My night on a concrete floor in Panamint City was the worst camping experience of my adult life. Really, there was nothing redeeming about any aspect of it, so entertain me while I complain momentarily, completely aware that this is all my own fault!
The sleeping bag was a disaster. In fairness to @mrs.turbodb - who warned me of this when I borrowed the bag from her - the fact that I could barely fit my shoulders into the bag, much less adjust my body at all once I was mummified, was super uncomfortable. Add to the fact that it was a 35°F bag - and it was 28°F for much of the night - and it was a recipe for disaster. But hey, the size helped to keep it lighter on my shoulders, right!?
The pad was even worse. I've gotten so accustomed to my Exped Megamat - with its insulated 4" thickness - that sleeping on a 20 year old, 18" wide, ¾" thick Thermarest was pure torture. I'm sure it was better than sleeping directly on the concrete, but not much.
And of course, the night was long and cold. With 14 hours of darkness and snow covering the ground, the thought of losing the little heat my situation retained to take a pee was not at all appealing.
The one redeeming factor - I suppose - was the tent I'd found. Not because it was a great tent, but simply because it provided a small barrier between me and any rodents or insects that could have been attracted to my sleeping bag. Small wins, ehh?
At least I found a spot that was sheltered from the 20mph winds that carried on for most of the night.
Everything was a little too small and a little too thin for me. But hey, it was lighter to carry!
Checking the time became a regular occurrence as I shivered through the night. At 6:00am - still a little more than 30 minutes before sunrise - I realized that I could warm up by getting an early start on the first of several hikes for the day. I'd slept in all my clothes, so it was "easy" - and by easy, I mean a struggle - to extract myself from the sleeping bag, put on my shoes, and be ready to go.
Early morning light over the "Panamint Hilton."
In the near distance, my first destination - the mill for the Wyoming Mine.
The mill - in operation until 1984 and most notably used for the Wyoming Mine - is the best example of a modern mill in Death Valley National Park. Powered by a large diesel generator housed in the workshop below the mill, the ore was screened at the top ore bin, pulverized in the jaw crusher beneath it, then transported on a conveyor belt to the cylindrical metal bin. From there it dropped into the mill's two-story building, where it was cycled repeatedly through two enormous tumblers (ball mills) and a rake classifier before being treated in a cyanide tank.
At a location as remote as this, a stockpile of fuel is the lifeblood of a mill.
Ultimately, I decided to tackle this structure from the top to bottom, opting to get all of my uphill climbing out of the way at the beginning. For now, anyway.
Behind the mill, the blasting room walls - protected by a thick steel door - are still lined with wooden shelves, once filled with dynamite and detonators.
Also behind the mill, Lewis Tunnel extends 750 perfectly straight yards into the mountain. A failed attempt to intercept the rich Wyoming vein, 1000 feet up the slope, the entrance is visible from the back wall of both forks.
Even after exploring the blasting room and Lewis Tunnel, the sun still hadn't reached the horizon, lending a purple hue to the landscape as I began my exploration of the mill.
The top ore bin and grizzly bars used to screen out larger material.
A conveyor moved material to the main mill after it passing through a jaw crusher below the upper ore bin.
I found it curious that the two tumblers - on either side of the rake separator - were so different from each other.
A reader of the story related some additional information to me on the tumblers at the Wyoming Mill, which I thought interesting and worth sharing, as it provides details on the internals of a ball mill/tumbler that I wasn't familiar with:
Those tumblers you pictured at the Wyoming Mill are typically called ball mills. They ordinarily are filled with steel grinding media which crush the ore as the mill rotates and they are lifted up to tumble down when they reach angle of repose and the ore gets pinched between the media and broken up.
One of the nice things about ball mills is that if they are cared for, they hold up really well and many run 100 years or more. As a result, many mills for small deposits are built with used mills and so you often see completely different designs as is the case for these two mills.
Typically, depending on the ore being crushed there would be an optimal length to diameter ratio to size the ground material to the best particle size to extract the desired precious metals. The bolts on the shell typically hold liner plates to prevent the carbon steel shell from being worn by the media. The liners are usually high chrome white iron which is incredibly hard material and these liners usually get replaced periodically as they wear out. They often include lifter bars which help lift the media to ensure that the maximum amount of energy is available for size reduction.
