A Death Valley National Park 4x4 Byway
Text and photos by D.A. Wright
The Panamint Mountains rise from the floor of Death Valley to form its western barrier. This immense range of twisted, sharply creased sedimentary rock is crossed by only one road south of Wildrose and Emigrant Canyons,1 that accesses Death Valley itself. This desert byway pierces the heart of the Panamint Range, running between Wingate Road south of the ghost town of Ballarat, and West Side Road in Death Valley. The route crosses the summit of the Panamints at 4,328-foot-high Mengel Pass, via Goler Canyon, Butte Valley and Warm Springs Canyon.
This crossing can be a pleasant trip for off-road enthusiasts and has several important historical sites along the way. This route can be taken as a circular tour, or explored in sections. It can be run in both directions, using any of the Death Valley campgrounds or settlements as a starting point. For this article, I will trace the route west to east, from Ballarat to Furnace Creek Ranch.
At Ballarat Ghost Town, an oiled road turns south. This will begin our byway. This road looks relatively smooth, but resist the temptation to make time. Although on the valley floor, the road seemingly follows each contour along the foot of the range and can make sudden curves when least expected. The first mile of the road skirts the picturesque mesquite thickets and pooled water at Post Office Spring. It was here that outlaws of the last century communicated with the outside world. As the road progresses south, several canyons are passed, most with roads that run into the range for a distance, then dead-end.
At 7.9 miles, the Briggs Mine complex is reached, and the oiled road suddenly ends. Watch for the precautionary signs indicating crossing truck traffic. 8 The road south from Briggs promptly deteriorates to a rough washboard. Panamint Valley narrows as it runs south, and soon the road begins to be closed in by the Panamint Range on the east, and the Slate Range on the west.
At 14.9 miles, the road turns sharply east. This is Goler Canyon Road. Goler Canyon Road, climbs the alluvial fan for 1.5 miles to reach the narrows of Goler Canyon. The climb up the alluvium is hard packed and presents no challenges. At the canyon mouth is a good time to shift into low-range four-wheel-drive, as there are two rough sections a short distance ahead. This narrow slot is not a good spot to get caught in a flash flood!
The canyon is only a bit wider than the road for the first 0.6 miles. Both bad spots are quite short and only require enough ground clearance and well-placed tires to keep vital parts from touching bedrock. There is a small spring between the two points; ice during cold weather may add to the danger. In December 1997, I found a fair amount of fresh oil on the rock indicating someone was careless, and that probably ruined his day. I ran a stock 1996 Chevrolet S-10 extended cab pickup then, and stock tires. A bit of stone moving and guidance from a friend watching my undercarriage made for a successful crossing.
Immediately ahead, the canyon gradually widens and the road improves. The next couple of miles pass by a scattering of mine workings, tramway cables and a small cabin with a sign indicating the Newman Mine. A stream of water is usually found running down the road from Lower Lotus Spring, which can be icy but not dangerous. There are always fresh signs of burros on the roadways, and if you're lucky, you can spot a pair or two of ears sticking above the brush or a jack trotting away from your vehicle.
At a point 4.5 miles up Goler Canyon from the junction with Wingate Road, the Keystone Mine camp is seen hugging the south side of the canyon. The camp appears occupied, though in December 1997 it was abandoned. All manner of equipment and vehicles are on both sides of the road and at the camp.
A road can be seen zigzagging up the south canyon wall to the Keystone Mine portal. The road is public domain, though the equipment, vehicles and structures found at the mine are private property.9 Some good views of the Panamint Valley can be seen at the mine portal near the top of the canyon wall. Standard self-disciplinary precautions are urged when exploring this region.
Continuing up Goler Canyon Road, 1.2 miles east of the Keystone Mine camp is Sourdough Spring. Just beyond you will find a sign indicating that you have entered Death Valley National Park.
At 1.5 miles from Keystone Mine camp a road will turn off to the right (south). You'll want to take this short detour, as this will take you into a hidden side canyon to the Barker Ranch, notorious for the last holdout of Charles Manson and his family until their capture here in October 1969. This idyllic scene today doesn't testify to the horrific events that took place in Los Angeles miles and decades away. It was here that Charles Manson sought refuge, concealment and a place to launch his personal interpretation of Armageddon.10 (More on Barker Ranch Detour)
Return to Goler Canyon Road
Back on the Goler Canyon Road, turn right and continue eastward. From here, the canyon narrows and begins to snake around a bit. As you near the top of this narrow, but shallow canyon, there appears to be a fork in the road, a branch turning right. This climbs a short but steep distance and rejoins the main road, but those with less of a need for adrenaline should continue ahead. Just a short distance beyond, a road branches left, but this ends shortly. The road and canyon bottom turn back east, then the road emerges onto an upland plateau. Here the road appears to gently approach the summit, but periodically there are large boulders that protrude onto the roadway and a few places require stepping the vehicle up and over them.
