Death Valley – The Panamints – Pt.1

It’s that time of the year again and at this point Death Valley in February has become tradition.

For those of us in usual sunny So-Cal, we’ve had an anomaly this winter when it comes to weather. From drought to nearly full reservoirs in a single season and reported record breaking snow levels in the Sierra’s. To top it all off, we had the “biggest storm” in 10-20 years coming in on President’s Day weekend. This sounded like the absolute perfect time to go.

We monitored the weather closely as the weekend came closer and closer. We talked about if it was worth it to go – both safety and general comfort/enjoyment wise. We were bringing kids… That alone adds a whole new dynamic to camping in the elements.

In the end we went for it.

Friday nights traffic was absolutely horrendous. The Cajon Pass was a disaster with the southbound lanes being closed due to a firetruck falling off the side of a eroding shoulder. The northbound wasn’t much better with dirt and rocks being washed onto the freeway. I took us a little over 2 hours to travel 13 miles. Chris and Alissa, coming from the I-15 spent more then 3 and a half hours to travel roughly the same distance.

Once on the 395 things got better traffic wise, but the weather still made it cautious and eventful drive. Numerous washouts, debris in the road, cars flipped over and wrecked on the shoulder. Yeee!

Finally we made it to our turnoff from Trona Wildrose Road onto Nadeau Road. Scattered throughout the Argus Range there are quite a few cabins, a couple that we’ve been to previously. This time we wanted to check out the Kopper King Cabin.

Neat idea! I think this may be the first that I’ve seen and hope it’ll be adopted to others. Some of these cabins are very remote and take a decent amount of time to get to. Not knowing if they are occupied until you finally arrive seeing the flag put up or vehicles. This saves that hassle.

Even though it was into the morning hours when we got here and we were all beat from the drive, it was still nice to spend a some time hanging out and winding down a bit in the refuge and warmth of the cabin.

The rain didn’t stop all night and at times it would bucket down. All 3 Tepui’s did great considering the conditions. Although the fabric was damp, we were nice and dry inside and it was nice not to be on the muddy/saturated ground.

It took us a bit to get in the groove in the morning and many rounds of coffee were needed to get ready to life. Us guys began cleanup while the ladies and kids cooked up a delicious breakfast.

Everything. Is. Soaked.

Ready to move on to the Panamint Mountains

Our first destination would be to head up South Park canyon and visit Briggs and the Stone Cabins.

PC: Alissa R.

PC: Alissa R.

Rain had filled up the Alkali Flats with water, so much so that water was flowing over the road leading to Ballarat. I went first and carefully felt how the truck was reacting and made sure there was solid ground. After a few yards, it seemed alright and radio’d the crew to make their way.

PC: Alissa R.

Set south on Wingate Road towards the trail that would lead us up to the Briggs cabin. A few miles along we made the left and begin the journey up the west side of the Panamint Mountains and eventually into the pass in which the cabins were located. There were some concerns about the trail conditions as a result of the storms that have pounded the area and decided it would be best to play it by year and see if there was trail deterioration.

PC: Alissa R.

PC: Alissa R.

The further we went up, the more it became evident this trail wasn’t going to be one that we wanted to tackle this trip. As I scouted ahead there were a few sections that I came across that just wasn’t worth it. A group decision was made to turn around and try again sometime in the future.

No shame in saying that we’re not hardcore “wheeler’s”. We’ve spent our time going fast when desert racing and as a result we’ve broken equipment and put vehicles on their lids more then once. Cuts, scrapes, bruises and concussions. Been there done that. These trips are meant to be relaxing and fun and once that’s replaced by being laborious and uncomfortable it’s a sign of going the wrong direction. Adding to the fact that kids are with us for many of our trips makes it that much more apparent that safety is #1. Could we have continued on and not had a issue? Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. Was it right right choice to do that? No.