Looking at the installation I suspect the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rarely visited this mill since there is no guarding anywhere and I suspect the ladders and handrails were probably pretty lame. Back in the 80s MSHA probably was more lenient than they are today. You would never get away with operating anything that funky today.
The switch gear looks like typical used crap scavenged from other industrial plants (although most of it looks like Westinghouse so it is possible it was new).
A dozen cyanide tanks were the final stage of processing.
Cyanide wasn't nice to the painted steel, apparently.
Just need to find the right switch...
My exploration of the mill complete, it was time to make a plan for the day. Knowing that I had a lot of ground to cover - perhaps too much for a single day of exploration and the return hike down Surprise Canyon - I decided that there was no sense in playing it safe. Rather, I'd shoot to visit everything, knowing that I could "turn around" at any point if I felt that it was getting too late to head back.
And, given that it'd taken about 6 hours to hike up to Panamint City, I figured the hike down would take about 4 hours - meaning I had to leave around 12:30pm, and giving me approximately 6 hours to explore the side canyons and mines.
Having decided to shoot for the moon, I spent a few more minutes looking at my GPS and planning out the most efficient route. This - naturally - caused my brain to short circuit, but when the haze cleared out, I'd come to the conclusion that I could hike up Water Canyon without carrying all my gear before returning to explore Panamint City. Then, I could start my trek "down" by hiking another 1,100-feet up to the Wyoming Mine and then searching for a partly cross-country route to the Hemlock Mine, spitting me out a mile below town at the mouth of Marvel Canyon.
Water Canyon - Thompson Camp, Curran Mine, Blue Jay Mine
Happy to be hiking without my pack, I made great time up Water Canyon, reaching Thompson Camp just as the sun was peeking over the horizon and lighting the very top of the canyon's spectacular eastern wall. Towering more than 3,000-above the wash in which I walked, this mile-long tableau of granite fins - dating from the Cretaceous period - is the source behind the mineral wealth for all mines around Panamint City.
Thompson Camp has seen better days - the cabins are overgrown, but there are some intriguing remains of a small mill on the hillside.
Pushing my way through the willows that line the creek flowing down Water Canyon - notably, the source of water for Panamint City - I found the road leading to the Curran Mine and began my first real ascent for the day - 700 feet in just under a mile.
This was the most colorful adit I'd see on the entire trip! The vein exploited here is well mineralized with pyrrhotite, pyrite, marcasite, and a little chalcopyrite and siderite.
The main attraction - for me - of the Curran Mine - was the promise of "two desiccated tree trunks serving as a rickety tramway tower standing outside the uppermost tunnel like esoteric modern art." (Digonnet)
Though a little worse for wear, I wasn't disappointed!
The Curran once produced approximately one ounce of gold per ton of ore - amazingly rich!
Retracing my steps down from the Curran Mine, the sun finally crested Panamint Pass and Sentinel Peak to the south. Immediately warming the air, I finally shed the red puffy jacket that'd kept me alive through the cold night as I progressed a mile further up Water Canyon to the Blue Jay Mine.
While the Curran Mine appeared to be a smaller operation, the Blue Jay was clearly a larger affair. Its main shaft - now collapsed - was well collared with large timbers, and peering in through the rubble, a large, inclined shaft (1 of 5) was steeply inclined and littered with fallen rocks. Unlike the Curran, there were no dramatic colors on the walls - it was poorly mineralized.
An old barrel at the Blue Jay Mine from Standard Oil of California. Wonder if they're still looking for it..
The real prize of the 1,100-foot climb to the Blue Jay workings was the view of a snow-covered Sentinel Peak.
I have to admit - as I looked out over Panamint City from high above - that I felt pretty good. Only 90 minutes after sunrise, I'd already explored an entire side canyon. Maybe this overly-ambitious schedule I'd cooked up would actually work out!
And so, oblivious to the realities of the rest of my day, I headed back down to explore the town of Panamint City.
The Town of Panamint City
As often seems to be the case, my route back into town from Water Canyon wasn't quite the same as my route out of town had been - a function of leaving via a lower road on the south side of the creek and returning by a higher road to the north. This - I hoped - would spit me out near a few cabins I could see on the hillside, saving me the trouble of walking down to the center of town and back up again.