At 3.4 miles past where you rejoined the road from the Barker Ranch road, Mengel Pass, elevation 4,328 feet, is reached. The summit is abrupt, so here is a good spot to slow down and pull off the road to enjoy the view east.12 There is a stone cairn on the left side of the summit dedicated to Carl Mengel, who lived between 1868 and 1944. Carl came to the area in 1912 and lived out his life here. At his request, his ashes were interred here.
Beyond Mengel Pass, the road turns north. Periodic boulder stepping is required, and a short, steep climb is encountered before settling down into Butte Valley. Striped Butte dominates the north end of the valley with its unusual patterns. 1.6 miles northeast of Mengel Pass, a house and trees can be seen off to the west. This is the home of Carl Mengel. There are two roads, about 0.2 miles apart, that seem to run to Mengel's home. A short distance up the first one, a second road branches off and goes up to a house hidden in the mouth of a canyon. This idyllic spot is known as Russell Camp, built by Asa Russell, aka "Panamint Russ."
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.
Two-tenths of a mile beyond the second road west to the Russell Camp and Mengel 's home is the so-called "Geologist's Cabin" or "Stone Cabin," near the side of the road. This small cabin sits above Anvil Spring and its solitary cottonwood tree.13 Usually, this cabin is open for public use.
Five roads branch off from Geologist's Cabin. This junction is known locally as Anvil Springs Junction. Roads lead to various places, and all invite backcountry exploration. But for this article, we'll ignore these branches and continue ahead on the obvious road leading northeast from Butte Valley.14 The road continues ahead through the narrowing valley, then tops a gentle summit at 4.5 miles from Anvil Spring Junction.
Warm Springs Canyon
From here, the road begins to descend Warm Springs Canyon. The road is rough, but presents no special challenges. There are several poor roads that branch off inviting exploration in the next 6.8 miles, but caution is advised until the Park Service is consulted, due to ever changing conditions.15
11.3 miles east of Anvil Springs Junction, the camp of the Warm Springs Mine dominates the scene with large trees, buildings, sheds and mining equipment. There are several ochre-colored buildings buried within the Tamarisk trees. These buildings were last occupied about 1980, when the mine complex was owned and operated by Pfizer Corporation. Buildings are in rather dilapidated shape when I last went inside them in September 1996, but were not obviously vandalized. (See Update.)
West Side Road
At 11.0 miles from Warm Springs, the junction with West Side Road is reached. From here, one has two choices: turn north and enjoy the historic spots of the West Side Road, or turn south and reach the pavement of East Side Road in 2.1 miles. For those who choose pavement, the town of Shoshone can be reached 32.7 miles away, or you can run north and reach Furnace Creek in 42.8 miles. For those who favor continuing on dirt, Furnace Creek will be reached after 42.9 miles. Chevron brand gasoline is available at both locations 16. Food and lodging are also found at Shoshone and Furnace Creek.
Our byway will take us north along West Side Road. Compared to what was traversed, this section is a virtual freeway and is regularly maintained. For the first time since turning onto Goler Canyon Road, 37.0 miles west, I shifted my truck back out of low range four-wheel-drive and back into two-wheel-drive. It had taken me 5 hours and 53 leisurely minutes to traverse the Panamint Range, though I enjoyed a couple of short detours along the way and lunch at the Geologist's Cabin.
West Side Road follows the Death Valley floor north along the foot of the Panamint Range. You will pass three dry wells which serve as landmarks along the way. Continuing north for 3.2 miles along West Side Road, we come to the site of the Eagle Borax Works. It was here that Isadore Daunet found borax in 1875, though he didn't systematically work the deposit until 1882. The large mound east of the road is unprocessed borax left behind; other mounds are found to the east. Water has returned above ground at this site since the Park Service has removed a grove of tamarisk trees. Common to desert settlements, though non-native, these trees can literally suck a spring dry, hoarding huge amounts of water.
After exploring the site of Eagle Borax Works, resist the temptation to get back up to cruising speed, for in a half mile you will come to the dual graves of veteran desert prospectors Shorty Harris and Jim Dayton. The stone grave monument is now buried in a thicket of mesquite about 150 feet east of the road. Keep an eye peeled for two signs spaced fairly close together, indicating that no off-road excursions are permitted.
