It’s hard to believe anyone would live and work in Death Valley — especially before the invention of air conditioning. But, a century ago, there was money to be made in borax (a compound also known as sodium borate). You can learn about this labor-intensive industry in Death Valley at the Harmony Borax Works. And then, take a short, scenic drive through Mustard Canyon — hills that look a lot like your favorite condiment.
Harmony Borax Works is located along California Highway 190, a short distance north of the Furnace Creek visitor center. The Mustard Canyon Scenic Drive is a one-way road that starts at the borax works, and heads north.
Just when you think you’ve reached the middle of nowhere in Death Valley, there’s something interesting to stop and see. On a hillside, just off the highway, you’ll see some old wagons and other equipment that remains from the old Harmony Borax Works.
Death Valley was rich in borates, which could be refined into Borax — a laundry detergent booster, among other things. Maybe you’ve even seen a box of “20 Mule Team Borax” in the laundry aisle. Well, these are the wagons, loaded with Borax, that were pulled by twenty mules.
It was necessary to refine the borates here in the most inhospitable place on earth, in order to cut transportation costs. It was 165 miles from here to the nearest railroad, so it made sense to only haul the finished product — not the raw material, laden with waste products.
Boilers heated water, and workers then added the ore. The Borax dissolved, while the by-products settled to the bottom. The Borax-rich water was then cooled, and the Borax crystallized. The operation shut down in summer, because it was too hot to properly cool the tanks. You can read all about the process as you walk around the short loop trail, that takes you above and below the ruins.
Once you’re done with the history and chemistry lessons, hop back in your car and enjoy the short drive on the one-way Mustard Canyon Scenic Drive. This road takes a few tight twists and turns in between some small yellow-colored hills.
The Bottom Line
The Harmony Borax Works is worth a brief stop. Stretch your legs and enjoy learning about an important part of Death Valley’s history. Then enjoy the short, scenic drive through Mustard Canyon.
Here’s a look at the time-lapse video of the drive through Mustard Canyon: