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China Ranch trailhead improvements nearly complete

TECOPA, CALIFORNIA — A destination trailhead is under construction at Tecopa’s China Ranch Date Farm through a collaboration between federal and state agencies, nonprofit conservation groups and a local landowner.

The facility is the final touch on a California-state funded makeover of the trail leading to the federally-protected Amargosa River. The project, scheduled to be completed this fall, includes three concrete shade structures with picnic tables and a pit toilet restroom.

Located far back in the Amargosa Canyon, this elusive river travels underground for most of its 185 miles, emerging briefly near its source in Nye County and then again in Tecopa, California.

There, in a 26-mile stretch designated by Congress as a wild and scenic river, it rushes through a tangle of lush green vegetation, past majestic white palisades and along an abandoned railroad track. It flows freely through the otherwise dry desert until it fades away and returns below ground near Dumont Dunes.

The easiest way for hikers to gain access to where the river flows is to begin at the privately-owned China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa, where a well-maintained trail leads into the publicly-managed BLM lands surrounding and including the canyon. The trail follows an old mining road and an abandoned railroad bed through some breathtaking desert scenery.

Once nearly as wild as the river itself, the beginning of the access trail was originally maintained by Brian Brown, who has owned China Ranch since 1979.

He began clearing a variety of hiking trails around the ranch property in the 1990s to encourage visitors to linger and discover the desert for themselves.

Brown has long been an advocate of wilderness protection in the Mojave Desert, working with the Nature Conservancy, the local Amargosa Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and other entities. Brown helped to promote passage of the Wild and Scenic River designation that gained both federal protection and the potential for project funding for the Amargosa River in 2009.

At that time, says Brown, the Bureau of Land Management was looking to build a destination trailhead for the river somewhere other than China Ranch. It’s unusual for a government-funded project to be built on privately-held lands, and Brown says the BLM studied three other locations before approaching him about establishing their trailhead at the ranch. The other locations, said Brown, were either too remote and physically inaccessible, or were vetoed by local residents.

Once China Ranch was chosen as the most logical site, Brown granted an easement to the BLM for passage through the ranch to the trailhead.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Brown said. “The idea is to give people a formal place to have public access.”

And in the process, Brown said, “It is building a bit of an audience (for China Ranch).” However, he emphasizes that “there is no obligation for anyone to come into the gift shop.”

While the trail might draw more people to China Ranch, Brown said the philosophy behind all the work and development of the trail is to get them out to the river, so “that once people get down there, they’ll see that this really is a special place and that it’s worthy of protection.”

The Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy secured funding for the improvements from the California River Parkways program and continues to oversee the project. Construction began after a lengthy multi-agency evaluation process of the planned improvements, including satisfying environmental protection agreements in place with the Nature Conservancy, which holds a conservation easement on China Ranch.

The trailhead was relocated to an area farther across the large parking lot of the China Ranch gift shop.

The new trail opening was carved out of a tangled mesquite thicket with the specific goal of revealing the free-running Willow Creek stream underneath, so that visitors could see water even if they only hiked in a very short way.

“It’s all about the water,” said Brown, whose family has lived in the area since the early 1900s, and who himself has lived on, worked, walked, hiked and explored the land around China Ranch and the Amargosa Canyon for nearly 40 years.

The beginning of the trail is now somewhat shaded overhead. This part, Brown said, will be ADA accessible for about 400 yards in, at least until it reaches some of the more spectacular views of this desert oasis.

The trailhead project should be finished sometime this fall, said Brown, with picnic tables and signage in place, as well as parking barriers. He expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony then.

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California. Her book, “Red Light Women of Death Valley,” was published last year.

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