The not-so-boring history of Borax Lake

April 18, 2016

California’s Borax Lake is a scenic and idyllic spot for a daytime hike, located right next to beautiful Clear Lake in the shadow of Mount Konocti in Lake County. But Borax Lake is also a federally recognized National Historic Landmark that played a major role in the Native American habitation of California.
Yet to appreciate the history of Borax Lake, we must understand how versatile and useful this mineral compound is today. Borax is an organic pesticide and a natural antifungal, and is most commonly used as a detergent and in the production of cosmetics, enamel glazes and fiberglass. It is also used to cure athlete’s foot, as a water softener and as a surefire way to get rid of ants in your home.
Borax Lake’s abundance of the powdery white mineral has long connected Mother Nature to California settlers dating back to the 1850s and to the post-Ice Age Paleo-Indian tribes thousands of years before them. The Paleo-Indian tribes of this era, some 12,000 years ago or more, noticed that clothing washed in water rich with borax deposits came out cleaner than clothing washed in regular waters.

Borax Lake
Borax Lake in the foreground of Clear Lake and Mount Konocti.

But borax was not the only attraction in this area. Obsidian, a glasslike volcanic rock formed from cooling lava, was being culled from Mount Konocti, an active volcano at the time. So the area that we now call Borax Lake was also extremely rich with obsidian. The obsidian could be carved into spearheads, and eventually into arrowheads when tribes transitioned to using bows and arrows. Many of these obsidian spearheads and arrowheads are on display at the Big Valley Rancheria, along with numerous other Native American artifacts.
But the usefulness of borax was also not lost on these tribes. In addition to being a natural laundry detergent, borax could be used in soapmaking and also as a preservative. When tanning deer hides, borax was a helpful agent for treating or curing the hides so they did not deteriorate. Hides soaked in the borax-rich water had less of a tendency to rot. Similarly, artifacts that used bird wings, tails or talons benefited from preserving these parts by soaking them in borax water.
The lake is now partly owned by the Archaeological Conservancy, and is considered one of the oldest and most significant archeological sites in the United States. Artifacts dated older than 12,000 years have been found at the site, most notably obsidian spearheads used to hunt mammoths. The large number of artifacts discovered here suggests that Lake Borax was home to one of the first major lakeshore dwelling communities in North America.
Fast forward several thousand years to the Gold Rush era when the California Borax Company began harvesting borax from the lake for use in extracting gold from the rocks. Miners would place scoop shovels onto boats to lift the borax from the water, and at the company’s peak, they’d pull up to two tons of borax from the lake each day.
They don’t mine borax from Borax Lake anymore, though you’ll still find streets nearby with names like Sulphur Bank Road and Sulphur Bank Mine Road. But Borax Lake is still a fantastic place to go hiking in Lake County. The area we now call Borax Ridge delivers spectacular views of Mount Konocti and Clear Lake, as well as the Borax Lake archeological site.
If you can’t get enough of California history, Lake County has a fascinating selection of history museums. Or if you want to end your hike with a step back in time, Upper Lake’s Tallman Hotel and Blue Wing Saloon both serve modern-day hospitality with perfectly preserved, vintage 19th century style.