Category: Series (History): The Wonders of Willow Creek

About the Willow Creek, China Ranch, and Tecopa Hot Springs area of the Amargosa Valley.

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.


The Wonders of Willow Creek, Part 4: China Ranch Date Farm

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

China Ranch Date Farm

Vonola Modine planted the first date trees at China Ranch, which lined a driveway to a house she and her husband dreamed of building. And eventually they did build a house. But around the year 1924 or 1925, something happened to Vonola’s mental state. She became distraught and superstitious and decided she wanted to move away from the Chinaman’s ranch. But Alex refused. He loved the ranch.

So one day while Alex was away, Vonola burned their house down. This was a rather extreme strategy, but it worked. Her husband, viewing the smoldering ruins of his hard work, agreed that maybe it was time to leave. They sold the ranch and moved to Santa Paula, California, about 40 miles northwest of Hollywood.

Several abandoned gypsum mines line the road on the way into the China Ranch Date Farm.

Perhaps Vonola’s superstitions were accurate, because this turned out to be an auspicious change of scenery for her family. In Santa Paula that same year, she gave birth to her daughter, Nola Jo Modine. Meanwhile, Alex went to work for Texaco Oil.

During the Great Depression, Vonola washed clothes to pay for singing and dancing lessons for Nola. And these lessons paid off. Nola Jo Modine changed her name to Nola Fairbanks, after her mother’s maiden name, and became a successful stage actress. During the 1950s, she starred in several hit Broadway shows, including Out of This World, Paint Your Wagon, and Fanny (where she replaced Florence Henderson for the lead role).

She also became a regular on Arthur Godfrey’s television show. Her show business career quickly faded during the 1960’s, but Nola faded much more slowly. She managed to live on to the ripe old age of 96. In fact, she died just this year, on February 8th.

Vonola had a grandson, Nola’s nephew, who also went into show business. Matthew Modine has played roles in many great films. He was Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, starred as the high school wrestler, Louden Swain, in Vision Quest, and portrayed the villainous Dr. Martin Brenner in Stranger Things.

But let’s get back to the ranch. Remember that Vonola and her husband Alex sold the ranch in 1924 or 1925, after she burned the ranch house down. After that, the Chinaman’s Ranch changed hands many times. But in 1970, the property was purchased by a brother and sister named Charles Brown, Jr. and Bernice Sorrells. They were the children of State Senator Charles Brown, whom Vonola’s sister, Stella, had married. So they were the nephew and niece of Vonola Modine.

They changed the name to the China Ranch Date Farm, and it has remained in the family to this day. It seems the date palms that their Aunt Vonola had planted in the 1920’s were mature, fruit-bearing trees by this time. So the new owners decided to expand the date orchard and try to make a profitable venture out of date farming.

Today there are over 1,300 date palms at China Ranch Date Farm. Some are male, which produce pollen, and some are female, which bear fruit. They pollinate from March to June, and dates are harvested from October through February. Each female produces 100 to 300 pounds of dates in a season.

I’m not sure just how profitable their date business has been, but in the 1990’s they opened up their date farm to tourists. I don’t know how successful that has been either, but they do have a gift shop and a cafe on the grounds. The gift shop sells many gimcracks and whatnots, including some collectible rocks and gems that left me feeling mesmerized, until the price tags shook me back to reality.

I encountered about a dozen coyotes, while traipsing through the date palm grove, including this guy, who seems to be taking it easy in the shade of a young palm.

The cafe serves date shakes and date smoothies, along with a variety of other drinks and meals. And of course, you can buy bags and boxes of dates, date muffins, date candies, date paste (for making your own date shakes at home), and a date cookbook.

Are you feeling romantic? With all their merchandise, it seems the China Ranch Date Farm is the perfect place for a date.

For the lonely romantic without a car, the China Ranch will deliver your date to you.


The Wonders of Willow Creek, Part 3: The Chinaman

This is Part 3 of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

The Chinaman

In 1844, Kit Carson and John Fremont passed through here and spent the night, while on an exploratory expedition for the U.S. government. They watered and grazed their horses at Willow Creek, and Fremont noted in his journal that this was the best grazing since entering the Mojave Desert. It’s presumed he learned this from his horses, and did not sample the grass himself.

Looking upstream from Willow Creek, toward Willow Spring.

By 1848, this route became known as the Mormon Road, and provided respite and water to settlers and soldiers, passing through the arid Mojave. And by 1849, the gold rush had created such a demand for mules and horses in California, that the Los Chaguanosos had to give up their trade, and leave the trail to more honest travelers.

