Notes on Goler Canyon Road
Additional Information & Notes
Note The road conditions change over the years, for the latest road conditional go to https://www.facebook.com/DeathValleyRoadConditions
A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle, motorcycle or dune buggy is necessary -- it must be street legal. Due to rough sections in Goler Canyon and east of Mengel Pass, I strongly recommend not using car-based 4x4s --those which have limited ground clearance and lack a low range transmission. Road conditions, as always, depend on recent weather conditions and the limited maintenance provided by the National Park Service.
This is by no means a quick or leisurely route. Patience and skill are needed to navigate some difficult sections. The route can be deserted, or you may come across other travelers. I recommend taking this byway between late October and late April, as the summer months are too extreme and your chances of finding help if trouble arises are nearly impossible.
Be sure to have normal desert supplies with you including a full tank of gas. Gas is available at Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells General Store in Death Valley, Shoshone on the southeast side of Death Valley, Panamint Springs Resort in Panamint Valley and Trona to the west. Gas is very expensive at all locations except Trona. Gas credit cards are not accepted at Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs.
Meals and snacks can be found at the above locations. There is no cellular telephone service in the area. Those with CB radios may get someone listening in an emergency, but then again, maybe not.2 There is dependable water found in Goler Canyon, Butte Valley and Warm Springs Canyon, though I advise carrying your water needs, or filtering and boiling water before drinking, as burros tend to foul water holes. Death Valley National Park Rangers and BLM law enforcement do patrol the area in the cooler months.
Located 3.6 miles from the pavement of the north-south Trona-Wildrose Road (California 178), this picturesque historic site now boasts limited supplies at the General Store, which is open from autumn until late spring.
Ballarat was an important supply town for the mines of the Panamint Range, as well as an important stopping point for any travel in the Mojave Desert-Death Valley region. The Ballarat post office opened June 21, 1897, although the nearby spring was known as "Post Office Spring" by outlaws living nearby during the Panamint City boom during the 1870s. These "residents" had an understanding with the Panamint Stage Line wherein they could have assurance that outgoing mail left in a box wired to a crotch in a mesquite tree would be taken and delivered; incoming mail was also left in the box.3 Ballarat began a mild boom when mines high up in Pleasant Canyon west of town began steady production. A townsite was laid out consisting of 80 acres, 40 of them laid out in lots.4
Ballarat remained steady as the only supply town in the vicinity, and as a seat of Inyo County government for the entire Death Valley district. Miners were scattered all about the Panamint, Slate and Argus Ranges. Things changed after first Tonopah, then Goldfield, boomed between 1901 and 1904. Life at Ballarat began to pick up as a way-stop for those coming from the south. In 1904, the entire Death Valley region blazed with activity as Rhyolite, Beatty, Bullfrog, Harrisburg and Skidoo flourished.
Things settled down after 1910. Ballarat and Skidoo were the only towns left in the Panamint Range with a population. The Ballast's post office closed September 29, 1917.5 Several notable hangers-on lived out their days at Ballarat. Probably the best known are Shorty Harris and Seldom Seen Slim. Harris lived here until shortly before his death at Big Pine, California, November 1934.6 He is buried on the floor of Death Valley, and on this trip we'll pass by his grave. Seldom Seen Slim lived in Ballarat off and on, living on his celebrity as one of the last desert characters. He died in nearby Trona, California, August 1968.7 Slim is buried in Ballarat's Boot Hill.
The detour to Barker Ranch is short but passes through two heavy growths of trees, which seem to have a healthy appetite for antennas and mirrors. The Barker Ranch is still considered private property and may be occupied occasionally but chances are that you'll have it to yourselves.
Inside the main house is found a register that can provide some interesting reading. There are books and stored items food and personal effects left by those who have stayed here. The main house has seen occasional use by back country travelers as an overnight spot, though others claim it's haunted.
Barker Ranch also held another of the great mysteries of the Manson gang and is still occasionally mentioned today -- how in the world he got a school bus here. Manson claimed he flew it up, but somehow he managed to drive it to Barker via Death Valley and Butte Valley. By the time he got it to the ranch, it had sustained damage to the bodywork, undercarriage and suffered slashed tires, but it did arrive eventually.11
Up the road from Barker Ranch is the Meyers Ranch. This too, is private property and may be occupied. Beyond Meyers Ranch, the road eventually reaches Wingate Wash, but is closed at the boundary of China Lake B-Range.
Mengel's home and Russell Camp may or may not be occupied. These cabins are open to the public to use on a short-term basis. Both have spring water provided by pipeline from Greater View Spring and contain some indoor plumbing. The Park Service usually keeps volunteer staff at one or both of these cabins, especially during the winter months. They recycle aluminum cans left behind, using the money for maintenance of the valley cabins.
When I visited the Russell Camp in December 1997, a young man was occupying the cabin, but had arrangements to be picked up by family that day. A couple days earlier, he had completed three-week trek through the desert. The visitor had just finished cleaning up his camp and the buildings, and grounds, were immaculate. Fortunately, most visitors follow his example and do the same.
This small cabin sits above Anvil Spring and its solitary cottonwood tree.13 Usually, this cabin is open for public use. Inside is open and cheery; a fireplace dominates one wall. There is a sink with a plastic 5-gallon water container with spigot. A table and chairs complete the furnishings. In December 1997, I found the cabin spotless.
There were food items, along with candles, firewood, games, books, magazines, matches and other useful items. The water jug was full, a thoughtful consideration. The cabin was built about 1935. Predating the cabin, the settlement of Striped Butte existed briefly here around 1899. Ruins of a stamp mill are found near the Geologist's Cabin, though this relic is from a different time period than the settlement.
