After visiting Zabriskie Point and taking in the incredible view, we all were tired and ready for a break. It was our third day adventuring in Death Valley National Park and we had already walked the Salt Creek Trail and Harmony Borax Works Trail, visited the Borax Museum, drove through Mustard Canyon, hiked Keane Wonder Mine, and checked out the view at Zabriskie Point.
I wanted to check out Dante’s View, supposedly the most breathtaking view in the park, so we decided to take a small detour on the way and do the Twenty Mule Team Canyon drive through the golden hills of the Death Valley badlands. It was mid-to-late afternoon when we drove through the canyon and the light was amazing. One side of the canyon was glowing in hues of beige, creams, golds, and tans, and the other side was in the shadows and colored in a variety of darker browns.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Twenty Mule Team Canyon is named for the teams of mules that pulled huge carts full of borax from the floor of Death Valley 165 miles to the railroad and then back again.
The dirt road leads up a dry wash into a narrow canyon through the Death Valley badlands, with buttes, canyons, and mine tunnels. It is surrounded with eroding badlands hills and a variety of contrasting colors and textures. As you make the drive, you’ll be tempted to stop and take photos or to get out of your vehicle and explore the buttes — and you should, just be sure to find a wide spot in the road to pull off and park. The road isn’t very wide and other vehicles need to be able to pass.
While the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road is just under three miles total, it took us much longer to make the drive than expected because we stopped several times to take photos and hike up the buttes. Scampering over rocks, climbing up hills, and traversing trails are some of my son’s most favorite activities and he was just itching to get out and explore. As we drove through the canyon, any time we saw a trail or navigable hill, Brian would pull over and Carter would go running toward it, often running all the way to the top. He was in Heaven and we all were in awe of his energy.
Brian and Natalie watched Carter explore from the truck and I got out and followed him a bit each time to take his photo — but none of us hiked with him.
Carter is always the trail leader. He has been since he was a preschooler and Brian’s dad figured out that if Carter was the leader and had food, he never complained. Over time it stuck, and now on every adventure he always assumes the position as leader. He loves being the first person to see something, to spot an amazing sight and share it with us, and to be the only person to have an experience. He is very proud of his hiking accomplishments and we enjoy hearing about what he could see from being so high up (and the hugs we get because of his pure joy and ear-to-ear smiles).
Climbing the buttes and hills in the canyon isn’t necessarily hard, but at times, it can be difficult because of the ground. In many places the ground isn’t hard rock or compacted dirt, but hardened mud, and sometimes when you step on it, the mud sinks or collapses. It’s not a big deal, but the “squishy ground” did catch Carter and I off-guard a bit.
If you’re traveling to Death Valley with kids, Twenty Mule Team Canyon is the perfect place to plan some downtime for play and exploration. Find a wide spot in the road to park, get out, and meander through the canyon hills and washes. Watch as your kids triumphantly climb a small butte and discover amazing views — and in the late afternoon, enjoy some much appreciated shade between the buttes away from the road.
Carter had so much fun exploring the canyon that we even went back the next day with my in-laws who had just arrived in Death Valley to spend Thanksgiving with us!
The Twenty Mule Teams
The Twenty Mule Teams are a famous symbol of Death Valley and a rich part of it’s history. The teams pulled massive wagons hauling 10 short tons of borax from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave — a grueling 165 mile, ten day trip across primitive roads.
Although the teams only ran for six years — 1883 to 1889 — they have made an enduring impression of the Old West. This is primarily due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio and television program. The two remaining Twenty Mule Team wagons are on display in Death Valley, one at the Ranch At Death Valley in Furnace Creek, and one at the Harmony Borax Works.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road was never actually used by the big teams.
Know Before You Go
- Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road is located 15 minutes east of Furnace Creek and one mile from Zabriskie Point on 20 Mule Team Road off CA-190 in Death Valley National Park, California.
- The drive is a 2.7 mile, one-way, loop drive through a portion of the Death Valley badlands on an unpaved, dirt road that is typically passable in a sedan.
- Pull off the side of the road at any point wide enough and go explore the badlands. Hike up one of the hills, follow a trail, and check out the sights.
- If you have a dog, you can hike through this canyon, as long as your dog stays on a leash.