By any drive-by or drive-through impression, Tecopa looks bleak. The small desert town on the stoop of Death Valley has a smattering of trailer homes, a couple of time-warp motels and some hot springs. Barren mountains form its backdrop. No gas stations. No stores.
I had driven by Tecopa many times and through it twice (it’s an eight-mile detour off California 127 on the way to Death Valley National Park, whose boundary is 10 miles north), and my salient impression was, “Man, this place is strange.” Then I heard something that sounded unlikely: Tecopa, 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was becoming some sort of foodie haven. I didn’t realize there were places to eat in Tecopa. Not only that but two microbreweries had sprung up.
The rumors are true. Tecopa not only has great food and brews but it also harbors places of genuine beauty, and its hot springs are salubrious. As for accommodations, if you don’t expect too much, you might be pleasantly surprised.
I holed up at Delight’s Hot Springs Resort for a weekend of culinary and nature explorations. Digs at Delight’s are a scattered batch of vintage trailers and tiny cottages surrounding a central office and four hot baths.
My trailer was equipped with well-worn furniture, a small kitchen and an inoperable shower (you shower at the hot baths). All had seen better days. But I had an unobstructed view of the stark Nopah Range, a star show overhead, and the serenity that comes with utter quiet.
The baths were delightful — big soaker tubs in private rooms, each graced with a hand-painted desert mural. Outside were classical friezes, busts and fountains — Caesars Palace discards, I learned. I’m no connoisseur of hot springs, but my soaks in the 104-degree naturally heated mineral water were relaxing, especially in the one open-roof bath house that offers a view of the night sky. It was an ideal respite between meals and explorations.
The food scene
Tecopa’s growing culinary scene isn’t completely out of the blue. Restaurants on the site of today’s Tecopa Bistro have been serving customers for more than 40 years, including making sandwiches for local miners. Las Vegas chef John Muccio escaped the city to run it as Pastels Bistro for several years to rave reviews before retiring in 2014.
In stepped chef and co-owner Ryan Thomas, son of caterers, who remodeled the kitchen and infused the place with entrepreneurial spirit.
“I can cook,” he said. “I’m a pretty good chef. But I thought, ‘Why not give others a chance? Make it a culinary arts gallery.’” So the bistro became a home for transient chefs, some of whom wander into town and remain for weeks.
A Coloradan who had cooked for his mosque brought a Middle Eastern flair for a weekend. A Scottish chef riding through on a bicycle tour ended up staying for three months.
When guests cook, Thomas is sous chef. On his own, he specializes in Italian and Mediterranean and serves the only breakfast in town.
He sources vegetables from several local gardens, raises his own chickens for eggs, and intends to join Eric Scott, his friend and sort-of competitor, in becoming locally self-sufficient for pork and beef.
That kind of cooperation is typical in Tecopa. Scott runs the accurately named Steaks and Beer, 1.7 miles down the road. “Eric is amazing and a beautiful person,” Thomas said. “We bounce customers back and forth. He also drives us; we can’t slack. He’s doing amazing stuff.”
That I can vouch for. The $42 filet I enjoyed at Steaks and Beer barely required teeth to chew, could easily feed two, and came with mashed potatoes and a pile of fresh vegetables. (Vegetarians and vegans will do fine here.) I sat at the tiny restaurant’s counter and watched Scott cook — he also served — as I chatted with a Las Vegas couple I’d met that morning on the hiking trail. Like all of the Tecopa eateries, Steaks and Beer has an intimate, friendly roadhouse feel that invites engagement — even with the chef.
Scott, a Las Vegas native, trained under French chef Jean-Louis Palladin and cooked at several Vegas restaurants before opening Steaks and Beer three years ago.
“I didn’t want to be surrounded by stainless steel and light bulbs,” Scott said. “To me, cooking is personal. Come in more than once and I’ll remember your name.”
He echoes Thomas’ notion about mutual cooperation. “We care about each other’s success, which is Tecopa’s success,” he said. “We want people to be happy.”
The “Beer” aspect of Steaks and Beer is of the bottled variety, but if you want a craft beverage, you have only to go to the contiguous Death Valley Brewing, where assistant brewmaster Dan Leseburg prides himself on complex, creative beers. I enjoyed the Pecan Porter. Also on tap that day was a coffee stout. He’s also known to use cherries, chocolate and basil.
“There’s lots of interesting stuff out there just waiting for a yeast orgy,” Leseburg told me.
