Greenwater Canyon is one of the most delightful and historic 4WD roads in the Death Valley area. Before European times, this was an Indian thoroughfare, as attested to by many arrowhead chippings and petroglyphs (see photo); the Canyon is marked on many road maps as "Petro Road". More recently, In 1906, a copper rush was initiated by mining promoters, among them Patsy Clark and steel king Charles Schwab, on the strength of a few low grade showings of green copper ore in the area. In the frenzied stock promotion and speculation which followed during 1906-1907, many thousands flocked in from all over the west to make their fortunes. Mining operators offered a quarter of a billion dollars worth of stock to the public. Many did not even bother with a mine; the name "Greenwater" on the company name was sufficient to sell the stock. After the bubble burst, it emerged that the district's total production had amounted to some $2,600! George Graham Rice, author of "My Adventures With Your Money", called it "the monumental mining stock swindle of the century".
Greenwater Canyon was a main wagon route to and from the town, which was situated in what is now known as Greenwater Valley (the townsite was moved there from its original location in the hills to the west, in the enthusiasm to make more room for expansion). The easiest way to find the Canyon is the western approach I used on my first visit there -- from the Greenwater Valley Road. More recently I returned with my uncle, intrepid desert explorer and geology enthusiast Joe Maulhardt, to explore it from the opposite end.
Turning west on an unposted dirt road just south of Death Valley Junction, we soon encountered a maze of tracks marking the old "Lila C" mine, long the home of "Twenty Mule Team" borax and the Death Valley Railway, whose roadbed is still visible. Approaching the Greenwater Range, the correct turnoff into Greenwater Canyon (where the road degenerates into a mild 4WD trail) was elusive. Several ravines looked promising; we got lost up two of them before resorting to the GPS! (Navigation is simpler from the west, but still unaided by signs). Meandering through the pleasant sand and boulders, it was easy to imagine Indians camping here in ancient times.
Pausing for afternoon tea, we emerged into Greenwater Valley where unposted dirt tracks lead to Greenwater itself; no structures remain but debris is scattered over a large area. Much more can still be seen at the original town site named Kunze, reached by one of several 4WD roads leading further west. Here are a number of rock ruins, mining debris, and the inevitable thousands of tin cans which grace the sites of nearly all desert ghost towns. After exploring the remains, the desert explorer can leave via the casually graded dirt leading north to pavement at Dante's View Road or south to Salisbury Pass.
If that were the end of the story, all would be well. However, on our most recent expedition to the Greenwater area, we found that red plastic "closed" signs had been placed by the National Park Service on the twin western entrances to the Canyon. While we respected the signs and did not enter, we reflected with some misgivings on the Desert Act and its interpretation which had brought about this closure. Naturally we, too, would wish to preserve and protect this and other valuable desert areas. However, we found it difficult to imagine any environmental reason for closing the access road, which is mainly dry packed sand with one narrow rocky section. The passage of vehicles over it has no discernible effect even on the road itself, let alone the surrounding ecology. This particular case was especially baffling since Greenwater Canyon is indisputably a long established public road which appears on innumerable maps, has been used by vehicles for at least 90 years, and is clearly protected by RS 2477 (the statute protecting access to public rights of way) and its successor legislation.
If you are concerned about roads and trails being closed in your state, become informed and participate in reversing this trend don't forget to write, fax, E-mail or visit your Congressman. Write to the government agencies implementing the Desert Act and other land use measures; get on their planning process mailing lists. Why not take a minute right now and email the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources to tell them of your concerns? Also, join and donate money to organizations fighting for your cause. Why purchase a 4X4 if you have nowhere to use it?
Local clubs can organize educational programs and backcountry trips for Congressmen and their staff, so they can experience real-life, responsible vehicle use and appreciate first hand the obvious lack of environmental impact of these roads as well as their practical necessity for accessing remote areas.