the half hour before the sun sets.