While waiting for the group to turn around, noticed 3 Jeeps crossing the Alkali Flat far off in the distance

Pointing back downhill we made our way back to the valley floor. Just a bit north lays Pleasant Canyon that takes you past various mines, Clair Camp, the World Beater Cabin and eventually to the top of the mountain where it connects with Middle Park.

PC: Alissa R.

Before driving up to Pleasant Canyon we made a stop on a nice flat area to let the kids do kid things.

Pleasant Canyon was more of what we were looking for. A bit more laid back and the kids really enjoyed crossing back and forth the creek that was running from melting snow.

PC: Alissa R.

We came up to our first stop, Clair Camp. A bit unusual looking with a couple modern day trailers. The spooky mood was set with the knowing the back story and the thick fog moving through the area.

Comparing to previous photos I’ve seen from a few years ago, looks like there is some restoration taking place on some of the cabins, which is always great to see.

From Death Valley Jim – Clair Camp is one of the more significant landmarks that still exists in Pleasant Canyon today. Numerous buildings still stand, and the adobe buildings are said to date back to the camps beginnings in 1897. The mill itself is extremely impressive, a good portion of which is still intact despite many years of neglect and vandalism.

The Ratcliff mine which is located 2,400 feet above the camp began production in 1896 under the ownership of Henry Ratcliff. In its first five years of production it is estimated that it produced over a half a million dollars worth of gold. Upwards of 200 men worked at the mine and lived at the camp below. The camp included a Blacksmith shop, an assaying office, and other unknown businesses.

By 1905, the Ratcliff mine stopped operation. In 1930, W.D. Clair would purchase the Ratcliff Mine. Clair worked the tailings that had been left twenty-five years previous, and was able to extract $60,000 in gold ore.

There are reports that in the 1960s and 70s that a caretaker lived on site. On one known occasion the caretaker robbed and murdered two men that had been up to the camp exploring. During his attempt to cover up the crime, another vehicle came up the canyon and caught him in the act. They turned around, head back down the canyon, and report the incident to authorities.

In May of 2012, CMC Metals Ltd. would announce the purchase of the Ratcliff and the nearby Worldbeater Mine, however at the time of this writing there is no new mining taking place at either mines.

PC: Alissa R.

From Clair Camp, we ventured higher up the mountain to hopefully check out the World Beater Cabin but as we got closer it was already occupied. Snow was seen in the distance and the kids had a desire to freeze their little hands and as a result we made our way up.

PC: Alissa R.

PC: Alissa R.

Ended up at a great turn off to let the kids do their thing in the snow and have lunch. Since the snow wasn’t too deep we wanted to try and make it to the lookout over Butte Valley but that idea was quickly shot down when a group of modified Jeeps came from that direction saying it was too deep for them to make it all the way. With that news, we made it a point to return and complete the loop from Pleasant Canyon thru Middle Park and South Park Canyon.

Heading back down the mountain, it looked like the clouds were breaking up reveling a vibrant blue sky above. We were all a bit relieved in knowing that we wouldn’t be suffering through another rainy night.

PC: Alissa R.

On top of the world

PC: Alissa R.

Wondering where all the miners went.

PC: Alissa R.

Earlier in the day we found a nice camping spot and decided to head back to the location.

PC: Alissa R.

PC: Alissa R.

Back across the Alkali Flat – PC. Alissa R.

What appears to have possibly been a old aircraft navigation arrow at one point then turned into a place for mining operations was the perfect spot. A large, flat concrete foundation with concrete blocks worked out and was a welcomed change to the terrain we usually stay. It proved to be perfect for the kids too!

PC: Alissa R.

PC: Alissa R.

Future explorers, campers, off-roaders…

With camp all setup, dinner cooked and lighting a stubborn fire from soaked wood – it was time to relax and take in the sunset and night time views.

Too be continued….

By | 2017-03-10T07:53:28+00:00 February 23rd, 2017|Trip Reports|0 Comments

About the Author:

Desert explorer. Photographer. Vehicle enthusiast. In constant pursuit to find something new. Mining history buff.

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