Continuing north for 1.5 miles, Shorty's Well is reached. This "Shorty" was no relation to Harris. Alexander "Shorty" Borden, who owned mines up in the range west, is the namesake of this now dry hole. In 1.2 miles, Tule Spring is reached. Its water is claimed to be drinkable, but needing treatment (as with any water in the backcountry). North of Tule Spring, the surrounding countryside becomes hard pan. In 5.7 miles, Devil's Speedway is reached. When I drove through in December 1997, the road was pocked with sharply sunken sections, full of water, which eliminated any speeding.
North of the Speedway, the Devil may wish to play a round of golf at Devil's Golf Course, a weird countless-hole playground of jagged spires of crusted salt. Believe it or not, the mule teams traversed this section, and remains of their route can be found a quarter mile north. This road was literally hammered out, as crews flattened the salt spires with sledgehammers. Soon, Salt Creek is crossed, sustaining a visible flow of water only in wet winters. Then after 1.8 miles, the pavement of Badwater Road is finally reached.
Turning south here will allow a visit to Artist's Drive (2.6 miles), Natural Bridge Road (7.0 miles) and Badwater (10.5 miles). Turning north will take the byway traveler to the Furnace Creek complex in 8.1 miles (7.1 miles to Furnace Creek Resort). Along the way to Furnace Creek, Mushroom Rock and Golden Canyon offer for exploration. By now, the backcountry traveler is probably in need of a well-deserved rest. But this tour is only the beginning of a lifetime of exploring the wonders of Death Valley National Park.
Update on the old Pfizer talc mine complex at Warm Springs:
Just returned from trip into Butte Valley 4/16/99. Buildings at Warm Springs Mine area still intact & pool was full of water. Warm Spring flowing. Goler Wash Road passable with experienced driver & 4WD Toyota Four runner. Only 2 bad spots, just before & after Mengel Pass (Very rocky & steep). "cabins" at Anvil & Greater View Springs very clean & well stocked. Volunteer present at Russell cabin. Very enjoyable 4-day trip.
-- Carol Murdock, San Diego,CA.
Update on the old Pfizer talc mine complex at Warm Springs:
I received word that the Park Service has razed the buildings. I emailed a ranger I know regarding this rumor. He confirmed it ... the buildings have been crushed and the scrap hauled away. He alluded that the pool may be next.
Having heard Saturday night (September 26, 1998) that Inyo County Road Department had bladed Goler Canyon Road through the Panamint Range, I decided to check it out for myself and see if that bastion of four-wheeling was tamed.
Goler Canyon Road runs up the west flank of the lofty Panamint Range to Mengel Pass, then turns north then east and drops into the southern end of Death Valley. At the boundary of Death Valley National Park, a road turns south and east and after about a mile reaches Barker Ranch, notorious as the last hideout of Charlie Manson and his "family" during and after the gruesome murder spree instigated by him in Los Angeles.
Goler Canyon Road has always had a reputation as a rough one. The canyon's mouth at the sheer foot of the Panamint's is only a narrow slit, and the byway takes up all of that. A series of dry waterfalls has generally made 4x4 or a dune buggy mandatory. For a short time this past spring, after the torrential rains of El Niño of the winter / spring of 1997 / 1998, Goler Canyon was reportedly impassible to all vehicle traffic.
In May 1998, I traveled to the canyon along with a friend in his 1997 Jeep Wrangler to see if we could make it. My friend's Jeep is stock with exception to 32" BF Goodrich T/A Radials, and a 3" lift. It runs the stock 4-cyl engine and 5-speed transmission. He had also just purchased a winch and was hoping to use it. We managed to get up Goler Canyon but it was challenging and exciting, although we didn't need the winch.
There were two bad spots: the first was at the mouth of the canyon in which there is a short but steep pitch upwards. It was worn down to bedrock, so was a low range crawler. The next bad section is about a mile inside the canyon, in which there was a large dry fall and a series of smaller falls above it. The large fall was washed down to bedrock and a sheer face, a large hole had been eroded at its base. Off-roaders had prior built up a stone ramp to access the top of the fall, but climbing that ramp made up of basketball sized stones with a six to eight foot drop off on one side and overhanging protrusions in the bedrock on the other made for some interesting driving.
Today I drove to Goler Canyon to see if the report of its blading was true. The caretaker at Ballarat General Store told me that Inyo County bladed the road three weeks ago, or the first part of September. And yes, Inyo County did some taming of the road.
