About the Author, Vicky Lantz: Vicky is a weekend warrior (pharmacy technician) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Starting at age 6, she has been hiking on the trails of the Midwest. The favorite family spot is Red River Gorge, Kentucky, where she has been leading group day-hikes and overnight backpacking trips for the past year. Vicky is also an active volunteer in the Sheltowee Trace Association serving on their Board of Directors, managing their website, and doing trail maintenance on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail in Kentucky and Tennessee. She also backpacks all over the United States, her favorite places being Death Valley, California, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, California, and Grayson Highlands, Virginia.
Trail Info: About 6 miles to the Panamint City ghost town from the parking area. Rated moderate to strenuous with rock scrambling required. Rocky trail with gradual incline all the way to the city. No shade. There is a spring for filtering water about 3.5 miles up the trail, but not after that point until you get past Panamint City.
January 2019: It was one of those mornings where you wake up, poke your head out of the tent, and are stunned by the landscape because you set up camp in the dark. Michael and I drove our rental Subaru from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park. After catching the most spectacular sunset at Mesquite Flat Dunes, we drove towards the trailhead for the backpacking trip- Chris Wicht Camp Trailhead. We stopped on the side of the road before it got too steep- we were going to wait until daylight to take the rental car over the steep, rocky, pot-hole-filled road. We had camped in the desert right below a mountain range that glowed red in the morning sun. We stuffed our gear in our packs and drove to the trailhead to find a few other cars and some interesting ruins from an abandoned mining camp.
It was cloudy, windy, and cold when we started up the 6-mile ascent to the Panamint City ruins in Surprise Canyon Wilderness. The trail was a very unique one. The most beautiful feature was the bright, mossy green waterfall flowing over the white granite rock. The trail was a steady climb of 3,500 feet going from 2,600 feet in elevation to 6,200 feet in elevation. I felt absolutely winded towards the end. I think the altitude was getting to me. It started to snow a little and it made the rocky trail slippery. I was frustrated with the difficulty of this hike and my pack probably weighed 30 pounds so that didn’t help. I held on to some straps hanging off my brother’s pack and he pulled me for about a mile. He’s a great brother and hiking buddy. The rocks were cool colors and the ruins were interesting. There were quite a few old cars in this canyon because it used to be a road. We came across Bighorn Sheep skeleton- yikes. Towards the city, there is a spring- Brewery Spring- that has some great water you can filter from. There’s a sign for it, you can’t miss it.
The city itself looks like a bunch of old shacks or hunting cabins plopped on a hillside. Here’s the details taken from the interweb:
“Founded in 1873 as a silver-mining town, its population soon grew to several thousand. The city had a mile-long main street, mills, saloons, stores, a red-light district, a post office, and even a cemetery. In 1876, a flash flood destroyed most of the town, killing many of the residents. A dirt road to the city existed until 1983, when another tremendous flash flood washed the canyon down to the bedrock and made road replacement unfeasible. With no road out, everything in the city was abandoned. The present-day city contains myriad leftovers from its rich past: Native American pictographs predating the arrival of miners, ruins of the original 19th-Century stone cabins, newer cabins that have been maintained by backpackers, mining equipment, and dozens of abandoned vehicles.” (Sean Goebel)
Michael and I were freezing our butts off by the time we got to 6,000 feet in elevation. We went into the elaborately decorated main backpacker’s cabin- “the Hilton”. I think they call it that because it’s the “nicest and maintained” cabin on the hill. It was super gross. Rat poo everywhere- gross. My brother was enchanted by everything else though. I tolerated it because it had a fireplace inside and so it kept us toasty toasty all night. There was an old bed and 2 old chairs and a few tables. It had a kitchen with counters and cabinets and a bathroom with a toilet and shower and sink. None working of course. It would be really creepy to most people. We set up the tent inside the cabin. I felt a mouse bump my foot through the tent. If it were 10 degrees warmer and not snowing, I would have slept outside in a heartbeat. There were a lot of fox / coyote footprints outside in the snow.
The morning was gloriously bright with about 3 inches of snow on the ground. I could see the next mountain range in the distance. Its white caps glowed pink. We were surprised when two other backpackers came by. They were also surprised to see us. I guess they had started earlier than us yesterday and camped in another cabin uphill. We chatted with them for a minute and found that one of them was from Ohio too. They headed on down the canyon and made a trail for us to follow in the snow. The hike down was far superior to the one yesterday. The sky was a bright blue and that California sun had some extra vitamin D. Once we dropped below 5,000 feet elevation, the snow had disappeared from the trail, leaving gorgeous, golden, glowing canyons. At a few points on the trek back out, I could see really far in the distance- over the next mountain range. Two mountain ranges over were the Sierra! I swear I could make out the tips of some Eastern Sierra Mountains. The perfect downhill hike had the perfect ending. Chilling with a beer, sitting in the sun, looking at the mountains at the trailhead.