On my way into town, I ran into one of the main water tanks that served residents.
Yep, it was a cold morning.
As I hoped, the road passed by all three of the cabins I could see from the center of town; none of them in great shape, but all of them worth exploring. Each of them weathered and in varying states of disrepair, their water-stained siding gleamed in the morning sun as I made my way from one to the other in turn.
Double-Z-Door Cabin. The front room in this cabin was reasonably clean, and could have been a nice flat place to setup a tent.
The middle cabin is rather unremarkable and in the roughest shape of the three.
The third cabin - signed as the "overflow cabin" - was the most well put together of the bunch, and its bench offered a welcome place to soak in some of the morning rays.
Inside the overflow cabin, rodents have taken up residence.
After enjoying the view from the bench of the overflow cabin for a few minutes - something I could have done for much longer had I not over-planned my stay - I gathered up my camera gear and descended the final 60 feet so I could poke around the buildings that make up the city center.
This old ore cart caught my eye just outside the city center. Heavy duty in order to survive the harsh conditions, the wheels were lined with concrete and the entire cart was constructed of heavy steel.
The dumping system was a series of steel rollers.
The story of Panamint City began late in the fall of 1872, when veteran prospector Richard Jacobs and his partner Robert Stewart trudged up a nameless canyon in the western Panamints, hoping to locate the source of silver float Jacobs had spotted earlier in the lower canyon. Back then, this was rough, unchartered wilderness. Ballarat, Lookout, Skidoo, and most other local legends were not yet on the map. Only a handful of emigrants had set foot in Panamint Valley. But both men had a keen eye for minerals: Jacobs had spent much of his life prospecting in California and Mexico, and Stewart had prospected up and down Panamint Valley for a decade. Deep in the mountain, the canyon flared into a valley so unexpectedly green that they called it Surprise Canyon. It was there, on the pine-dotted slopes, that they discovered the silver-bearing quartz veins they had been looking for, which would soon give birth to Panamint City. When they returned to civilization a few days later, pushed back by an early snowfall, they found that their samples assayed hundreds of dollars per ton. Anxious to secure their discovery, they returned in April 1873 and claimed the richest ground they could find. Jacobs optimistically named his the Wonder of the World, and Stewart located the Stewart's Wonder.
The discovery occurred in the wake of rich silver strikes at Cerro Gordo and Nevada's Comstock, and it sparked wild speculation. Throngs of prospectors and miners rushed to Surprise Canyon. By the end of 1873 every square foot of ground that showed the slightest promise had been claimed, and the Panamint Mining District was in place. Jacobs was first to develop his property. In association with a few friends, he incorporated the Panamint Mining Company in November and hired no fewer than three dozen miners to sink exploratory shafts. The following summer he hauled a second-hand mill to his mine, hoping to reduce his ore to a hefty $1,000 per ton.
Mining didn't start in earnest, however, until Nevada senators John Jones and William Stewart stepped in. Both men had just made a fortune at the Comstock Mine, Jones as a superintendent and Stewart as a lawyer. In the summer of 1874, they and a lawyer partner, Trenor Park, purchased almost every claim in sight, as well as Jacobs' mill, for about $250,000. This high-stake acquisition triggered a second, even wilder rush, one of the biggest the Death Valley region ever witnessed.Hiking Western Death Valley National Park
Several buildings are clustered at the crossroad on the valley floor - a two-room plywood cabin with glass windows and a one time working tap that's earned it the nickname, "Panamint Hilton," a large workshop constructed of steel beams, and a quarried stone quadrangle where I'd shivered away the night, just a few hours before.
Welcome to the Panamint City Hilton.
Over the years, visitors have lovingly left art for others to enjoy. I'm not sure if I appreciate this or not, as the context behind these relics - and where they were discovered - is now unclear.
Inside is certainly cared for - and livable in a pinch - though rodent droppings are plentiful on most surfaces.
Like The Castle, a guest book, instructions, and lots of historical information could keep one occupied for hours!
