The Panamint Loop (pictures)
Written by Mark A. Larson
Having had the opportunity to travel many of the areas within the Death Valley National Park, I decide to plan a trip to 'South Park', 'Middle Park' and 'Pleasant' Canyon in the Panamint Mountains about 20 minutes north of Trona and then east to Ballarat. The Pleasant Canyon to South Park Canyon 'Loop' is the normal direction most people take. Not knowing the road conditions and relying on second-hand information, we decided to navigate the 'Loop' in reverse, starting through South Park instead of the normal Pleasant Canyon entrance.
Weather conditions for the late June time frame indicates that summer has arrived with a vengeance. We arrive at Ballarat in the early morning, with topographic maps in hand, and realize the temperature has already pushed beyond the 80-degree mark. In the late 1890s Ballarat became the focal point for much of the mining activity in this area. One of the more famous mines, the Ratcliff, played center stage at the height of this gold rush, with Ballarat boasting a population of nearly 500 inhabitants.
Realizing the temperature is racing towards the century mark at Ballarat's elevation of only 1000 feet, we depart looking for the South Park entrance through the mountain pass. Of course, many changes have occurred since the 1952 printing of my topo map and we make a wrong turn ending up at several mining sites. We return to the main road and continue south. At approximately 4 miles south of Ballarat, or the third left into the mountains, we can clearly see the road leading to South Park Canyon zigzagging into the distance.
Excited, Tacoma Man and I, begin our ascent up towards the canyon. We quickly gain elevation as we draw closer to the mouth of the canyon. Just before entering the mouth of the canyon we look back and realize we've gained another 2000 feet in only 2.6 miles. Walls of the canyon are near vertical displaying an ever-changing array of colors and textures. Three miles in, the trail narrows and the fun begins. Here the trail changes to provide enough challenges to stay focused as we navigate between the canyon wall over-hang and rocks to our right. A short time later the loose, often off camber roll of our vehicles was the first evidence of earlier travelers, treading not so lightly, by the holes they left behind. By the time we reach the Thorndike Mine (4.6 miles), the elevation of 4600 feet makes the air temperature tolerable for late morning. We investigate the area and discover that the upper cabin is occupied. The cabins (Briggs upper & lower), built some 50 to 80 years ago, offer some delightful places to stay. Inside running water, stove conveniences and adequate sleeping areas are only a few of the amenities you'll find here.
We collect ourselves and continue our journey east. Here we encounter warning signs about weight restrictions crossing a makeshift bridge. Once you pass the sign, you are committed. The road is narrow and skirts the rocky cliff with very little room to maneuver. My full size, long bed Ford is probably the largest vehicle recommended for this trail. At the beginning section, we began a tight left turn and ouch, scrunched my right fender. We truck on, being watchful of the vertical wall to our right and near vertical drop-off to the left. Making a right turn around the mountainside I notice my left front tire dislodging rocks and sending them screaming down the hill. I'm clear and get ready for the 'bridge'. Here you can clearly see the section of road missing from Mother Nature's wrath in this desert climate. The bridge, made from telephone poles and wired into the rock, didn't even move under the 6800 GVW of the full-size truck. The last section of this trail makes you wonder how it's all held together. Basically, the road is a pile of loose rock held back with wire mesh and steel spikes.
