The Wonders of Willow Creek, Part 5: China Ranch Loop Trail

This is the final part of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

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.

This ACME Company’s siding was an ore loading site for the T&T railroad. It was also used for unloading sophisticated roadrunner-catching equipment, that had been mail-ordered by a certain coyote, named Wile E.

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.

An orange-headed mushroom grows out of the Sperry Hills, near the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River.
One of the roadside signs you might happen to notice, while searching for China Ranch.

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.

China Ranch Road seems flat and unremarkable, until it suddenly plunges into this hidden oasis.

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.

This fluted, orange column stands watch near the entrance to a slot canyon.

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.

To find the slot canyon, look for the weird rock formations projecting from the Sperry Hills, across the Amargosa River.

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.

The Amargosa River. It was legally designated a Wild and Scenic River in 2009. It has also been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

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.

The rhyolite rock walls of the slot canyon. My thanks to Jason Frels and his photography blog, for inspiring me to download Nikon’s “NX Studio.” By taking RAW formatted photos on my hike, I was able to apply NX Studio’s Active D-Lighting. This brought out details in the dark areas of my photos, without overexposing lighter areas.

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.

Palisades Rock Wall. Using Active D-Lighting, I was able to suss out much of the details of this richly-veined rocky mountain, that guards the mouth of Amargosa Canyon. In person it’s even more stunning, but the morning shadow that engulfs it hides a lot of beauty from the camera.

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?

This canyon of cliffs tempted me, but I had no time to explore it.

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.

Perhaps the most curious sight along the trail was this castle-shaped geological formation, high upon a cliffside.

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.

It’s sights like this that call me back to the China Ranch Date Farm.


60 replies »

  1. Thanks for the adventure of learning about and seeing The China Ranch Date Farm! Your pics are great, credit to your teacher. 🙂
    The Slot Canyon and Canyon of Rocks , beautiful blue skies and lush greenery …. I see why you want to go back. Glad you found the hidden oasis. I wonder how many more you may be able find. Get to searching Sherlock!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. you’ve really done justice to this oasis in the middle of the desert. it’s fun to get caught up in your excitement of how much you enjoyed it. I’m glad the head scratching worked, I may have to give that a try…

    Liked by 1 person

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