Twenty Mule Teams and the Tehachapi Loop

Bakersfield, CA

On our first day with the new Jeep we invited Larry and Mary Anne Weinberg, who are traveling with us in their motorhome, to ride out to the east of Bakersfield to visit some sites in the nearby hills and beyond into the Mohave Desert.  We rode about a hundred miles to the little town of Boron, CA.  As we drove over the Tehachapi Pass through a narrow band of low mountains that divides the San Joaquin Valley (site of Bakersfield) from the Mohave Desert, we passed the Tehachapi-Mohave Wind Resource Area.

There are more than 4,500 wind turbines on the hillsides along the highway, producing enough energy to supply electricity to 300,00 homes annually.

After crossing the mountains, we drove through the Mohave Desert where Joshua Trees dotting the landscape.

After about a half hour we came to the teeming metropolis of Boron.

Saturday afternoons seem to be a bit quiet in Boron.  Below is a picture of the traffic we encountered during the middle of the afternoon.

After a few incorrect turns, we found the (poorly marked) entrance to the Rio Tinto Borax Mine. The mine is California’s largest open-pit mine and the largest borax mine in the world, producing nearly half the world’s borates.  As we entered the mine area, we noticed two unusual signs.  The first pointed to a nice place provided for employees to park their RVs (why employees would drive an RV to work we don’t know).  The dusty lot was empty, but if you have an RV it would be a good idea to get out of desolate Boron for the weekend, so maybe they all went to Las Vegas.

If you do park your RV there you could take advantage of the “fitness track”, the second unusual sign.

OK, the fitness track needs a bit of work.  We couldn’t find any evidence that it even exists.

The invisible fitness track

The visitor’s center for the mine sits on top of a hill (on the left in the picture above).  The road up the hill is unpaved and a bit rough, but presented no challenge to us in our new set of wheels.  We later learned that the hill was man-made from dirt removed from the mine.

Road up to the Visitor’s Center

Front Entrance to the Visitor’s Center

This rock (on the right) is made of an ore with a large name that we can’t remember and is the ore that they are currently mining.

Borax is used in many household products.  The center had a display of some of these items.

The roof of the Visitor’s Center is covered with gravel, ramped down each side with an observation deck on top.  The deck provides a great view of the mine and the adjacent ore processing plant.

The processing plant next to the mine

The mine measures two miles across and a mile wide.  It is as deep as a 40 story building.

Left side of the mine

Right side of mine (note the road going into it)

The Boron Mine was first opened in 1913.  Before that most borax was mined in Death Valley and brought across the Mohave Desert by wagons pulled by mules.  Twenty-mule teams were teams of eighteen mules and two horses attached to large wagons.  They ferried borax out of Death Valley from 1883 to 1889, traveling across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad spur, 165 miles away in Mojave, California.  Outside the Visitor’s Center are three original wagons used to haul borax.

The first wagon was the trailer, the second was “the tender” or the “back action”, and the tank wagon brought up the rear.  With the mules, the caravan stretched over 180 feet. No wagon ever broke down on the desert due to their construction and not one mule died on the long trip.

The 1,200 gallon  water tank wagon was added to supply the mules with water en route.  There were water barrels on the wagons for the drivers to drink. Water supplies were refilled at springs along the way, as it was not possible to carry enough water for the entire trip. The tank water was used at dry camps and water stops.

Some “older” readers may remember the mule teams from the old TV show “Death Valley Days.”  The show’s sponsor was the Pacific Coast Borax Company, whose main spokesperson was an actor named Ronald Reagan.

On the return trip to Bakersfield we made a side trip to view the Tehachapi Loop, one of the most famous railroad curves in the world.  The Tehachapi Loop takes its ‘loop’ name from the circuitous route it takes, in which the track passes over itself, a design which lessens the angle of the grade. The loop gains a total of 77 feet in elevation as the track ascends at a 2% grade.   A train more than 4,000 feet long (about 85 boxcars) thus passes over itself going around the loop.

We watched from a hill as a west-bound train headed into the loop.  Below you see two of the train’s five engines entering the curve.  Take note of the tracks shown above the second engine.

The beginning of the train

The train continues around the first curve

Below you can see the engines headed around the curve below the middle section of the train.  It is a rare time when the engineer can see cars from the middle of the trail.

The picture below shows the end of the train with the middle of the train in sight below it.  The engines have entered a tunnel that takes them under the last section of the train.  A train going around the loop is a very cool thing to watch.

Our stay in Bakersfield will continue for a few more days as we wait to have the tow package installed on the new Jeep.  There are also some places nearby we want to visit before we continue our journey.  More on that later . . .

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1 Response to Twenty Mule Teams and the Tehachapi Loop

  1. Marsha says:

    We stayed one night in Boron at the Arabian RV Oasis. Had a wonderful time at the museum.

    Yes, we had the same problem as you two…so much traffic we could barely get across the street.

    Tehachapi Loop looks great. You got some super pictures. Glad you are having a wonderful time with the Jeep and your friends.

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