Once off the mountainside, we continue to climb in elevation. A small stream (Colter Springs) can be seen tickling down the canyon as we enter a narrow section of Scotch Broom and other native plants. The plant-life, although intrusive, was not brittle enough to scratch the paint but did leave plant debris everywhere. Still climbing and some more rough sections ahead. Soon, as though the seasons had changed, the road enters into a large valley, South Park. Here you can see across the horizon now at nearly 6000 feet. We continue on the left leg of the trail to investigate a mine easily seen from our vantage point. We arrive only to be disappointed by all the trash and debris left here, buildings collapsing and old vehicles used as target practice. We decide to break for lunch. Back on the road again we go directly south and come upon another cabin. Not in too bad a shape, nestled in the shade of tall pinion pines. The odor and presence of rat droppings was very prevalent. The road actually continues from this location through the trees to our next destination, the 'saddle' (6560 feet) overlooking Butte Valley, where you can clearly see the Anvil Springs Rock Cabin, Stella's Cabin and Death Valley in the opposite direction. Eager to continue exploring, we eyeball the next section of road traveling up the side of the mountain to the north. I explain to Tacoma Man that the terrain is not only steep but also very loose and to take it nice and easy... feel the vehicle work the trail. I begin the thousand-foot climb in second gear and manage okay. Concerned about Tacoma Man (TM), I park just above the steepest section and wait. Moments later the Tacoma is cresting the ridge and I get the thumps-up sign. TM indicates that as he was making the grade he felt the vehicle slip a little then backed off to apply just enough throttle and walked right up. Outstanding. I must admit, stock Tacoma's are mighty impressive, adequate for most trails and behind the right driver, almost unstoppable. The trail at this point runs along the old National Park boundary with an abundance of Pinion Pines. The air temperature, a mild 80° and an occasional heat blast from the valley floor reminds us of the now 100° plus temperatures we left behind. We continue our up and down journey, passing by Middle Park for the moment and make our way over to Rogers Pass and the Pleasant Canyon turn off. As we approach the pass... hello... we encounter two vehicles coming out of Pleasant Canyon. The Sami, with a husband-wife team and a Toyota Fourunner with three blonde bombshells, just out for a day-run. The Sami's occupants mention that they make this run frequently and just wanted to share the adventure with their Fourunner friends. So we all exchange information about the trail, some history of the area, take a few pictures and off everyone goes on their merry way. The Sami and Fourunner continue their journey towards South Park, while TM and myself decide to continue north along the ridge route. The road eventually gets rougher and disappears up the mountain as you approach the rocky entrance of a peak that's nearly 8300 feet. To make this a desirable trip without over-working my truck, I decide to leave this section alone for a later date. We scout out some areas overlooking Butte Valley for our evening camp-out and discover several spots where individuals had prepared sleeping areas below the ground level. Understandably, the wind can be miserable when the temperatures change from 75° in the late afternoon and a chilly 45° during the early morning hours. Looks like a respectable camping area for this evening.
We push on going south then east down Pleasant canyon. In approximately 1.5 miles, on the left, we came upon another cabin, in very nice condition with adequate sleeping accommodations and a wood burning stove. Outside the cabin are dirt roads leading in all directions. We take a few pictures and off we go to explore some other areas. We see a road heading southwest over the mountain towards Middle Park. We find the trailhead taking you over the mountain and cautiously work our way up the unmarked road. Nothing difficult here. We start our descent and discover an intersection, so to make time we take the left leg. Downward we move into this steep, loose and off camber section, knowing this would prove formidable if deciding to come back this way. Shortly afterwards we see the other section of the trail ... a bypass that takes you around the nasty stuff and leads you right back to the main trail. We make tracks down Middle Park and decide to go as far as the road will take us. No road shown on our maps, as usual, as we proceed down the canyon, deeper and deeper. The road narrows significantly as we remind ourselves of the time now approaching 5:00 PM. The road continues, but now our biggest concern is where is it taking us and is there any place to turn around? The road becomes rough. Previous poundings from flash floods have cut lateral and vertical sections into the road, crisscrossing in every direction. I CB back to TM that turning around would be advisable and he agrees. Turning around here was a challenge, as I seesaw back and forth, just to get myself pointed in the right direction. The Tacoma, a few hundred feet behind me, has a better location for maneuvering, so I tell him to take off and I'll catch up. We return the same way we came, then backtrack a little to start our ascent out of Middle Park. This narrow section brings you into the Pinion Pines once again as you straddle or travel along side of ruts better than two feet deep. We exit entering onto the ridge route again and northeast to our camping location. We arrive, clean up the place, build a rock stove and settle in for our evening meal. After filling our bellies, TM sets up his tent and I inflate my mattress in the back of my truck and now we can relax by the campfire. Nothing but peace and quite, a full moon and the orange glow of Las Vegas in the eastern horizon. The night was surprisingly cooler than I anticipated and needed to sink deeper into my sleeping bag. Got a great night's sleep feeling totally refreshed for the next day.