But, I'm happy to say, 4x4 is still mandatory. At the canyon's mouth and at the dry fall series, all the bad places where my friend's Jeep had difficulty were still there, though Inyo County has placed a soft bed of gravel on top of the stone ramps that off-roaders had built since the washout. I ran a bone stock 1996 Chevrolet S-10 4x4 pickup with V-6 and 5-speed transmission. I kept it in low range the entire trip up. Over the falls I had it in 2nd gear and my tires tried to dig into the soft gravel (I run 30.9 inch BF Goodrich T/A's), though I was running street tire pressures. That was the only area I had any sort of difficulty, above the first spring and beyond the Newman Cabin, I had no trouble at all.
Inyo County's road work seemed to be limited to pushing away loose stone and rock and defining a road course through the gravel and sand wash in the middle canyon; as well as some drainage work on the sides. They bladed the road to Sourdough Spring at the boundary of Death Valley National Park. The roadwork was most evident from the canyon mouth to the Keystone Mine camp, but from that point to the boundary seemed like it has washed back out a bit (there were some heavy monsoon rains in early September in the area). At those points the road is wherever others have made obvious paths along the wash bottom but posed no problem.
So even though Inyo County has tamed the road, I would heartily recommend 4x4 and truck based 4x4 rigs with low range. There are still some fair sized stones on the road that would snag smaller, car based 4x4 vehicles smaller than a Subaru Outback or Honda CRV. And also at Sourdough Spring, off-road enthusiasts have filled in the main stream channel with dirt, but I was a bit nervous even with my small S-10 crossing it, having the outboard tires skimming the edge and the other side pushed firmly into the heavy grapevines and willows of the springs. I would not recommend a Humvee in here!
I went on up to the Barker Ranch, which had a family camping on the premises, so we said "hello" and turned around and left them in the peace that they had come to enjoy. I did note that the pomegranate bush in front had a nice crop of the fruit hanging from its branches. The ranch house seemed to be in the same shape that I last saw it in during a visit in 1996. I wonder if Charlie ever wonders about "retiring" here?
It was here that Inyo County Sheriff Department and National Park Service law enforcement personnel captured Manson and his followers in 1969. But at the time of his arrest, they really did not know what they had on their hands. All they wanted at the time was to prosecute the person or persons who torched a Park Service front end loader further north at Racetrack Valley, not a mass murder suspect and a flock of doped out kids. A good book to read on the Goler Canyon aspect of the Manson period is DESERT SHADOWS: A TRUE STORY OF THE CHARLES MANSON FAMILY IN DEATH VALLEY by Bob Murphy.
As for the remainder of the road over Mengel Pass and into Butte Valley, I cannot say since I didn't go farther than Barker Ranch on this day. I went over the route last in December 1997 and it was then showing the effects of the heavy winter and spring rains and required some tedious driving.
After Barker Ranch, I drove down to Ballarat and then up to Skidoo and visited the millsite. I had not been to the ghost town since 1990. It hasn't changed a bit. It had nothing then, it has nothing now. Overlooking the townsite from the west in 1990, I could still see (and photographed) the faint grid of the original town streets. But today I could only see one street paralleling the current road through town. It seemed that the same amount of broken glass and 1-gallon tin cans still litter the townsite.
I had not been to the Skidoo Mill before so I looked around and after a while finally found it (I had driven within 500 feet of it on the first road I tried, but stopped at a locked gate and turned around -- there is a small sign on the gate indicating it was a 600 foot walk to the mill). The Park Service appears to be in the process of stabilizing the structure (actually two separate structures are left, all originally under one shell), perched on a near vertical canyon wall. The three batteries of five stamps each are all intact and appear to be complete. There is also a small crusher upstream.
The Park Service has released a study on the millsite this year. It is called SKIDOO STAMP MILL / MINE by Harlan D. Unrau, Death Valley National Park. It is 83 pages long and covers the entire history of the mill, along with a brief history of Skidoo itself. I don't know if it is available to the public, I received a copy courtesy of Blair Davenport, Museum Curator at the museum at Furnace Creek (Furnace_Creek_DEVA_Curatorial@ccmail.itd.nps.gov).
And, if such things are of interest to you, I was able to get a good cell phone signal on the road to Skidoo at the point where you can overlook Furnace Creek, about the junction with the road leading to the Giribaldi Mine. I have found over the years that at any point where Charleston Peak (near Las Vegas) is visible, I can get a signal.
Something to remember if you break down or have an emergency in the back country of Death Valley.
Note this article was written in 1998 and the road conditions change over the years, for the latest road conditions go to https://www.facebook.com/DeathValleyRoadConditions
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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