Twenty Mule Team Canyon (Mule Train Canyon) is located on California Route 190, between Death Valley Junction and Furnace Creek. The entranceway to this canyon is well marked, but the summer monsoon season flash floods can make the access point difficult to negotiate, especially since the dirt road first goes through a mountain dry wash. The rest of the dirt road that runs through Mule Train Canyon is fairly well maintained, so a regular passenger car can do the short tour if the access is clear.
Borax mining was in full swing in Death Valley back in the early 1900s. Twenty Mule Team Wagons were used to the haul borax ore to distant railroad depots back in those days, which was no easy task. Most of the borax was hauled to depots in the California Mojave Desert because this route was a little bit easier to traverse than the alternative uphill trail to the nearby Amargosa Valley. However, wagons going through the low desert were subject to raids, so the better choice ended up being Amargosa. The trip to the depot in old Amargosa (Death Valley Junction) involved going straight up out of Death Valley through winding canyons and the 20 Mule Team Wagons actually had enough power to get this seemingly impossible task done.
The dirt road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon actually is the same historic path that the 20 Mule Team Wagons used to haul ore uphill long ago. Mule Train Canyon is one of the most inhospitable looking places on earth and the bright yellow sandstone is almost blinding in the mid afternoon sunlight. With the Funeral Mountain looming in the distance and a view of Death Valley over the shoulder, this canyon is definitely quite an intimidating experience. To make matters even worse, the summertime ground temperature index in this area can be well over 165ºF, which is hot enough to cook an egg!
The labor involved with hauling borax ore uphill in the extreme heat was more than what some men and mules could handle. Many workers perished on this perilous route that is prone to oven temperatures and powerful flash floods that race through the canyons with no warning. Negotiating safe passage through Mule Train Canyon in the old 20 Mule Team Wagon era was not something that workers looked forward to doing. Eventually the Pacific Coast Borax Company built a narrow gauge railroad from Death Valley Junction to a point about halfway downhill to Furnace Creek. The ore still had to be hauled by wagon through Mule Train Canyon, but at least the trek to the loading site could be done in one day.
Shortly after the borax mining came to a halt in Death Valley, the age of touring the country by rail began. A luxury resort was built at Furnace Creek and it soon became a major tourist destination. Visitors were picked up at the borax rail car loading site halfway downhill, then were carted on wagons through Mule Train Canyon to the resort. As the age of the automobile came to be, rail car tourism declined and eventually a paved road was engineered. The heavy road building equipment carved an entirely new path that bypassed the old Mule Train Canyon trail. As a result, Mule Train Canyon was unscathed and it still looks about the same as it did 100 years ago.
Many old western movies from the 1930s and 1940s were filmed in 20 Mule Team Canyon. One of my old time favorites was the 1940s serial, “Riders Of Death Valley.” This serial western featured picturesque scenes filmed in Death Valley and Mule Train Canyon was where many of the Hollywood style gunfights took place! The landscape of Mule Train Canyon has not changed since those days and a visitor can easily see where the good guys and bad guys duked it out back in the days of the big screen picture show.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a great place to experience old west history and this certainly is the formidable terrain that Death Valley National Park is most famous for! As always, be sure to use common sense when touring Death Valley. Always pack plenty of water and some nonperishable food, just in case an emergency situation arises. Flash floods are the biggest danger, so it is best to delay the trip if rain is in the forecast, which fortunately is actually kind of rare in this arid place. Mule Train Canyon always has been one tough place to be and it sure is one of the most picturesque places in Death Valley!
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