In the late-1840s, the Donner Party had become famous for freezing to death and eating their own in the high Sierras of California. And so to avoid that fate, dozens of parties of 49’ers, bound for the gold fields during the winter months, skirted the Sierras to the south and traveled the Mormon Road through Willow Spring.

The verdant, riparian valley watered by Willow Creek. The palm trees at the left are some of the date palms found at the China Ranch Date Farm.

These 49’ers were feverish for gold, which was not abundant in this land to the east of Death Valley. So they kept traveling and apparently did not pay much attention to all the white stuff, veining the nearby hills. But eventually, somebody noticed.

Miners infiltrated the land beginning sometime around the 1870s. They pilfered the white veins, and poked many holes, finding minerals such as borax, talc, gypsum, and sodium nitrate. Mule trains transported these substances to civilized places where they were appreciated and held value. Then, around 1907, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad constructed a line that put the mule trains out of business.

The old railroad bed of the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. The T&T operated from 1907 to 1940. During World War II, it’s equipment, rails, and most of the ties were scavenged by the U.S. Government, for the war effort.

Sometime in the 1890’s, a Chinese man named Ah Foo, who had worked many years in the borax mines of Death Valley, came to Willow Spring. Here he established a ranch and planted fruits and vegetables. He sold the food he raised to local mining camps, and his spread became known to his customers as the Chinaman’s Ranch.

Then in 1900, a dastardly fellow by the name of Morrison, drifted onto the scene. Nobody’s quite sure what happened, but one story claims he bought the ranch from Ah Foo for $100 in gold coins. But according to another story, Morrison ran the Chinese man off at gunpoint, stealing the ranch by deforce, and claiming it as his own.

Regardless, the locals continued to call it the Chinaman’s Ranch. Apparently, the name had stuck for good, and in fact even today it’s called the China Ranch Date Farm.

The Amargosa River is joined by Willow Creek about a mile south of the China Ranch Date Farm. Pictured is the Amargosa River, at bottom, and a wash that leads to a slot canyon carved into the rhyolite rock hill in the distance.

Morrison sold out after a few years, and the Chinese ranch began to change hands like a hot potato tossing contest. It went through many different owners, who pursued many different enterprises. Some raised sheep, some cattle, some hogs. Some grew figs, and some grew alfalfa. But the most significant crop started with a newlywed couple named Modine.

Vonola Modine was the daughter of Ralph and Celestia Fairbanks, who were Death Valley area pioneers, and who had founded the town of Shoshone, about nine miles north of Tecopa. She was also the sister of Stella Fairbanks. Stella married a man named Charles Brown, who eventually became an influential state senator.

Vonola’s marriage was to a man named Alexander. Soon after their marriage, they ambitiously acquired the Chinaman’s Ranch. It had been abandoned and neglected, so they had to work hard to make it operational and productive again. Alex worked in a local mine, to raise funds he needed for the ranch. It seems they were a young couple with big dreams.

One day, Vonola read a magazine article about a new kind of crop growing in California’s Coachella Valley, called dates. She’d never seen a date, nor even a date palm, but she was curious, so she sent away for some seeds. She planted these seeds in two long rows that she envisioned would line a driveway for a house that she and her husband might someday build.


"Depths of Poison" Book 2

Scroll down to read the sequel.

Marie Lamba, author

Some thoughts from author and agent Marie Lamba

Catxman's Cradle

Catxman dances, Catxman spins around, leaps ....... // I sing a song, a song of hope, a song of looove -- a song of burning roses. / Synthesizer notes. // (c) 2021-22


Celebrating God's creatures, birds and plants...

Starting Over

Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Chel Owens

A Wife, My Verse, and Every Little Thing

Chasing Unicorns

Where smartasses chase unicorns

suyts space

Just another site


A site for the Barsetshire Diaries Books and others

The Trefoil Muse

Words are art on paper, and for me they are the seeds of my soul.

Marta Frant

Humor and Lifestyle

Jessica reads&write

I read to live, I write to share their life

Jessica E. Larsen

Writer. Reader. A mom and a romantic dreamer 🥰 💕

Borden's Blather

A 60-something guy trying to figure out the world, and his place in it.

...i choose this...

joy, happiness, travel, adventure, gratitude

A Pierman Sister

Paris, Travel and Family

Luminous Aether

Light is a state-of-mind.