"Nearly died. 10/10 would do again." -me
Ultimately, I must admit to being a little underwhelmed with the cabins of Panamint City proper. Certainly, running into any of these structures elsewhere in the desert would have been a welcome discovery, but I think I'd built up the greatness of this ghost town to be something more - a series of shelters still in nearly-livable condition, rodent-free and complete with running water. Of course, time - and visitation - takes its toll on places like this, and today, these cabins are like many others you'd find elsewhere in Death Valley.
Still, the experience itself - difficult as it was - was awesome. 10/10 would do again!
The Wyoming and Hemlock Mines
While planning my trip to Panamint City, two elements had really piqued my interest. The first - which I'd already experienced and had checked all the boxes - was the smelter smokestack that stands tall above the town. The second - visiting the Wyoming mine on the hillside south of town - promised an encounter with a historic aerial tramway, and the challenge of finding a historic connector trail to the Hemlock Mine, the districts largest producer.
Even during planning, I was acutely aware that the Wyoming and Hemlock mines might be unattainable goals on such a short trip. Others - much more experienced than me (ahem, Digonnet) - allot four days to cover the ground I was attempting to traverse in 36 hours. Yet, at 10:55am - only a couple hours before I'd planned to head back down Surprise Canyon - I made the decision to start up the 2-mile-long trail toward the Wyoming Mine. Surely, climbing 1,100 vertical feet of snow-covered road, photographing two levels of Wyoming Mine workings and aerial tramways, finding the historic connector trail, and hiking an additional 3.7 miles to the explore and photograph the Hemlock Mine - all before rejoining the Surprise Canyon trail a mile below Panamint City - could be done in that time.
Remember kids, if you ignore reality, you can create your own.
As I started up the road to the lower workings of the Wyoming, views all the way to Panamint Valley and the Argus Range filled my view.
Here in the shade of northern slopes, the entire hike took place in 3-5 inches of snow.
Looking to the north, it was a nice surprise to see Telescope Peak (center) towering above.
Knowing I was pushing it from a timing perspective, I reached the lower workings - 700' above the town center - in less than half an hour. Here, a shed built in the 1970s housed a blower that once ventilated the 1,000 foot-long tunnel - the old canvas ducting disappearing into darkness as it clung to the wall.
It was significantly warmer in the mountain than it was outside, snow covering the blower shed at the mouth of the adit.
I never found out what was around that first bend.
This lower-level working was also where the aerial tram towers - built in 1875 and refurbished in 1925 by the Panamint Mining Company - that I'd been anticipating were located, though they were just out of sight of the workings, making me thankful that I'd re-read the description of their location just prior to embarking on this hike.
Lighting wasn't the best, but aerial tramways are - for some reason even I can't explain - one of my favorite features of old mines, so I was happy to add another to my list!
Continuing up the side of the mountain, I covered the final half mile and 400 vertical feet - to the upper workings of the Wyoming Mine - in just under 15 minutes, my puffy coat unnecessary, even in the snow-covered, shady confines below Sentinel Peak.
Here at the end of the road are an interesting mix of modern and historic remains. Guarded by a modern generator on rubber tires, a rail track links the historic tunnel to a trestle bridge, where the ore was dumped into the aerial tramway (now collapsed) before being lowered 1,100 feet to the mill in Panamint City.
A diesel tank and generator at the upper workings of the Wyoming.
Still, nearly, ready for service.
Unfortunately, the historic tunnel - accessible until at least 2019 - has collapsed, leaving only a narrow gap at the top of the collar from which one can peer into the darkness. Here, now trapped and inaccessible, two functional ore cars are still parked inside the tunnel.
Oh, how I'd have loved to push one of those carts!
My exploration of the Wyoming Mine complete, it was almost exactly noon, and I had a decision to make: head back down the way I'd come, skipping the Hemlock Mine but giving myself a good chance of descending Surprise Canyon before sunset, attempt to link together a few historic trails and cross-country scrambles to find the Hemlock Mine.
My heart set on the Hemlock, I pulled up Digonnet's description of the route to convince myself that it was a bad idea:
The Hemlock Mine was the district's largest producer, and it is also the most impressive. It [...] can be reached two ways. The longer but foolproof route is down Surprise Canyon to the Hemlock Mine Road (0.95 mile, on the south side), then up this road [for 1.8 very steep miles up Marvel Canyon].
