6 Reasons to Drive to Tecopa, California
This hot springs-filled oasis is fueled by beer, steaks, and dates.
Tecopa. You’ve probably never heard of it and there's even a good chance your phone will autocorrect it to "Tacoma." (Try and see.) But in the age of COVID, desolate road trips and socially distant vacation spots are enjoying a surge in popularity, and this old California mining town in the middle of nowhere is redefining its identity with beer, steaks, dates, and a little bit of skinny dipping.
So where is Tecopa anyway? Well, it's an hour south of Death Valley National Park, 90 minutes west of Las Vegas, and 50 minutes north of Baker (a highway stop best known for having the world's tallest thermometer). At first glance, Tecopa doesn't look like much. The town has its share of abandoned, dilapidated buildings—good for photos, but not property values—and there isn't much in the way of cellphone service. GPS is slightly more reliable. Just slightly. Yet despite its remote nature, Tecopa attracts visitors from all over the world. The tourism is driven by visitors passing through to Death Valley, beer lovers crossing breweries off bucket lists, and hungry mouths eager for steaks, barbecue, and burritos that don't come from roadside chains.
Tecopa sits along the Amargosa River, which runs mostly underground with the waters emerging sporadically like a delicate string that holds the fabric of this society of less than 200 people together. So what's in it for you?
Take a clothing-optional dip in the hot springs
Much of Tecopa's identity is based on the hot springs, considered some of the very best in the world. Think of the mineral-rich geothermal resource as nature's hot tub. The springs, which are rich in magnesium, selenium, and other minerals, were a sacred resource for Indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago and remain a draw for local and international visitors today.
"The water is what really brings people here—and has brought people here forever," says Courtney McNeal, who owns and operates Delight's Hot Springs Resort with her husband Westley. "The water is amazing. It's odorless and tasteless. Most hot springs have an unpleasant sulfur smell, but ours don't have a high sulfur content."
Delight's offers a shared outdoor swimming pool (bathing suits required) or one of four enclosed private dipping pools (clothing optional and available on a first come, first serve basis). Buy a day pass or book an overnight stay with RV parking, motel rooms, trailers, and cabins available. Some of the buildings are left over from when the property was a mining camp. The original Death Valley schoolhouse was once here too.
Known with affection as "the mudhole," you’ll hear stories about how these hot springs were formed—some say the government, others say a pharmaceutical company—was drilling decades ago and accidentally hit water, forming a pond less than a mile away from Delight's main entrance. It used to be a secret spot for locals to soak in nature, but the cat was let out of the bag a while ago. Look for a bend in the highway and more often than not, at least a couple cars already pulled over to the side. The pond is a short walk to the east. Some hop in naked. Others wear bathing suits. A few like to cake mud all over their bodies, believing it's good for the skin. Beware of mites. They bite.
There's also the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort, a wilderness retreat with soaking rooms for motel guests and a bath house (with a massage therapist on standby) for cabin, camping, and RV guests. A stone labyrinth is available for a walking meditation and clearing the mind. The stargazing is unreal. "People come here to unplug," says owner and general manager Amy Noel. "No cell service. We don't offer Wifi. The night sky is amazing. You get away from lights. There's quite a bit of wildlife. It's an excellent birding place."
Knock back some desert brews
Tecopans love to claim they have the most breweries per capita in the United States, and if you do the math, it's probably true. Two breweries for a population of 130 (or one for every 65 people).
Death Valley Brewing is on Old Spanish Trail Highway in an area semi-ironically referred to as "downtown Tecopa,' which once thrived with tens of thousands of people, a school and shops as recently as the 1980s. It's pretty quiet now, although the brewery is a hub for much of the town's social energy. It doesn't hurt that the beer is pretty damn good with 10-16 taps of revolving house brews (and a few guest handles), which almost always include a rauchbier (German-style smoked beer) and inventive recipes made with local ingredients.
"I'm all over the board," says manager and brewer Dan Leseberg. "I do stuff with honey, dates, apples, peaches, apricots—anything I can find that's fermentable. I made a 14% wheat ale with chai tea and hibiscus that was really good."
It's a small operation—too small for distribution anywhere else—but the Tecopa Brewing Company is even smaller. The nano-brewery is a passion project of Delight's Westley McNeal, specializing in small 30-gallon batches. It's technically part of the resort, but sits alone by the main entrance in a roadside building that used to be a gas station in the 1920s. It now serves four to five beers at any given time with the Gunsite Stout, Irish Man Red, and War Eagle IPA among the regular favorites. Anything you choose will pair well with the house-made BBQ with brisket, ribs, and other meats smoked over a mesquite grill.
