The barren expanses of Searles Lake near Death Valley National Park have the look of a psychedelic lunar landscape. It’s a bone white borax flat four times the size of Manhattan, speckled with blood red, ultramarine, and pitch black pools of mineral-saturated brine. Temperatures reach 115 degrees during the summer, with an average of just three inches of rainfall to cool the solar anvil.
But the kaleidoscope visible in satellite imagery is only the tip of the iceberg, and several billion tons of mineral deposits are layered beneath the parched playa in a veritable periodic table of minerals and salts. All told, the California Office of Historic Preservation estimates the Searles Lake formation contains samples of at least “half the natural elements known to man.”
Discovery of the formation is credited to Dennis and John Searles, who happened across the memorable view in 1862 while gold prospecting but didn’t immediately realize the value of what they had seen. A decade later they crossed paths with “The Borax King” Francis Marion Smith, whose booming mineral extractive operation made clear the value of Searles Lake deposits.
The Searles brothers rushed to stake a claim on their discovery and were soon dispatching 40 mule teams back to San Pedro heavily laden with chalky Borax powders. However, mining law at the time prohibited them from staking the entire lake, and a number of competitors soon followed suit gathering up the naturally occurring surface deposits. Interestingly, the Searles found a creative way to corner the market by buying up the only source of water in the valley.
Mining technology has advanced leaps and bounds since the hardscrabble days of the Searles brothers, but in other ways life remains unchanged in the valley. The pioneering spirit is alive and well in Searles Lake, where they now tap not only borax, but also potash, soda ash, salt cake, lithium, and other minerals which are shipped out across the country by trainload.
Know Before You Go
As of 2022, the Gem-O-Rama event, a free geological event hosted by the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society, has been cancelled indefinitely.