On The Garden Path

China Ranch Date Farm an Oasis for Hikers and Migratory Birds

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This oasis at the edge of Death Valley is home to a grove of more than 1,000 date palms, as well as a variety of cultivated cacti.

Kathy Manney

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Within the barren Mojave Desert, near Tecopa, Calif., China Ranch Date Farm is a surprising haven of greenery. 'Hidden Oasis' reads the big yellow sign on Old Spanish Trail Highway. Undeniably, China Ranch is a true desert oasis.

Soon after leaving Old Spanish Trail Highway, as you round the last curve on Furnace Creek Road, the road abruptly ends. You have arrived at an extraordinary haven in the Mojave Desert on the edge of the arid Death Valley.

At China Ranch Date Farm, date palms are not only grown, they thrive. The ranch is the largest producer of dates in the United States. Imagine visiting a remote area where you can purchase delicious, freshly made date milkshakes or buy fresh-out-of-the-oven date-nut bread.

Like apples, dates come in many different varieties. A single tree can bear as much as 300 pounds of fruit a year, and it can live 100 years or more. Date palms have been cultivated for their sugary fruit since about 6000 B.C. A tree started from seed takes about seven years before producing fruit, and one male tree can pollinate up to 50 female trees. Their pollen is usually carried by wind or insects; however, growers hand-pollinate their groves to assure a crop.

Hiking at China Ranch is not only welcomed, it's encouraged. Hikers will discover hidden surprises along the moderate climbing trails. Picture a spot where the desert becomes a marshland, and a small, rustling river cascades to become a waterfall. In this barren desert, a river runs year-round, despite scorching temperatures. This waterway ranks among few rivers in the world that flow below sea level.

Nearby Death Valley is the driest, hottest and lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Its name is derived for being the site of a great deal of adversity during the early gold rush years. For this reason, the ranch's marshland is a vital stop for migratory birds, where more than 225 different species have been identified.

Visitors commonly ask how the ranch got its name. The story goes that in the mid-1800s, a man from China arrived there to work in the borax mines. After working the mines for several years, he acquired some acreage and developed the area's water to irrigate the fruits and vegetables he planted. When the man harvested his crops, he marketed them to local mining camps, and his place became known as 'Chinaman's Ranch.'