Outbound Trip: Silica Mine & Salt Creek Hills
April 3, 2016 • By Bill Neill
Photos: Bill Neill and Allan Wicker
Originally I planned an outbound trip from Shoshone to look at geology and mining history at the south end of Death Valley, ending at Salt Creek Hills, next to the highway 127 halfway to Baker. However in early March I learned that the Jubilee Pass Road was closed by severe erosion from flooding last October; so instead, our outbound trip was reduced to two stops — the Shoshone silica mine and Salt Creek Hills. Participants were Bill & Gwenn Neill, Bob Jacoby, Mal Roode, Steve Marschke & Debbie Miller, Joe Preiss, George Gilster, Allan Wicker & Ding Elnar-Wicker.
From our meeting place opposite the Flower Building in Shoshone, we drove past the Shoshone Cemetery, and parked near Dublin Gulch next to cave dwellings excavated and occupied by prospectors during the 1920’s & 1930’s. From Dublin Gulch we hiked to a former quarry of soft, white volcanic ash erupted from the Long Valley caldera, north of Bishop. Silica ash has several commercial uses, and this material was added to Old Dutch Cleanser as an abrasive.
During the Ice Ages, about 760,000 years ago, the Long Valley caldera eruption sent about 140 cubic miles of molten rock into the atmosphere, about 480 times as much as Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. Some of the ash cooled before landing, and was carried by winds as far east as Nebraska. The ash deposit is named the Bishop Tuff, and it forms a thick massive layer of hard gray-brown rock in the Owens Gorge, between Bishop and Crowley Lake, where the ash landed while still molten, so the tiny glass particles, called shards, compressed and welded together before cooling. At Shoshone, the flat floor of the silica ash quarry is a similarly hard and dense volcanic rock, containing a wide variety of non-volcanic rock fragments that were incorporated into the super-heated blast of volcanic ash as it moved across the landscape at nearly supersonic speed.
From Shoshone we caravanned about 30 miles south on highway 127 to Salt Creek Hills, a BLM Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC. We hiked a quarter-mile on an upscale rock-lined trail with interpretive signs to a riparian channel filled with mesquite and quailbush plus an Athel grove with picnic tables. At Salt Creek Hills, Kingston Wash cuts through a cleft in granite hills, and groundwater from Silurian Valley is forced to the surface to form a perennial water source. During the Ice Ages, Kingston Wash was the course of the Mojave River, carrying water from the San Bernardino Mountains to Lake Manly in Death Valley. Starting in 1829, Salt Creek was a stop on the Spanish Trail or Mormon Trail, connecting New Mexico and Utah with Los Angeles; and in 1849, prospectors headed to the California Gold Rush discovered a small gold deposit nearby. The early history of failed mining efforts at Salt Spring mine is reported on pages 52-58 of Richard Lingenfelter’s 1986 book, Death Valley & The Amargosa – A Land of Illusion.
From the riparian area at Salt Creek, some of our party hiked another mile to the mine area, with remains of a rock building and stamp mill from the 1850’s. During the Rendezvous I learned that Emmett Harder now owns the mining claim, and Emmett led a separate outbound trip to the mine, from the Dumont Dunes area, shortly before we arrived. When I asked Emmett how he acquired the mining claim, he responded that it was a long story; so I hope the trip report from Emmett’s trip will summarize his long story.