For more than a year I've been trying to get to Panamint City. Despite requiring a 7.2-mile (one way) hike with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain, trekking to-and-from this ghost town high on the western slopes of the Panamint Mountains isn't the issue. Rather, the problem presents itself once one has arrived: there is so much to explore - more than 10 miles of trail and another 5,000 feet of elevation - that there is no way to accomplish the round-trip in a single day. At least, not for this human.
And this is where I should share something that may not be obvious given my love for hiking: I, personally, hate hiking with a pack on my shoulders. It's uncomfortable - both while hiking and after - and so rarely do I embark on any journey carrying more than a day pack that rests on my hips.
Still, the draw of Panamint City was so great that early one morning I found myself camped at the mouth of Surprise Canyon on the edge of Panamint Valley as the sky turned pink and the Argus Range was illuminated by the early morning rays. So far, a successful trip.
Having arrived late the previous evening, I'd setup camp in the dark, hoping for a nice view in the morning.
I tried to ignore the dusting of snow at the top of the Argus Range; I was headed to even higher elevations.
Tent stowed, I was out of camp a few minutes after sunrise, driving the final mile or so to the end of the road at Chris Wicht Camp. Naturally, even this last mile was too much for me to accomplish without stopping for photos, my hiking departure delayed by both fall colors and investigation of the old mining camp.
The cottonwoods at the mouth of surprise canyon were in a celebratory mood.
The Chris Wicht Camp was in use off and on for some 130 years, starting as far back as the 1870s. Chris Wicht, superintendent of the Campbird Mine in the mid-1920s, lived here for many years.
In the early 1980s, Rocky Novak and his father George took over the camp and lived here for about 20 years, until their cabin - and the entirety of the lush spring - went up in flame while they were burning brush in September 2006. Both were small-time miners who had mined at both Panamint City and the Golden Eagle Mine on the opposite side of Panamint Valley, and prospected for the C. R. Briggs Mine.
Their mill was an assemblage of recycled prehistoric contraptions slowly yielding to rust: jaw and impact crushers, a ball mill, and a concentration table. Instead of cyanide, the Novak's used benign chemicals and electrolysis. "It is cheaper, more efficient, and it does not pollute the stream," Rocky said. His ore was not the richest. But he could harvest a couple of ounces of gold in a day. This was about the income of a Silicon Valley manager - if Novak was working five days a week, which he was much too smart to do. Unless he was out shopping for dynamite, he was usually here, and always eager to chat. Rocky went on to be caretaker at Ballarat, so you can still meet him and enjoy his encyclopedic knowledge of the local history - and his vitriolic views on government agencies.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park
Modern art or an old mill?
When you really like pancakes, you set the griddle right into the concrete stove.
Rocky's mark still graces the foundation of the flagpole.
After poking around - procrastinating mostly - and knowing it would be a love-hate journey, I gathered up a thin Thermarest, @mrs.turbodb's small down sleeping bag, and a few snacks, before setting out on what would be one the most enjoyable experiences I've had in Death Valley. And also, one of the worst nights of my life.
In the end, I hauled about 25lbs of gear, spread across my hips and shoulders
Only a few steps into the narrows of Surprise Canyon, and I was hooked.
Even without the prize of Panamint City at the top of the canyon, hiking the first mile - through the narrows - is an otherworldly experience. Many start by hiking alongside the gurgling stream, doing their best to keep their feet dry. Eventually, as the canyon narrows, the distinction between trail and creek is lost; dry feet are an impossibility. On a warm day I can imagine this being quite pleasant, but with temps in the 40s °F, it was an eventuality I'd planned for by wearing my Muck boots on this first leg of the journey. From the get-go, I happily sloshed my way upstream, my head on a swivel as I admired the faceted walls reaching toward the sky.
Contrasting colors, all the way up.
A blazing green, hydrated by a spirited stream.
A multi-generational family of barrel cactus, watching the few who venture this way.
Driving these narrows was once permitted. In the past, Novak recalled, up to dozens of jeeps a day would parade past his camp on their way to Panamint City, churning his water supply into pools of oil and mud. One day he got so angry that he stalled the traffic by smearing Crisco over strategically located rocks. As hard to believe as it may be, this harmless prank cost him two months in jail (although he later sued the government for a legal technicality and was compensated). Novak did not manage to keep Surprise Canyon car-free, but nature almost did. In 1984, a violent storm scoured the narrows, wiping out the road and resuscitating dormant waterfalls.
With the road gone, traffic plummeted. Novak was happy. But die-hards continued to drive through, now drawn by the challenge of winching their one-ton vehicles up the waterfalls. "It took them nine hours getting to Panamint City," Novak said, "and a little less coming back, just to say they made it." That jeeps could be winched up this chaos of stone, a la Hayduke, is amazing; that they made it down, sometimes without a winch, is incredible.
