Hike to Panamint City
by Debbie Miller Marschke
Ever since I had read of the fate of historic 1800's Panamint City, I yearned to see it for myself. Panamint City was one of those godless mining towns - teeming with boozing, gambling, whoring, and of course the coveted "color" the men were all wrangling over. The silver mine was said to have been a rival for the Comstock. Justice was administered one bullet at a time. Cradled high in the mountain canyons of Death Valley's Panamint Range, 6300 feet is a tough trek, even with a road. So I suspect that all the local preachers had their arms raised to the heavens in a victory cry when mother nature unleashed a savage rainstorm that produced the Biblical flash flood that destroyed Panamint City in one night. They say it was the "hand of God" wiping the evil away.
The road leading through Surprise Canyon was actually not too bad until the 1980's. A modern mining company had began to work the claim again in the 1980's. History repeated itself. One hundred years after the first cataclysmic flood, El Nino appeared in 1984 and scoured the narrow passages clean of their gravels down to bedrock. It seems that God does not want this mountain mined. Now Surprise Canyon was almost impassable. Almost, meaning that a few skilled folks could manage through with custom rock crawling rigs, winches, and anchor points that make up "extreme 4WD" driving. Of course, whenever you have extreme 4WD trails, there are the environmentalists who detest the battle of earth vs. machines. Facing an inevitable lawsuit, the BLM chose to close the canyon in 2001 to vehicles until a management plan could be developed. It remains closed. By the time I had first learned about Panamint, the elements had erased my way in by 4WD. Quite simply, I would have to walk the 6 miles up. Could it be that bad? Apparently so, because everyone I proposed this expedition to screwed up their face like they had bitten a sour grape. So, when I got the email from buddy Steve Mitchell looking for a backpack crew, my husband Steve and I were in. We researched the trek, cross-referencing sources, until we thought we had enough background to make informed decisions about our gear. Our information said the hike was between 5 - 6 miles, and had around 4000 feet elevation gain. That fact did not really soak in with me until Steve plotted an elevation profile of the trail from his topo software. It looked like the Dow Jones Stock trading graph during an aggressive season; no plateaus or long downward spikes, just a sharp jagged upward trend. I kept staring at it, thinking, "what makes you think you can do this?" This hike didn't look good. Then I decided on "Mind over Matter" - if I don't mind, it won't matter. I was too stubborn to give up my dream. Our group met up in Ballarat on Friday evening, March 16. We walked over to the Ballarat store to get the latest information on the trail from Rocky Novak. He indicated that the first part of the trail was very brushy and that we would have to bushwhack. He also warned us that he had seen a lot of snakes on his last sortie, and that they seemed to be in the wetter areas because that's where the mice were hanging out. There was a total of 4 in our group: me, my husband Steve Marschke, Steve Mitchell, and Myron White. Myron is a bona fide health nut, and not only does he "talk the talk" but he also "walks the walk", or should I say HIKES. It was like trying to compete with Jack La Lanne. Clearly I was the slowest link in the chain. Apparently I was more stubborn than sensible - I still wanted to go. Saturday morning we set off and carpooled to the base of Surprise Canyon. It was 9 am and already nearing 90 degrees. Vehicles must be parked at the site of the Chris Wicht camp, where the old Ballarat bartender used to live. Unfortunately, the historic camp burned to the ground September of 2006 in a "natural" fire. Judging from what had and had not burned, there was nothing natural about it. Almost immediately, we had reached the narrowest part of the canyon. The river comes cascading down bare jagged rocks. There was not much choice as to how to scale the falls, you just had to go up. Each person picked their own path, grabbing rockholds, placing our feet on solid anchors, and climbing up. This was challenging and tricky with a backpack on. This section ran about 300 feet, with several falls to scale up. One area was particularly difficult for us, and we all chose to remove our packs and pull them up with a rope line. We didn't come into contact with the water, but we had to change sides of the river several times here. We emerged from the narrows and immediately encountered a jungle. The plants are aggressively taking the canyon back here, right down to the banks of the river. The river runs between 2 and 6 feet wide in places, but it is mostly about ankle deep. We tried to follow the obvious beaten paths through the growth. The vines and branches reached out and grabbed us like clawed hands. Sometimes our pack frames snagged and jolted us backward. Long pants were a must here. We found it easier going to just stay in the river and walk in the water. The plants sometimes closed around