Support the local restaurant scene
If you want to do Tecopa right, eat dinner at least once at Steaks & Beer. It's a tiny restaurant a few doors down from Death Valley Brewing, with a bar, three or four tables, and a wood patio that hangs over a small pond. The business is run by Eric Scott, a chef who used to work "everywhere" in Las Vegas, including STK Steakhouse at the Cosmopolitan, but is now happy doing his own thing. The restaurant doesn't bother with a website or any social media presence, so just call 702-334–3431 for a reservation, since it can be difficult to get a table without one. The menu is relatively small and simple. Anyone who's eaten here (including pretty much everyone in town) will suggest the Ribeye, a flavorful full pound of beef. If you prefer something leaner, try the half-pound filet. Either way, the black angus steaks are seared on a cast iron pan, finished on a grill and topped with a balsamic vinegar reduction and wine butter. Mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables come on the side.
Tecopa Bistro is primarily a breakfast joint, with burritos, omelets, and vanilla flapjacks—"not pancakes" chef Jeffrey Perez is quick to point out. Dinner is served on weekends, accompanied by live music on an outdoor stage next to the dining room. Local tip: bring over a growler from Death Valley Brewing when hanging out during a show. Perez doesn't have a traditional culinary background, but is armed with a few tricks up his sleeve, most notably a creamy egg-white sauce for the fish tacos and his popular salsa marinade for the carne asada.
Indulge in the ultimate date spot
Aside from the hot springs themselves, Tecopa's most popular attraction is the China Ranch Date Farm, a 200-acre enclave that truly lives up to its billing as an oasis in the middle of a vast desertscape. There's a sense of adventure just driving to the place, with only one dusty, unpaved road that goes in and out.
Visitors are welcome to roam the ranch on their own, hike the surrounding trails, or snap photos in between rows of the towering palm trees that produce the dates. You might even stumble across old rusty cars or mining equipment, which have all seen better days.
The ranch has a long history, dating back to when a Chinese railroad worker cultivated his own fresh fruit and vegetables to sell to miners. The original lot of palm trees were planted with seeds ordered from a mail catalog more than a hundred years ago. China Ranch manager Travis Brown's grandfather bought the property in 1969 and his father took over the farming operation about ten years later, turning a field of weeds into an orchard of more than 11,000 palm trees.
Today, about 30 to 40 acres produce a variety of dates that are sold in China Ranch's gift shop. There's a service counter where visitors can buy to-go packages as well as cookies and milkshakes made with the fruit. "A lot of people who come here don't even like dates," Brown says with a laugh. "But they do like shakes. Put a date in ice cream and that seems to work." The smoothie is a bit healthier, made with dates, cashews, frozen bananas, almond milk, mesquite flour, and ice.
Explore the great outdoors
China Ranch is also the jumping off point for Tecopa's favorite hike: the Amargosa River Trail. It's an easy trek with the path often outlined in stone, running alongside the slow, shallow, and often hidden Amargosa River that feeds the surrounding vegetation. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional slot canyon and waterfall. The full trail is about nine miles between China Ranch and downtown Tecopa, allowing you to begin the hike with a date smoothie and wrap it up with a cold beer from Death Valley Brewing—not too bad for a day's work.
Even further off the beaten path is Dumont Dunes, a vast landscape of steep sand dunes with the tallest, Competition Hill (or "Comp Hill"), an imposing sight that reaches 1,200 feet at its peak. The area is popular for ATV, dirt bike, and dune buggy racing as well camping (mostly with RVs) and nighttime partying. It's really one giant sandbox and playground. There are bathrooms on-site and independent pop-up vendors who sell everything from food to t-shirts in an area dubbed Vendor's Row that's especially busy on holiday weekends.
Embrace the Old West in Shoshone
In some ways, it's easy to think of Shoshone as "Tecopa North," although anyone who actually lives there would probably take issue with the description. It's got a few things going for it (a general store and gas station—valuable in these parts) and a fair share of historic Old West touches. The biggest surprise is the Shoshone Museum, which documents the area's history with the bones of a mastodon and wooly mammoth on display. There's no admission charge, but feel free to leave a donation.
The museum is part of the "historic district"—a small collection of buildings on the east side of Highway 127 that also includes an old boarding house that's now the sheriff's office and the Crobar, Shoshone's most famous landmark. Originally a stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, the diner and saloon now serves stiff drinks and classic American comfort food with fresh, organic ingredients. The chili, burgers, and french fries all earn especially strong reviews. Everything, including sauces and soups, is made from scratch with no artificial ingredients or questionable oils. "Our salsa is made in-house with cactus, so it has a little extra pizazz to it that you won't find anywhere else," says owner Susan Sorrells.
The Shoshone Inn offers quaint motel accommodations with cabins, RV parking, and a campground available as well. Guests have exclusive access to a swimming pool fed by the hot springs. Official hiking trails are color-coded (white, blue, red, sage, and aqua) with designated markers. Most are birding trails that travel through the wetlands.
"We socialize as one community," says Sorrells about the relationship between Tecopa and Shoshone. "We both have our own little groove, but are very much connected by the common love of the desert, beauty of the land, and a respect for individuality that we all have."