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By Mel Makaw
contributing writer 

Rio Tinto Mine in Boron

Day Trippin' with Mel

 

May 11, 2024

As a kid I loved watching "Death Valley Days" on television in the '50s. The program was sponsored by "20-Mule Team Borax." At the time I had no idea what borax was and, to be honest, back then I was too young to care. I just loved the pictures of all the mules pulling those wagons, and I loved the stories of the Old West that the show told.

And as a fan of "Death Valley Days," I visited the Boron mining area over 20 years ago shortly after I moved to Tehachapi, where I was shocked and surprised to find out how important borax is to our everyday lives (i.e. how many of the things we use all the time that are made with some component of borax), mined right here in the Mojave Desert. It was fascinating.

On a recent Tuesday, I went to visit the Rio Tinto mining operation again, and as is usual, I learn more every time I go. The pit for the mining is bigger than ever, new (amazingly larger) equipment is being used, and the Visitor Center itself has a few added touches, not to mention there is the wonderful outside observation deck for viewing the enormous pit and the whole operation.

This time I met Annie, a long-time docent at the Visitor Center, who gave me a card of borax mineral samples and kindly offered to take me on a tour. She also offered to run the 15-minute video for me, which I accepted, and which I recommend watching if you go. After the video I spent more time looking around the Center on my own, learning more about borax and the mine itself. Annie, who has been a docent there for almost 20 years, was available to answer any questions I had.

Mel Makaw.

Caterpillar tire at the Rio Tinto Mine in Boron; car for size comparison. The tire is almost 12 feet tall and weighs over 6000 lbs.

Outside the center, I checked out the observation deck, which overlooks the quite impressive mining pit. Mining in Boron began over 100 years ago in 1923, after borax was discovered in the area in 1881, and the whole operation used to be all underground. It switched over to open pit mining around 1957. The Rio Tinto mine has the largest open pit mine in California, and also boasts being the largest borax mine in the world.

Also outside the building I also enjoyed seeing the caterpillar truck that stands over two stories tall and the giant tire that goes on one, plus the life-sized bronze statues of the old 20 mule team and wagons.

There is so much to learn about borax and its various components and additives, but you'll have to go visit the mine to find out more of that sort of stuff for yourself. If you or any of your kids are interested in rock and minerals – and finding out what other sorts of natural elements are in the area – this day trip will be well worth the effort.

If you go, just take Highway 58 East to Boron – from the highway you'll see the huge plant off to the north (left) as you get near it, and the exit is marked for the Visitor Center. Just follow the signs into the plant and up to the Center (the actual Visitor Center is located high upon a hill, at the end of a well graded gravel road, with a great view of the whole operation from the viewing area on top of the building).

Admission to the visitor grounds and center is free, and there is a gift shop if you want souvenirs. The mine itself operates 24 hours every day but the Visitor Center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (closed Sundays and Mondays).

Mel Makaw.

Borax can be found is a variety of ordinary home goods.

If you're there long enough for a meal, covered picnic benches are available at the Center, but keep in mind that it does get downright hot in the desert. Picnicking aside, it's always a good idea to carry extra water when you visit anywhere in the desert.

There are places to eat in Boron – and the relatively new Loves nearby – and if you do get into the town, you might also consider visiting the Twenty Mule Team Museum (located on Twenty Mule Team Road), and right next door to the Aerospace Museum. Both of those museums can be visited while you're there (both of which are also free and small but chock full of memorabilia), or they can be worth another trip in that direction on another day.

© 2024 Mel Makaw. Mel, local writer/photographer and avid day tripper, welcomes your questions, comments and suggestions at morningland@msn.com/.

 
 

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