If you’ve ever wanted to pitch a tent and camp in a ghost town, then Panamint City in Death Valley National Park may be the ticket. Panamint City isn’t your run of the mill roadside ghost town tourist attraction. It’s located in a remote section of the Panamint Range and requires a strenuous hike to reach it, but that’s half the fun! You also don’t need a permit to hike or a camping reservation.
The first stop on your adventure will be the ghost town of Ballarat. It’s located in the Panamint Valley of the Mojave Desert (just outside of Death Valley National Park). There’s not much there now, but in its day it was bustling with gold prospectors, had a few saloons, hotels, stores, a post office and a school. Today you’ll see a few crumbling ruins, a small “trading post” and a few derelict vehicles. One of the vehicles is Charlie Manson’s old truck. His little cult following use to hole up at a ranch about 10 miles away.
“The new town of Ballarat was now the gathering place for Panamint Range miners, prospectors, and the Indian community. The Fourth of July celebration in the year 1897 was replete with foot races, hammer and stone-throwing, burro and horse racing, giant powder salutes and also a grand tug of war, in which every male inhabitant and visitor to the place, Indians included, took part, save one who from his immense size and strength was debarred from either side and officiated as referee.” – National Park Service / Park History
Charlie Manson’s Truck – So We’re Told
And we know it’s Manson’s truck because of the white stars he painted on the ceiling.
From Ballarat you’ll take a dirt road up to Surprise Canyon. There’s a large parking area there that was the former location of Chris Wicht camp and also the Novak home (now just ruins).
Road to Surprise Canyon Trailhead
Surprise Canyon Trailhead Parking
Ruins of Novak Home (overnight camping is permitted).
Do not underestimate the difficulty of the Surprise Canyon trail to Panamint City. Although the hike to the ghost town is a relatively short 5 ½ miles one way trip, the trail is continuously steep with an elevation gain of 3,675 feet. You also need to factor in climbing through waterfalls in the narrows, making your way through areas of thick brush, time spent backtracking when not taking the correct route, and time spent hiking in the creek.
The narrows section of Surprise Canyon.
The trailhead is next to the parking lot at an elevation of about 2,600 feet. After about 1/4 mile you’ll come to the trail register and then reach the bottom of Surprise Canyon falls after another 1/2 mile. From there the canyon narrows and the trail winds through a few stretches of thick brush. You’ll also follow Surprise Creek for the first few miles. It flows all year and in the spring you may have a few challenging creek crossings, including scrambling up and over water falls.
The next part of the hike climbs 4,000 feet to Limekiln Spring. Keep an eye out for those cairns as the trail does get a little difficult to follow through the brush. Staying close to the creek is usually your best bet. After the spring, the trail continues up another mile through a tunnel of trees to Brewery Spring. This is your last water source so fill up those canteens! Brewery Spring was actually once a brewery located back in the days of Panamint City’s boom.
Tunnel through the trees.
From Brewery Springs you make your final push up to the ghost town at 6,300 feet. The trail continues up the old town road and you’ll have little shade the rest of the way to Panamint City. Soon after Marvel Canyon, you should see the tall red smelter stack of Panamint City. Along the way you’ll also pass by some ruins of stone cabins built by the miners.
It’s also a good idea to do this hike in the spring or fall. Summer temps will exceed 100+ degrees and it will get quite cold in the winter.
The stone cabin ruins are located at the base of the hillside below rock falls. The miners chose these locations so they could easily get the stones to build their homes.
The remaining smelter stack at Panamint City.
Once you arrive, you’ll probably swing in to the “Panamint Hilton”. This is the largest and “best” of the extremely rustic cabins. It has a delightfully old queen bed mattress in the back room and a few single cots in the front room. There’s also a kitchen area and old bathroom. Nothing in the kitchen or bathroom work (no water or electricity). You’ll also find some reading material and log book. Additional space is available in the front room to sleep. There’s also a metal fire place (that is functional). Oh, and you’ll be sharing the cabin with many little critters.
