By: Ed Lubin, Paul Bloland
We car camped Friday night at a site about one mile north of the ghost town of Ballarat, on Panamint Dry Lake; alongside Happy Canyon Road, just off Wingate Road, We had intended to stop at a more private site, a turnout about four hundred feet to the south, but the area is a popular destination for outdoor recreational vehicle groups, and that site was already occupied. We posted a DPS sign at our intersection, It distinguished us from the other gatherings.
About 8:15am on Saturday, David Buchanan, Marlen Mertz, Steve Norman, George Pfeiffer, Bill T. and Pat Russell, Alan Takahashi, Jim Whitted, Paul and I, caravaned the short distance to the Surprise Canyon trailhead, Chris Wicht's Camp (el 2640') for our backpack to the historic townsite of Panamint City in the Panamint Range; a distance of about five miles, and a gain of about 4000'.
Backpacking roughly one mile up Surprise Canyon, along the path of a mostly washed out road, we encountered the only two obstacles we would face:
Located where the canyon narrows down to about 15' wide, are two sets of waterfalls, commonly known as the "Falls". Polished rock spanned wall-to-wall on both; and water, probably seasonal, cascaded down what was climbable. Slippery surfaces and too few handholds made climbing with a backpack not easy.
Just above the second falls were three old vehicle wrecks and a pair of fresh tire tracks in the mud, The tracks were a mystery, because the road over what is now the "Falls", was washed out in 1984, and there is no other vehicular access. It must have been hard to maintain. Above the falls, the road would be classified in the DPS Guide as "good", even after the worst winter in years.
Fine tasting spring water was available at two ideally situated places enroute. At Limekiln Spring were ferns, and a form of moss that is reputedly found only a few other places in the world, There is a turnout on the north side of the road, with a lone three foot square boulder, Together, they form a landmark. At Brewery Spring the water gushes in great volume from the cliff alongside the road. For over a hundred feet along the road, there is a canopy of trees.
The tall, square-shaped smelter smokestack that marks the townsite of Panamint City (el 6400') is constructed of brick; the color of which blends in well with the beautiful juniper and Pinyon Pine covered mountain backdrop.
Just uproad, the quaint setting is marred by a large modern structural steel shed finished in two bright gaudy colors. Camper shells and house trailers also detract, (Inside the shed is a faucet that gives excellent water.) Approaching us from behind as we entered town, came a Jeep, the source of the mysterious tire tracks at the "Falls". The driver was friendly. He is residing in the "Main Cabin" across from the shed, while doing something linked with mining. He drives down to the falls to park when he goes out for supplies. The Jeep has a winch and has been over the Falls, but was helicoptered in originally. At least one hole has been drilled for winching.
He was asked if any cabin was off-limits, and indicated none. We decided to stay at "The Castle" (which does not appear at all like such architectually). We still discovered a "No Trespassing" sign on the porch door, once settled. The Castle is located up in Sourdough Canyon. Portions were reputedly built in the 1870s, 1930s and 1970s. Some leaded-glass windows, the brick floor in two rooms, rafters, and other construction details, make the three room stone masonry and wood structure extraordinary. Actually, there is a fourth room with a toilet and stall shower; both inoperative (there is an outhouse). Love thought and time obviously went into the place. Unfortunately, the tiny middle room and kitchen receive too little sunlight, The only bright room has twin beds with mattresses and blankets; the middle room has a single bed, and a wood stove for heating and cooking. In the kitchen is a faucet with spring water. There was organic matter in it; probably from standing in the pipe too long. Also were a disconnected propane stove; dining table and bench, dinner plates, and some staples on the shelves. Outdoors on the brick patio, are two disconnected refrigerators (food was inside them), another faucet, and a cast iron bathtub set up so that a fire can be lit underneath to heat bath water.
The place is rundown and littered outdoors. There is quite a pile of trash at the edge of the porch, In the trash is a child's toy pedal car; a vivid reminder this had once been home to a family. They no-doubt fled in 1984. Valuable mining equipment was around that appeared to be in near-running order. The evidence we saw (books, sceptre), substantiates a report that hippies also, once lived in The Castle. (When we left Sunday morning, it was cleaner than found.
Three kinds of pasta were the dinner feature. Four of us later slept indoors. Steve Durkee and John Thomassen backpacked in Saturday night to meet us. John was able to drive his Cherokee about one half mile beyond the trailhead. They left about 8:00pm, and arrived in the City about midnight. Steve somehow managed to find our secluded campsite in the morning, The two of them brought the size of our group to twelve. (During the trip we saw only eight other people.
Sentinel Peak (el 9636') looms above Panamint City. With solid white slopes, it appeared as if we would have a snow climb; except for patches it was not.
Departing about 8:30am on Sunday, we took the ridge located between Magazine and Marvel Canyons, to the summit. From the crest of the ridge to the west, the terrain was almost snow-free. To the east, much of the terrain was blanketed with snow. Based on what we crossed, it would have offered fine skiing.
The sky was clear and weather mild, so 45 minutes were spent on top absorbing magnificent views of Death Valley, nearby Telescope and Porter Peaks, and the Sierra Nevada Range. John Thomassen's cellular telephone was a hit. It was used by many of us to call home and surprise people, who were least expecting a call from distant and remote Sentinel Peak.
Most of us were quite tired by the time we got back to our cars about 7:15pm. The trip was enjoyable and interesting. It was the first DPS trip for Marlen Mertz, Alan Takahashi, and Steve Norman. Hope they will join us again.
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