us like a tunnel as we leaned forward to avoid low hanging branches and sloshed along. It was hard to believe that a road had ever existed here. The presence of this growth will be the battle cry of the environmentalists - would the BLM allow the offroaders to hack any of this down to reset the road? I doubt it. Pushing through the jungle seemed delightfully fun at first, but after a while it got to be too much. I just wanted to get out. The canyon finally opened up and suddenly the river was gone. Ahead was the two track road that snaked upwards bisecting the dry canyon, paved in fist sized rocks. There weren't many places with small rocks afoot that would allow you to take your eyes off your steps and gaze around. Wow, I thought, we must have made good progress. Steve had a GPS, so I asked him how far we had gone. "One point two miles" he said. What? Good grief. Not even close to halfway. We marched onwards, and at this point I was really beginning to feel the grade up. We also were now walking in the sun, and we constantly nursed our water to keep hydrated. My pack was 30 pounds and carrying it up that grade was tough work. Myron, on the other hand, was singing like the happy wanderer. At first I wanted to wring his neck, but Myron was a godsend. We needed his light attitude and cheery disposition, even if he was kicking our butts. He remained unaffected. We all tried to join in the cadence at our lucid moments. At 1.7 miles in, we had reached Limekiln Spring which reappeared in the streambed. We had shed our long pants, and I had consumed my 100oz of water. As planned, we all refilled our water containers using a purifier. A few paces out, the spring vanished again, along with all traces of water. The trail seemed to be getting hotter and steeper. We just had to keep watching our feet on the rocks and keep plodding on. Occasionally we would find a patch of shade to catch our breath in. We caught up to a man who had began the trail earlier than we had; he couldn't stand it and had turned back. He looked so defeated. I didn't want to feel like him, despite how pooped I was feeling, I kept treading on. After a mile, we reached Brewery Spring where we topped off our water again. This was the last water until we reached Panamint City. We were now at 4800 feet and had some miles to go. The next 2 1/2 miles were hard to win. Grueling torment. The trail continued up a dry, sunny, and hot roadbed of rocks and boulders. No climbing, just enough to keep you wavering around the obstacles like a drunk. Walking in a straight line on flat ground was an impossible fantasy. I didn't talk very much those last miles. I was concentrating on getting there. We had gained enough elevation that the temperature seemed mercifully cooler. We spooked several wild burros, and one went galloping & snorting down the canyon. I finally looked up and saw the brick smokestack of the mine's smelter. I was in Panamint City! There is a large cabin that can accommodate a group, nicknamed the Panamint Hilton. Hikers have kept it in decent condition, and there are several beds inside where you can throw your sleeping bag down. Quite cozy if you arrive first, which we did not. The group that was enjoying the cabin had been there a few days. They directed us to a cabin in Sourdough Canyon, but we were too tired to keep walking. We pitched camp in a garage area across the way from the Hilton which put a roof over our heads. Nearby was a water spigot that still worked so we essentially had running water. It had taken us 7 hours to walk there, probably due to my slow pace, but my companions never left me behind. The smokestack is a grand structure made of red brick and stands as a testament of broken dreams. Lining each side of the canyon are stone ruins of the buildings that once made up this town. Nothing remains down the center of the canyon, but debris is scattered and pokes out for miles downstream. Telescope Peak neighbors to the north, and the geology of the mountain is pleasing. What a wonderful place! My only mistake now was that I didn't budget enough time to see it all. Simply, I was just too tired to walk up the side canyons and investigate. The temperatures were in the '70's and it was not too chilly that night. During the night I awoke to the clanking of corrugated metal in the breeze; I pretended it was the ghosts of miners, hammering away in the mountain. We checked out the mine and a few structures in the morning. We returned to civilization in less than 5 hours on Sunday. Walking down was equally as grueling as our sore muscles, trained from the walk up, were stretched in a new direction. Our toes were getting jammed into the front of our boots. As I paced down the mountain, a really noticed how steep a grade this had been coming up. How had I done it? The fact is that I DID MAKE IT and I'm very happy to have endeavored to go. This trail is definitely a backpack trip that should begin at first daylight. If I make a return trip, I will stay a few days. I would recommend the trek to anyone sturdy enough to take this self-inflicted beating. It is a special place that is now open only to those physically capable to endure the journey.