2005 Trip Report - South Park, Panamint Mountains
South Park, Panamint Mountains: Plan B gets an “A”
By: Allan Wicker (narrator) and Alan Romspert
It was hot, the Thursday before the last weekend in August. The weather forecaster was warning of possible record high temperatures in the Inland Valley. And I was packing up for Alan Romspert’s trip to Death Valley National Park. What was I thinking when I signed up? Even the trip description warned “it will be hot this time of year in the lower elevations and probably at our camp locations in Pleasant Canyon and South Park.” Still I wanted to get away, and Alan’s trips are always as informative as he is mellow.
On the drive up to our 3 p.m. meeting place at Ballarat, I had a little extra time, so I detoured off the Red Mountain-Trona cutoff to approach the Pinnacles National Natural Landmark from the south. I anticipated a scenic lunch in the shade of one of the pinnacles. However, at noon, the place felt like an oven, and the only accessible shadow was cast by the toilet. So I drove on into Trona, where the roof of a decaying gas station bay provided the shelter I sought. While I was eating lunch, Alan drove up in his black Pathfinder. We shared the shade and lunchtime.
Arriving at Ballarat several minutes before our appointed time, we met the other party on our trip: Donna Fruh and Nancy Thompson, and Donna’s newly acquired but already well-behaved canine, Baxter-Gunther.
The thermometer on the porch of the store read 111 degrees.
We learned from the attendant, Rocky, at Ballarat that the road up Pleasant Canyon, our planned route, had bad washouts. He reported that one ATV driver, whose blood alcohol level had not been ascertained, recently overturned his vehicle on that road.
After reflecting on this information and the vehicles we were driving (Donna’s long wheel base and street tires on her Chevrolet Silverado), Alan proposed that we proceed instead to the Mahogany Flat campground, about 30 miles northeast. Not to be outdone by Alan’s mellowness, we heartily agreed and headed out. On the dirt Indian Ranch road along the base of the Panamint Mountains we crossed two areas of water running down from the mountains getting the obligatory mud on our vehicles. On the way we learned that Alan had done research in this area years ago, and was knowledgeable not only about the plants, but also about the history. We stopped to see a section of riveted pipe that had carried water 23 miles from Birch Springs in Jail Canyon to the mining town of Skidoo.
Further up Wildrose Canyon we came to the 10 large charcoal kilns built in 1877 by George Hearst’s Modock Consolidated Mining Company in what was then a juniper-pinyon pine with some mountain mahogany forest. These kilns supplied charcoal for two silver-lead smelters that Hearst had built in the Argus Range 25 miles to the west. The kilns operated until the summer of 1878 when the Argus mines, due to deteriorating ore quality, closed and the furnaces shut down. The Wildrose kilns employed about 40 woodcutters and associated workmen, and the town of Wildrose, a temporary camp located somewhere nearby, was home to about 100 people. Remi Nadeau’s Cerro Gordo Freighting Company hauled the charcoal to the smelters by pack train and wagon. Each of the 10 kilns stands about 25 feet tall and has a circumference of approximately 30 feet. Each kiln held 42 cords of pinyon pine logs and would, after burning for week, produce 2,000 bushels of charcoal. Considered to be the best surviving examples of such kilns to be found in the western states, the kilns owe their longevity to fine workmanship and to the fact that they were in use for such a short time. The Civilian Conservation Corps did renovate the kilns in the 1930’s (more on the CCC later).
As we climbed to Mahogany Flat, the temperature became more and more agreeable. When we arrived to its 8,133 foot elevation, the temperature must have been in the high seventies. (The Inland Empire, I learned later, was more than 20 degrees warmer.) We had our choice of shaded campsites overlooking a sun-baked Death Valley to the east and far in the west the peaks of the High Sierras.
Using a thoroughly rational process, we decided that I would cook my potluck contribution that night (penne pasta with chicken cacciatore), Donna would prepare hers the following night, with Alan and Nancy providing potato salad and brownies, respectively, both nights. It not only worked, but we had food left over. All cooks were congratulated for the quality of their offerings.
As the sun sank behind the mountains, hiking boots and long pants replaced sandals and shorts. Conversation beside the stone-cold fire ring (no open fires permitted, although we had come well prepared with lots of firewood), centered on recent trips to Central America by three of us, and on helpful hints for camping. Neither Donna nor Nancy had been camping for several years, evidenced by their unboxing a new tent, camp stove, lantern, and solar water heater. When it got dark and yes, even a bit chilly, we enjoyed a spectacular display of stars before the moon rose.
