Hike, bird-watch, shop, nibble at China Ranch Date Farm

A verdant oasis hidden in a secluded canyon, China Ranch Date Farm near Death Valley National Park is an excellent cool-season destination.

Visitors to the working farm can sample dates and date products, browse through the bakery and gift shop, select landscaping plants, learn about area history at a one-room museum, observe birds and animals and explore canyons and waterways on foot or horseback.

This intriguing site is about 80 miles west of Las Vegas. Follow Interstate 15 south to state Route 160 (Blue Diamond Road), then west through a mountain pass into Pahrump Valley. The road over the mountains parallels the route followed by trader Antonio Armijo from Santa Fe to California in 1830, later known as the Old Spanish Trail. Down in the valley, watch for the turnoff onto the Tecopa Highway, which becomes the Old Spanish Trail Highway at the California border.

As you approach Tecopa, a community developed around natural hot springs with a lake and marshes, turn left on Furnace Creek Road and follow it a couple of miles to China Ranch Road. This graded route twists about two miles through an eroded canyon to lush greenery in the little cultivated valley. Groves of date palms, stands of cottonwoods and other native trees, gardens and pastures thrive there. Parking is available near a cluster of buildings close to the bakery and gift shop and adjacent cactus nursery.

Springs and a creek through this canyon are tributaries of the nearby Amargosa River, which creates a series of desert oases before ending at Badwater in Death Valley.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the water, wildlife and vegetation attracted nomadic native cultures. Some tribal groups probably nurtured small plots of corn and squash near the water in places like China Ranch.

China Ranch has been regularly cultivated since the late 1800s when a Chinese man left his labors in the borax mines and mills of Death Valley to raise fruit, vegetables and meat for sale to the miners. He later disappeared, but the China Ranch name stuck. A succession of owners farmed and ranched there. The first date palms grew from seeds planted in 1920, by a daughter of the Fairchild family, early settlers in the region.

In 1970, another pioneering family acquired the property. Brian Brown and his wife, Bonnie, began improving the property and expanding the date groves. Over decades, several hybrid date palms specific to China Ranch have been propagated and date palms from overseas have been established.

Dates are harvested each fall, with yields as high as 300 pounds coming from each producing female tree. Managing the groves means long-term planning and commitment. Brian Brown gained experience in the groves, while Bonnie developed and tested ways to use nutritious dates in various recipes, such as the bread, muffins and cookies available from the ranch bakery and recipes found in cookbooks sold in the gift shop. The shop also has dates, jams, jellies, local crafts, books, jewelry, souvenirs and vintage collectibles.

After spending their first years in an old ranch house, the couple started building a home for their growing family in 1991. A five-year project, it is constructed of adobe bricks made at the ranch. The Browns have also established the small museum and the nursery where visitors select their own palms, cactuses and native plants to purchase.

China Ranch is a favorite for local hikers and birders. The ranchers have marked routes for six trails fanning out into nearby canyons, along the river and following the historic roadbed of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, in operation from 1905 to 1937. Trail maps and descriptions are available. Birders are frequent return visitors at China Ranch, where 225 species have been spotted, drawn by the water, shelter and feed available at this hidden oasis.

Dates and goodies made from them can be purchased from China Ranch’s store in person (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas) or online at www.chinaranch.com. Custom orders can be placed by calling 760-852-4415.

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