Tecopa Brewing Co. and BBQ Restaurant, at the entrance to Delight’s, is the town’s other eatery and microbrewery. Look for a converted gas station with giant letters painted on the façade: BBQ. Inside, chef and brewmaster Westley McNeal (he and his wife, Courtney, co-own Delight’s) serve Texas-style brisket, Memphis-style pulled pork, ribs and chili.
I chose the brisket — smoky and tender — which came with a dollop of coleslaw and a hockey puck of cornbread. The brewery is decidedly micro: Westley was pulling only a stout that night, but it was rich and refreshing. Cowboy movie art hangs on the walls. Beneath an old turntable is a shelf full of vinyl LPs, and McNeal told me that live music happens “if people come through town to play.”
A river runs under it
Tecopa lies in a broad basin that is the watershed of the Amargosa River, but this shy river flows mainly underground on its spring-fed course out of the Nopah Range. It runs south through Tecopa, then bends north and fizzles out in Death Valley.
There’s one surefire way to see it, though, and that’s to make an easy three-mile hike that begins south of Tecopa at China Ranch Date Farm. The family-run farm sells wonderful dates, a selection of kitsch, and hike-fueling date-nut muffins and breads.
The trail parallels Willow Creek for a stretch before cutting across bone-dry “mud hills” composed of sediment from a Pleistocene lake that once covered the area. Finally, tall green bulrushes signify the presence of the Amargosa, where I saw tiny endangered Amargosa pupfish flitting around in a cool pool.
A side trail leads across the river to a dramatic slot canyon, just 6 feet across at its narrowest, before the main trail continues by old mining ruins on the way back to China Ranch.
In Tecopa, I discovered one more example of the basin’s shallow water table. Just a half-mile north of Delight’s, a short trail leads from a roadside turnout to a large pond known as the “bore hole.” It seems a pharmaceutical company seeking something or other in the 1970s drilled through the earth and accidentally created the pond, which is filled with the same hot spring water you’ll find in the commercial baths in Tecopa.
As the pale afternoon light of winter glinted off the Nopah mountains, I eased myself into the soothing warm water. After a weekend of dining and exploring Tecopa, a place that once looked bleak seemed like a soothing desert dream.
Shoshone, on California 127, eight miles north of Tecopa, is a fine alternative base if the modest accommodations in Tecopa don’t suit you. The Shoshone Inn was recently refurbished, and its rooms are tasteful and clean.
Shoshone also has a general store and is home to the Amargosa Conservancy, which helped develop the China Ranch trail and works to protect the local landscape — and the endangered Amargosa vole.
Death Valley Junction
Death Valley Junction, 27 miles north of Shoshone, is home to the world’s most unlikely performance venue, the Amargosa Opera House. When the car carrying New York dancer Marta Becket had a flat here in 1967, she ended up buying the onetime headquarters of the Pacific Coast Borax Co.
She converted its social hall into a showcase for performance, usually featuring herself. She also painted extraordinary murals, mostly depicting classical operas, on the walls and ceiling, as well as creating an audience so there would be someone to watch when there were no live viewers.
She danced regularly here until her death in 2017.
Today you can tour the opera house or attend an eclectic series of weekend performances in fall and winter. The adjacent vintage hotel has simple rooms that have been modestly refurbished. Also on site is the Amargosa Cafe. Australian transplant Bobbi Fabian serves breakfast, sandwiches and pizza with organic ingredients, but the coffee here is the star of the show.
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Delight’s Hot Springs Resort, 368 Tecopa Hot Springs Road, Tecopa; (760) 852-4343. Doubles from $85. Limited wheelchair accessibility.
Tecopa Hot Springs Resort, 860 Tecopa Hot Springs Road, Tecopa; (760) 852-4420. Doubles from $80. Limited wheelchair accessibility.
Shoshone Inn, Old State Highway 127, Shoshone; (760) 852-4335. Doubles from $140. Wheelchair accessible.
Amargosa Hotel, Highway 127 and State Line Road., Death Valley Junction; (760) 852-4441. Doubles from $93. Limited wheelchair accessibility.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Tecopa Bistro, 860 Tecopa Hot Springs Road, Tecopa; (760) 852-4420.
Steaks and Beer, 120 Old Spanish Trail Highway, Tecopa; (702) 334-3431. Wheelchair accessible.
Death Valley Brewing, 102 Old Spanish Trail Highway, Tecopa.
China Ranch Date Farm, China Ranch Road, Tecopa; (760) 852-4415. Wheelchair accessible.
Amargosa Cafe, California 127 and State Line Road, Death Valley Junction; (760) 852-4432. Limited wheelchair accessibility.