Although winter is upon us, there are a few places one can still hike and enjoy the warmth of the winter sun. Most of us at one time or another has dreamed about visiting one of those remote western ghost towns located within the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A few years ago , I chose to explore the gold and silver mining town of Panamint City, which is snuggled within Sunrise Canyon deep in the mountains of Death Valley.
Many of Death Valley’s old historic mining towns are located on local maps or fill the pages of books that can be purchased at any of the Park Service visitor centers.
But first, one will need directions to Death Valley. Take State Route 168 out of Ridgecrest to the Mining Town of Ballarat. Here you will find a few old structures and foundations remaining from its heydays of 1890 through the First World War. This historic town still boasts an operational General Store which displays artifacts of the surrounding area. Rocky, who is the proprietor and a retired miner (fitting name) is very knowledgeable in answering any questions about this area.
To locate the trail head to Panamint City, first you drive north on a one lane dirt and gravel road that follows the valley north to Chris Wicht’s Camp. Across from the camp is the run off wash and the trailhead to start following the stream that winds its way up through Sunrise Canyon. Keep in mind that this is a class two plus hike.
While trekking upward into the canyon, there are two separate springs that create the water source. Each will flow for a few miles before disappearing into the rocks. Be careful of the areas where the canyon narrows. I had to scale the sides of these narrow slots and climb over the large slippery hunks of quartz. These stationary slabs have been polished by water and time, cascading down from the mountains.
Along the trail are pieces of mining machinery. Hidden in the desert brushes were the remains of two weather beaten vehicles. Looks like a Ford pickup” and a two-ton Diamond T dump truck. They most likely are the victims of a previous flash flood.
Above them the minerals in the canyon walls are reflecting their multiple colors from the bright sun light. On the canyon floor the wild flowers added a colorful pathway through this natural wash.
My hike started at an elevation of 2,600 feet and that evening I set up my first campsite at 5,400 feet covering a distance of more than six miles the first day. The next morning by 10 a.m., I arrived at Panamint City at an elevation of 6,230 feet.
In the distance the first visible structure was the chimney from the ore sheltering building. All that remains of this huge building is its foundation. Along the sides of the canyon were the remaining foundations of the original city that was established in the 1870s. There are two structures built in the 1950s still in livable condition. One located on the canyon floor and the second at a higher elevation on the north hillside. Throughout the hillsides you can still see the tailings and pathways from many original mines.
I was not alone - looking down at me was four burros. One Burro was located on the north canyon wall and three others on the south canyon wall. They were tame enough to pose, but when I tried to approach them they scurried off and stood their ground at a safe distance.
At the height of its boom in 1874, the town boosted a population of more than 2,000 citizens. But in 1876, a flash flood destroyed most of the town. Silver was its main source of income and when that depleted the town started fading away. A few miners worked the area until a major flash flood of the 1980s. This raging water removed parts of the existing road. Today the only access is by foot, and if you decide to attempt this hike into Panamint City, be in good shape and plan your hike when the temperature is comfortable in the early spring or late fall.
I was so impressed by this adventure that I’m planning additional hikes to Panamint City in the future. See you on the trail.