What finally closed the BLM portion of the road (above Chris Wicht Camp) to vehicle access is a court ruling to protect its riparian habitats.
An old mine car and several overturned vehicles now stranded in the wash, evidence of the powerful floods that periodically rush through this canyon.
Today, thankfully, the only way through Surprise Canyon is on foot, as I can only imagine the chaos and destruction that a group of Insta-landing UTVers would wreak on the beauty of this magical place.
Here and there, anchors points - for winching - were drilled into the walls.
Human stupidity has no limit. 1997
I've experienced few places in my adventures that offer as striking a combination of rock, running water, and lush vegetation as the narrows of Surprise Canyon. At times, the vertical walls - a solid white aplite nearly one billion years old - seemed to reflect as bright as new snow.
Seven waterfalls grace the tightest section of narrows, the water sliding down grooved chutes, gushing over bedrock lips, and foaming from one shin-deep hole to another. Here, every surface was polished; I was walking through a gallery of gigantic proportions.
At one spot, a dark brown dike of diabase shoots straight down from the canyon rim - a waterfall of stone in through an otherwise immaculate landscape.
As if to compliment the stone, a cascade rushed through maidenhair ferns below.
A flowing red tongue.
Two miles from the trailhead, Limekiln Spring - hidden by a grapevine nearly covering the north side of the canyon - sends hundreds of gallons of water a minute downstream.
It was here - just after the spring - that I ditched my Muck boots in favor of some much lighter and more breathable tennis shoes that I'd been carrying to this point. From here, the canyon would get wider - and drier - as I climbed the final 5.5 miles to Panamint City.
I hoped a few rocks would both camouflage my boots and keep any local riff-raff from using them as shelter.
It was amazing how much lighter my legs were once my footwear changed. For the next five minutes, I felt like I could go anywhere, could do anything, could conquer the world. Ten minutes after that, I was back to normal, the constant upward trajectory of the canyon - coupled with the load on my shoulders - reminding me how much I prefer a long day hike to anything that requires me to bring sleeping arrangements.
Luckily for me, as long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other, there was plenty to keep me distracted.
The first of dozens of rock foundations that once served Panamint City. Likely some sort of way station, this far down canyon.
Never forget to look up!
Much of the canyon was deep enough that - at this time of year - it never saw direct sunlight. This turned out to be a good thing, as the 60°F temperature was perfect for hiking.
The trail - continuously working its way from one side of the broad canyon to the other - forked and rejoined itself time after time, the result of each traveler choosing their own path of least resistance. Here and there my decisions were proven correct; every now and then, not. Through it all, I kept thinking about those who'd come before me - how much work it must have been to get all of their equipment and supplies through this inhospitable terrain.
As I reached 4700', I ran into the first beavertail cactus - that I noticed - on the trail.
Well, hello there.
This little guy was looking very emaciated and weak; he didn't even have enough energy to rattle. I moved him off the trail to protect him from other hikers who might be less favorable to his predicament and continued on my way.
Just under two miles to go!
A little more than three-quarters of a mile before town, between the canyon walls, I spotted the improbably tall smokestack of Panamint City's smelter. It was a welcome landmark - one that I'd anticipated even before I'd embarked on this adventure - and almost immediately I could feel the adrenaline kick in.
The fun is about to begin.
Something momentous took place here.
High on the hillside, the mill of the Wyoming Mine... and plenty of snow.
It was a few minutes before 3:00pm; it'd taken me two hours longer to climb the 5,000 feet to Panamint City than I'd envisioned when I set out on the 7.2-mile trek. As such, I had only about 90 minutes of daylight remaining, and I realized that I'd need to use my time wisely if I was going to be able to see everything I'd mapped out from my computer at home.
And so - as much as it pained me to do - I turned away from the chimney that urges visitors the last mile to town; it was time to explore Sourdough Canyon, The Castle, and Stewart's Wonder Mine.
Sourdough Canyon, The Castle, and Stewart's Wonder Mine
Sourdough Canyon - a side canyon leading north - empties into Surprise Canyon about three-quarters of a mile before Panamint City. Rather than hike to the town center and back again, the more expedient option was to drop my pack and investigate this area before heading into town.
It was so nice to take the weight off my shoulders as I headed towards the unknown.
I'd noticed a cabin a few hundred feet up the canyon as I'd inspected satellite imagery prior to departure, but I wasn't prepared for the camp - locally known as The Castle - that I ultimately walked into.
Worked in the 1960s, the equipment at this camp was more modern than that in many Death Valley locations. Six-wheel drive dump trucks (some sans beds), bulldozers, and numerous semi-modern powertrains littered the hillside.