The second route is the connector trail used in historic days to haul the Hemlock Mine ore to the Wyoming tramway for easier access to the mill. It is a little shorter, and it avoids struggling up the tailings, but it is far less obvious. To reach [it], follow a faint trail around the ridge [from the upper workings for] 0.2 miles, to a wide tailing. The next stretch is a little complicated. Scramble 80 feet up the slope to an even fainter second level trail and follow it south a short distance until it ends. Scramble again another 80 feet up to a third, faint, level trail [which can be followed to the Hemlock Mine].
Obviously - with snow making already faint trails made even more difficult to find - I made the irresponsible decision to push on.
Scrambling over snowy trails and up hillsides covered in ice, there were several points at which I wondered if I'd made the right decision. If I was forced to turn around, the descent was going to be significantly more difficult down the slippery 45° slopes.
Somehow - and seriously, even I was surprised - I was able to find the uppermost trail, and in the distance, I could see the trail leading to the tailings of the Hemlock Mine!
As I wound around on the connector trail, I found this historic, burro-drawn, ore cart blocking the route.
A little further on, artifacts from a collapsed cabin lay in the snow. (What is the item on the left?)
The closer I got to the Hemlock Mine, the more the trail improved. Quite a lot of work went into several sections, though time is obviously beginning to take a toll.
Anyone who'd summited Telescope Peak behind me could have kept a close eye on my progress as I trapsed through the snow.
It took me an hour - from the time I left the Wyoming Mine - to reach the lower tailings of the Hemlock.
What is particularly impressive here is the height of the two tailings, which are one above the other. Combined, they completely engulf the ravine over an elevation drop of over 350 feet! My plan had been to explore the main tunnel - located above the lower tailings - which follows a smooth vertical fault plane on one side and is solid quartz on the other, eventually opening to a cathedral-like chamber with a high ceiling streaked in reds and yellows.
Unfortunately for me, the tailings - which are difficult to climb on the best of days, the pea-sized gravel making upward progress painstaking at best - were covered in two inches of ice, eliminating any chance of reaching the top.
The ice-covered, 60° slope of the tailings pile was intimidating to say the least.
In fact, initially I wasn't even sure how I'd make it down the tailings to the road - and I momentarily considered backtracking the entirety of the way I'd come - until I found a 10-foot length of small-guage rail track that I could use to both crack the ice and as a brace to "safely" make my way down the sheet of ice.
It was 2:00pm when I reached the bottom of the tailings and breathed a huge sigh of relief. After sending a message on my inReach Mini that I was no longer "doing something sketchy," I took a moment to soak in the spectacular views of the landscape below.
The contrasting walls of Surprise Canyon, a small slice of Panamint Valley, and the Argus and Sierra Mountains rising up in the distance, were all the reward I needed to conclude my time at Panamint City.
It was a 2:30pm - couple hours later than I'd hoped - when I reached the mouth of Marvel Canyon where it joined the Surprise Canyon trail that I'd hiked in the opposite direction just 24 hours before.
Racing Down Surprise Canyon
With only two hours until sunset, I knew that I was really going to have to hoof it in order to avoid navigating the slippery Suprise Canyon narrows in the dark. Grabbing the last of my trail mix and a few slices of dry mango - I hadn't brought much food, knowing I'd only be gone for 36 hours - from my pack, I picked up the pace as I raced the sun through the upper elevations of the canyon.
Bright rock against dark shadows.
As had been the case on the way up, a maze of paths crisscrossed the wash and while I generally seemed to follow my original route, there were places where I found entirely new experiences.
I'd somehow missed this tree tunnel - the easy route - on my way up.
With just over six miles to cover - I'd joined the Surprise Canyon route one mile below Panamint City by hiking six extra miles to the Wyoming and Hemlock mines - things were looking good as I maintained a 4mph pace through the upper canyon. Even as I reacquired my Muck boots - thankfully unoccupied by local riff-raff - for the wet section, I knew that I even if I didn't make it back technically before sunset, there would still be plenty of light, such that I wasn't walking in the dark.
As the rays of the sun got longer, the light became more saturated, reflecting an orange glow to even the shadowed walls.
The billion-year-old white aplite of the lower canyon glowed the most beautiful hues as it was enveloped by shade.
I'd made it. Tag, you're it!