Panamint Hilton with the ‘Butler’ out front.
A view inside Panamint Hilton cabin.
There are also a couple of other cabins (“Overflow Hippie Cabin” and “The Castle”), but they are in really bad shape. As with the Hilton, none of these cabins have water or electricity. Tent camping (outside) is also an option and there are many places to make camp and spend the night.
The Overflow Hippie Cabin (pictured below) is probably one of the most haunted buildings in the ghost town. And yes, those are authentic ‘ghost orbs’ floating toward the ceiling (just inside the door).
The Castle Cabin has seen better days.
You can probably spend a day or two exploring all of the ruins and mines in the area. You may also notice some artifacts and graffiti from when hippies use to live in here in the 1960s and 1970s.
“By 1897 new placer locations had been found on the east side of the Panamints, panning $30 to $40 per day. The central Panamints were still quiet, Panamint City now containing but two residents, sole witnesses to the steady decay of the town’s large stores, saloons, and billiard halls full of furniture. The only operating business was a large, fully-stocked hardware and implement store selling goods to miners at incredibly low prices. Several mills in the vicinity full of machinery were idle.” – National Park Service / Park History
There are several day-hike options in the area including Sourdough Canyon, Water Canyon, Marvel Canyon, the Wyoming Mine, and the Hemlock Mine. The Wyoming Mine can be reached by taking the old mine road/trail from Panamint City. It’s about a mile to the mine with a 1,000 foot elevation gain. The Hemlock Mine is accessed via the old mining road/trail in Marvel Canyon. It’s about 2.3 miles from Panamint City with a climb of about 1,500 feet.
More ambitious hikes are available to Panamint Pass, Sentinel Peak and even Telescope Peak (the highest point in Death Valley National Park at 11,331 feet).
One of the highlights of our trip was hiking up to the Wyoming Mine. The trail (below) is the old mine road and starts at Panamint City.
The Wyoming Mine is about 1,000 feet above the ghost town and has two (main) portals (entrances). The higher portal has the fun stuff (see below)!
There’s equipment both inside and outside the mine. This is a view just outside the higher portal.
The rail system is still (more or less) in place. This shaft goes back about 1/4 mile.
You can actually sit in this oar cart and go for a ride (for about 30-40 feet). It’s not Thunder Mountain (at Disneyland), but still pretty cool.
Exploring a mine is dangerous business and although this one is relatively safe, mind the vertical shaft that goes straight down about 100 feet.
And it would probably be a good idea not to steady yourself by putting your hand on the mine’s ceiling. You might wake up a sleeping bat family. Please don’t disturb the wildlife or take any artifacts.
You can stay in a cabin or pitch a tent anywhere in the Panamint City area. There are a few areas that are a bit more level and even have fire rings and chairs. The following photos are of the 5 best tent camping areas:
Hilton Garden – Campsite #1
Surprise View – Campsite #2
Smelter Bluff – Campsite #3
The Junkyard – Campsite #4
Smelter Fall Zone – Campsite #5
The good old days at Panamint City.
From Highway 395, hang a right on Trona Road (between the towns of Red Mountain and Johannesburg). Continue on about 21 miles then turn right on Highway 178 (Trona Road). This will take your through Trona and soon after the road becomes Trona Wildrose Road. From Trona it’s about 21 miles to Ballarat Road. Turn right and in about 3.5 miles you’ll pull into Ballarat ghost town. Turn left on Indian Ranch Road and stop in at the Ballarat Trading Post for a few minutes. Continue on Indian Ranch Road for about 2 miles then turn right on Surprise Canyon Road. There’s also another turn off to Surprise Canyon Road at 1.4 miles. Continue on about 4 miles to the Chris Wicht Camp parking area.
One last thing to mention is that during our hike up to the Wyoming Mine we noticed a peculiar “track” in the snow at around 7,000 feet in elevation. The track was about 14-15 inches long and the only one in the small snow patch on the trail. It’s not a foot print from a human, bear or cougar. Maybe it’s just a random pattern created by melting snow. What do you think?