Still air in some of the tires.
A serious drive train.
What is this beast?
Still looked ready for an honest day's work.
The mill - across the road from the Castle - was still in good condition, if rather unconventional. Located on a small hill, it was a small scale operation, with colorful blue-green quartz ore loaded onto a conveyor at the top via a stationary backhoe. From there, the entire apparatus was powered by a sketchily-wired generator, sending the ore down a chute to the tumbler, where it was pulverized before being concentrated for shipment down the canyon.
The yellow mill at The Castle.
There was a ton - or rather, several tons - of amazingly colorful ore strewn about.
After poking around the work area for a bit, I finally headed over to the cabin. The Castle (a modern name, given by those who maintain it) was more than I could have expected. In fact, of all the structures in the area, this was the most impressive (to me) and was the one I spent the most time enjoying.
If only I were looking for accommodations.
It didn't dawn on me until after I returned that this glass wasn't original. At the time of photographing it, I marveled in the typography of the old-time artisans.
Well-built and well-stocked.
The interior was one of the cleanest I've seen, reminding me of the Geologist Cabin. This one - obviously - much harder to get (supplies) to!
I found this to be a heartfelt and meaningful note to those who visit. It seems that a Boy Scout Troop (amongst others) has adopted and helped to fix up this place.
Before leaving, a quick note that I was here. Apparently, dated a couple days after my actual visit.
Having spent less time than I wanted - but more than I really had given the time of day - I exited The Castle and made a beeline for Stewart's Wonder Mine. And here, it wasn't so much the mine that I was interested in, but the trail to the mine, the description of which was irresistible:
Claimed by Robert Stewart in 1873, this is one of the mines that started it all. Old trails this well engineered are rare. [Covering] a distance of 0.65 mile, it is almost perfectly level, supported by [neat] stone retaining walls and paved with flat rocks - all for the benefit of pack animals. Where it hugs the steep wall of Surprise Canyon, it had to be blasted into the rock, and there is not much more than thin air between you and the wash 250 feet below.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park
This trail really was a treat.
Near the lower adit, I found what appeared to be the business end of a stamp from an old mill.
Now inaccessible due to the road being washed out, old timbers still support the walls of the lower adit.
The Stewart's Wonder Mine was Panamint City's third largest producer. It was, indeed, a bit of a wonder: its best ore assayed $900 per ton, mostly in silver, some of it in gold. All the development work you will see is historic. The ore, which is also quite colorful, is exposed in wide quartz veins that have been broken, rotated, and offset by faults. The lower and middle tunnels are 200 to 230 feet long. The upper one is a monstrous vertical crack held open by tree trunks harvested over 130 years ago. All tunnels have deep, unprotected shafts that connect them together. So you know what not to do.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park
Naturally, what "not to do," is the thing that I decided to try.
Such a colorful vein, high on the ceiling. I can only imagine the miners climbing up the braces to work it!
My exploration of the mine complete, it was now only a few minutes before sunset and I found myself nearly jogging back along the immaculately constructed trail towards Panamint City. Knowing I didn't have much time - but that the few minutes after sunset would be fabulous for photos - I once again postponed any exploration of the various cabins, instead choosing to focus on the smelter stack that I'd had to ignore an hour before.
This towering smokestack - though only in operation for a single year - is the crown jewel of Panamint City. Built in 1875 of half a million bricks, it reaches 45-feet into the air, tapering from a massive square base to a finely ornate crown. Standing watch over the town like a timeless sentinel, it is a priceless landmark for any who visit to enjoy.
Into the sky, the color of which is a-changin'.
As the sun set in the west, it was fun to watch the chimney silhouette against the contrasting sky.
Too soon, I had to pull myself away. The sun below the horizon, temperatures were dropping quickly and I knew that I needed to figure out my sleeping arrangements for the night; arrangements that I'd only mostly made prior to starting up the canyon.
I say only mostly because while I'd brought along @mrs.turbodb's sleeping back and ¾" Thermarest - which I will share my opinion of in the next story - in order to keep the weight of my pack down, I hadn't brought along any sort of shelter. I'd considered sleeping under the stars, or in one of the cabins, but with temps forecast to be in the mid 20s °F and plenty of rodent droppings in the Panamint Hilton - the main cabin in town - I was beginning to feel like a tent might have been a better idea.
Hindsight is always so good.
Lady luck was smiling on me however, and high up on a shelf in the Panamint Hilton, I found a small tent that seemed clean and just large enough for me and my stuff. Finding a relatively clean and reasonably sheltered concrete slab in a nearby building, I proceeded to assemble - and then decorate - the torture chamber I'd call home for the night.
But that, dear reader, is another story.
As the stars rose, I couldn't help but return to the chimney for one final shot before retiring for the long, cold night.