Visiting Mahogany Flat was a bit nostalgic for me, since the last time I had been there was a trip led by John Page. Bill Ott was with us, and in the next leg of the trip, to Funnel Lake, we met up with Bob and Marilyn Martin. I thought of those two gentle men, Bill and Bob.
The next day Alan demonstrated a capacity for formulating a commendable Plan B on short notice. He announced to us that at approximately 7:30AM his indoor/outdoor thermometer was registering 62 degrees F. Leaving at 9 AM we proceeded down the hill to Thorndike camp where Alan showed us numerous species and subspecies of desert plants and we learned such facts as this: Like mistletoe, Indian paintbrush is a parasite that receives subsistence from its host plant, although whereas mistletoe draws from the branches Indian paintbrush draws from it’s hosts roots. On a short hike we saw a rusty tank that once supplied the campground with water up until at least the 1970’s. The Thorndike campground (notice spelling) was named after the Panamint miner John Thorndyke who dreamed of getting into the tourist business by building a hotel on top of Telescope Peak, at just over 11,000 feet. This proved to be beyond his and his wife’s capacities, however. They finally settled for a few tourist cabins on Mahogany Flats. Even then, the cabins were so high that they were too cold for tourists most of the winter season and by the time they warmed up enough to be comfortable in the late spring, the surrounding country was getting too hot.
Back at the charcoal kilns three of us hiked up the south- facing slope behind them. There we found evidence of an early settlement: terraced foundations of cabins, an elevated wood box that had served as a food cooler, lots of old cans, car parts, and a hidden track down to the main road. Going further up, we discovered a spring with standing water, which must have been their water supply, and nearby a pinyon pine so large that it must have been there when the kilns were fired up. A short drive further downhill took us to a side road leading to the burned-out headquarters of the park service superintendent of Death Valley National Monument built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. We lunched in the shade of pinyon pines next to the remaining foundation and chimney of the former superintendent’s residence. After lunch Nancy and the two Alan/Allan-s took a short hike to burn off some of those lunch calories. They found a nearby rock reservoir with its collapsed wooden roof and an inscription confirming the CCC connection of company 908 signed by “Gus”.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) played an important role in the early beginnings of Death Valley National Monument. In October of 1933 two companies of approximate 400 men entered Death Valley to start putting the infant monument in shape for the American public. In the next nine years, 12 companies of approximately 1,200 men worked in Death Valley. They built barracks, graded 500 miles of roads, installed water and telephone lines, and erected a total of 76 buildings for themselves and PWA and Park Service employees. They built trails in the Panamint Mountains to points of scenic interest (the 7 mile Telescope Peak Trail is one of these). They erected an adobe village, laundry and trading post for the Shoshone Indians, And they built 5 campgrounds, restrooms and picnic facilities, developed wells and springs, constructed an airplane landing field, made signs and helped with surveying the monument. One of the three permanent camps was at Wildrose. The men were paid $25 a month of which $20 went to the family and $5 to the men. The CCC men were among the first to be called for the war effort and by May of 1942 they were all gone from Death Valley. The surviving rock work of the charcoal kilns, superintendent’s residence and the reservoir after more than 63 years gives one pause to think about these historic treasures.
At mid-afternoon we retreated to the coolness of our campground for reading, visiting with a friendly NPS ranger (Jason Flood) who stopped by, and preparing dinner, some repeats and some new. Donna provided filet minion and cooked vegetables with Wicker, Romspert and Thompson reinforcing with leftovers.
Sunday morning, after a leisurely breaking of camp, we descended into the heat. We made a brief side trip to Big Falls, near Valley Wells north of Trona, where we also found standing water. I dropped out of the procession to have lunch at the shaded tables in Randsburg, and later paid for doing so. Traffic down Cajon Pass slowed and then came to a complete stop for about an hour at mid-afternoon. While waiting, I took a few photos and did an informal study of rumor transmission and subcultural linguistic practices by listening to the truckers’ chatter on Channel 19 of my CB. When I drove past the accident scene, I counted 23 emergency vehicles. A fire truck had been struck from behind by a pickup pulling a boat trailer, injuring five firefighters who were responding to a brush fire. (Note from the co-author/leader: When I came by the fire it was billowing up over the guard-rail on the east side and burning the wooden guard rail posts. No fire trucks had arrived and I saw none coming from the south although I did see one CHP officer giving a ticket and two having a chat or donut break.)
Thanks, Alan, for another informative trip. Welcome, Donna and Nancy. Come again and bring Baxter.