We break camp leaving behind little evidence of our nightly stay and continue our trek towards Rogers Pass again. We turn right down Pleasant Canyon, passing by the cabin and beyond some other trails leading off into various directions. We note the additional trails for future reference knowing we will return to visit again. In about three miles, from Rogers Pass, we come upon the new National Park boundary displaying signs and some skeletal remains. Here we encounter some unexpected greenery and a natural spring. Thirsty, I grab the plastic hose buried underground and gulp down some water... ahhh ... refreshing. Here the wildlife was abundant with Sage Hens, Quail and evidence of Wild Burros. We soon learn that downstream from our location is a tub full of water from the same spring. We note some more trails taking off in a easterly direction and move on down the canyon. About four miles down the canyon, we arrive at the World-Beater Mine, check out the large building... umm, not bad. Large enough to accommodate several weary travelers. Up the canyon wall are the remains of the mining road, zigzagging across the steep granite face. Have to check this out at a later date. During our departure deeper into Pleasant canyon you almost feel as though you're in the Grand Canyon. With ever-changing colors of twisted igneous and sedimentary rock towering overhead, this batholithic mass makes one feel so insignificant. We continue our journey ever watchful of the awesome geology this area has to offer. Our next stop is Clair Camp, just beyond five miles from Rogers Pass, another large mining camp of yesteryear. Here are the entire workings of an organized mining operation with ball mills, many structures and an old water storage tank. The water tank is ready to collapse, exposing how it was engineered. Basically, just wooden slats held together with steel bands, the water volume would press against the wood, causing the wood to expand from the moisture creating the leak-proof containment.
Off we go again down the canyon, observing and absorbing as much as we can take in. We can see Panamint Valley as a pie-shaped wedge between the canyon walls. The heat can be seen rising from the valley floor as it obscures the landscape with a blurry haze. We too can feel the heat even though our air-conditioned cabins were working overtime. The height and steepness of the canyon starts to diminish as we travel beyond the six-mile mark. At this point, the trail has not been difficult and we don't anticipate any serious changes in road conditions. All of a sudden, in front of us, is more greenery. We enter, amazed at the amount of water being produced from this arid spring. Now the trail becomes a little tricky as we bobsled through the Scotch Broom, Nettles and Garden Nightshade plant life native to this area. Some of the trail is steep, loose and mildly rocky. As we continue, the foliage increases in intensity providing barely enough room for the Tacoma, let alone my truck.
Then, unexpectedly the water-flow increases as we enter into the second spring. Here we can clearly see the erosional effects produced from all the water. We carefully navigate the trail, being watchful of the large ruts bordering in and along side the foliage. The plant-life is so dense in some places, that one wrong move and you could be asking for more trouble then you bargained for. This overgrowth continued for a few miles blocking our primary view of the surrounding canyon. The only clues that we are reaching the end of the canyon is the panoramic view of Panamint Valley ahead of us. Just as we approach the mouth of the canyon, the foliage and runoff recedes into a larger opening to our left and eventually disappears as though it never existed. Now outside the canyon, we can see the small town, Ballarat, glistening in the desert heat as though it is ready to evaporate. We arrive at Ballarat moments later and stop at the General Store. Looking back we can only dream about returning and exploring more of this area for now. The region has such diverse geology, plant and animal life, that one can spend days, maybe even weeks and not absorb everything. Please... everyone who decides to visit this area, keep in mind that you need to remove all your trash and any extra you may find along the way.
Exciting place, rich in history. Write us to charter an expedition.