The complex includes a garage, repair shop, bunkhouse and several dwellings. What is special about Warm Springs is the swimming pool. It was inviting on that warm September day, and someone had taken the trouble to recently remove algae and clean the pool prior to our plunge.
At the complex is another relic -- the Gold Hill Mill. This is actually an arrastre, but one that was powered by a diesel engine rather than horse or mule power. The setup is rather complex compared to the simple drag stone setup common to arrastres in the west.
Just east of the housing complex is a large, gated portal of the talc mine, the reason for a population here in this otherwise forgotten corner of Death Valley. Equipment and other paraphernalia can be found above the portal. (See Update.)
Beyond Warm Springs, the road becomes obviously improved. At 2.4 miles east of Warm Springs, a huge mine pit with high tailing piles is passed. This is the Big Talc Mine, part of the Warm Springs Canyon complex of talc mines that extend out toward the Death Valley floor. Below the Big Talc, the canyon begins to open, revealing the Death Valley floor. Eventually, the road leaves Warm Springs Canyon mouth, undulating along the alluvium at the foot of the Panamint Range.
At 7.0 miles from Warm Springs, Anvil Spring Canyon Wash is crossed, which drains Butte Valley via that canyon. The road then drops onto the sandy floor of Death Valley. Views south reveal the Owlshead Mountains, ahead is the barrier of the Funeral Range.
Salt Well is the first landmark to be reached after 7.2 miles of easy travel. Mesquite trees mark the historic well, but it has long been dry.
1.4 miles north of Salt Well is Mesquite Well. Once a brackish watering hole for mule teams, it is now dry. It is also notable as a possible campsite by emigrants in 1850, but was quickly abandoned for better water to the north. Water is still close enough to the surface to nourish a growth of Mesquite trees and Arrowweed bushes.
Northward 8.3 miles from Mesquite Well is a historic marker for Bennett's Well. This was the possible campsite of the Bennett and Arcan parties, as well as other emigrants in 1850.17 This well is also dry.
Shorty Harris lived much of his life in and around Death Valley. He came to the area around 1895 and stayed until a few months before his death in 1934. It is said that Harris, while riding along the West Side Road in an auto in 1933, requested of his traveling companion: "When I die, bury me beside old Jim. Above me write 'Here lies Shorty Harris, a single blanket jackass prospector"18 In any case, his epitaph is etched in bronze and placed within the stone monument that he shares with Jim Dayton, who preceded Harris in death by 35 years. The current monument was placed on the grave in 1936, constructed by the California Conservation Corps.19
1 Wingate Pass, once well-known during the boom days of Death Valley and surroundings, is not accessible because of military lands south of the Inyo/San Bernardino County line. This pass forms the junction of the Panamint Range and the Owlshead Mountains.
2 CB channels 3 and 5 seem to be the most used in Panamint Valley. There is a 2-meter antenna site at the Briggs Cabin, and there seems to be
a trend toward 2-meter use in the backcountry.
3 BALLARAT: FACTS & FOLKLORE -- Hubbard, Pipkin & Bray -- page 4
4 BALLARAT: FACTS & FOLKLORE -- Hubbard, Pipkin & Bray -- page 18
5 HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA POST OFFICES (1991) -- Salley -- pages 13, 199
6 INYO INDEPENDENT (Independence, CA), November 16, 1934
7 SELDOM SEEN SLIM (1971) -- Murry -- page 46
8 Mileage is based on those given in THE EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO DEATH
VALLEY NATIONAL PARK (1995) -- Bryan & Bryan; and on author's personal field notes.
9 Per phone conversation with the Ridgecrest office of the Bureau of Land Management February 2, 1998.
10 DESERT SHADOWS: A TRUE STORY OF THE CHARLES MANSON FAMILY IN DEATH VALLEY -- Murphy (1993) -- various pages
11 DESERT SHADOWS -- page 21, photo page 22.
12 A friend once topped the summit traveling east and was nearly hit by a Jeep driven by a teenager who literally jumped the summit and nearly hit my friend. The teenager's Jeep suffered considerable front end damage.
13 Anvil Spring was named in 1867 when a blacksmith anvil was found in the spring. Prospectors some years earlier decided that it was not worth hauling the anvil with them when they determined that their nearby prospects were not bringing results to their liking.
14 Roads lead to Redlands Canyon on the west slope of the Panamint Range and Willow Spring in Anvil Spring Canyon. Most lead to dead ends at small prospects or springs.
15 As of this writing (February 1998), the weather phenomenon "El Nino" is making an impact on the desert regions with heavy rain and snow in the
16 Prices for Chevron regular unleaded in December 1997 were $1.77 and premium unleaded $1.94 per gallon. Prices have fallen slightly since then, but Death Valley area gas prices are always considerably higher.
17 Some references list Bennett's Well as their campsite, though others give evidence that it was actually the springs at the Eagle Borax Works where the emigrants made their camp.
18 HALF A CENTURY CHASING RAINBOWS -- October 1930 TOURING TOPICS. See also LOAFING ALONG DEATH VALLEY TRAILS: A PERSONAL NARRATIVE OF PEOPLE AND PLACES (1951) -- Caruthers -- pages 121, 122.
19 INYO REGISTER, March 19, 1936. See also DESERT PADRE: THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF FATHER JOHN J. CROWLEY 1891-1940 (1997) -- Brooks -- pages 152-159.
Return to: Goler Canyon Byway
Death Valley National Park
Surviving Summer in Death Valley
Ballarat Ghost Town
A Castle in the Desert
Death Valley Scotty
Death Valley Winter Washout
Death Valley Weekend Field Trip, 1996
Death Valley Reprieve
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