China Ranch Loop Trail
Behind the gift shop at China Ranch is a trailhead that leads to several fantastic footslogs. This is what I like most about this tourist attraction. The landscape around the China Ranch Date Farm is striking, with natural arches, polychromatic hills, slot canyons, Willow Creek, the Amargosa River, old mines, and historic remnants of the Tonapah & Tidewater railroad bed.
It’s one of the most stunning and scenic geological areas I’ve ever hiked, in my opinion, and I’ve hiked in many a stunning and scenic setting, such as Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree National Parks. Perhaps it doesn’t quite match those parks for beauty, but I think it comes close. Yet so far, amazingly, China Ranch remains a fairly well-kept secret.
Maybe that’s because it’s in a remote locale, that can be a little tricky to find. You have to travel down several lonely desert roads, while being on the lookout for their faded, sunbaked signs. I’ve never seen it advertised anywhere, and though I’m a longtime resident of Southern California, I’ve never heard of it until just recently.
You can’t see it from a distance, because this oasis is hidden within a canyon. You only know for sure you’re in the right place when you drop down a steep incline and suddenly a V-shaped green splash of land appears before you, about a mile away.
I hiked the China Ranch Loop Trail in late-May, which is a time of year when the weather routinely reaches the 90’s. That high heat alone can be a deterrent to tourists. And from mid-June through mid-September, one can expect triple-digit heat most days. But I began my hike at the cool hour of 5:30 am, and finished a little after 9:00 am, just as sweat was beginning to stain my hat and shirt. So I managed to dodge most of the heat.
After the hike, I cooled myself off with a delicious date smoothie, from the gift shop’s cafe.
By beginning my hike at 5:30 am, I not only beat the heat, but I also had the trail all to myself the entire time. Yeah, the early-bird gets the trail, which is great news for misanthropic hillstompers like me.
The trail was fairly easy, until I ventured off to a spur trail to visit a slot canyon.
It’s not clearly marked at that point, and I became a little mixed up before I finally found my way. And my way involved slow-footing down a steep declivity to the banks of the Amargosa River, then balancing myself on an old 4-by-4 beam, and a series of partially submerged rocks, in order to cross the river, mostly dryshod.
Then, looping back to the ranch, I had to scratch my head a few times to figure out my way. I don’t know why it works, but head scratching has saved me many a times, in the wilderness. And speaking of being scratched, toward the end of the route there was a short stretch where I had to crawl on my hands and knees to clear some overgrown, thorny mesquite branches pleached over the trail.
But other than those few problems, this was an easy trail. It was also helpful that China Ranch has a website that includes descriptions of their trails. I found these descriptions to be somewhat useful for finding my way, but not 100% reliable.
As for heat being a deterrent to tourists, I imagine the situation might be different during the winter months. That’s when temperatures are much cooler and more bearable for hikers. I don’t know how crowded the trail becomes, but the parking lot at the trailhead is very large. So my guess is, there are a lot of feet raising the dust during those months. After all, who can resist such scenery?
My wife and I both loved visiting the China Ranch Date Farm. It’s a unicorn we’ll never forget, and that we could enjoy chasing again. The history, the many trees and riparian greenery, and the spectacular landscape are calling for our return.
Wikipedia has failed to do justice to this portion of the Amargosa Valley. But thank goodness I still have eyeballs and feet, and could correct the record with my on-the-ground research. There’s nothing like going straight to the source. And this kind of research was one hell of a lot of fun, too.