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Swansea to Cerro Gordo | Inyo West #2

I've been wanting to run the Swansea to Cerro Gordo Road - to visit the uppermost control tower of the Saline Valley Salt Tram - ever since we attempted to hike to the lowest control tower on the Saline Valley side in 2019. While the road itself has its own reputation for a few dangerous and technical sections, it was only a matter of setting aside the time - and figuring out what else to explore in the surrounding area in order to make the trip worthwhile - that'd kept me from visiting.

Today though, that would all change. I'd be running the loop in a clockwise fashion, tackling the hardest and most dangerous obstacles in the apparently more difficult - uphill direction.

Well, I'm definitely getting a shot of that sign!

Running this route solo wasn't my first choice. Initially, I'd planned to run it with Mike @mk5, but a last minute change of plans kept him from joining. Having already waited five years, I opted to push on rather than reschedule; after all, I figured, if things got too hairy, I could always turn around.

Initially, the road seemed rather mundane as I climbed out of Owens Valley. What was all this hype I'd heard?

Reasonably quickly - as I gained elevation - the Sierra began to sneak up behind me.

I was perhaps three miles into the trail when I hit the first rougher section of road. A narrow constriction, heavy rains had been hard at work washing away the gravels and fine material, leaving an uneven, steep, rocky base. This wasn't something that I considered any real trouble - a good line and steady pace, enough to walk the Tacoma through - but it could definitely serve as a nice warning for those who might be worried about what lay ahead.

Looks tame - as always - on the screen.

At the top of the first rough climb, a perfect spot to soak in the view.

It was here that I caught one of my first glimpses of the Salt Tram. I don't know why, but while I'd always envisioned it climbing to the top of the Inyo Mountains, I'd never really given any thought - even though I've obviously read plenty on the subject - to the fact that it came all the way down the western slopes and into the Owens Valley.

Caught off guard.

Noticing these lower towers, my first reaction was, "well, duh, you dummy," before my natural curiosity quickly took over. At that point, I mustered all my willpower to keep myself in the Tacoma - and on the trail - as opposed to hiking to each tower that I saw over the next several miles.

Cresting another steep section of trail, I entered a sea of colorful flowers!

I really liked the Yellow Mariposa Lily, which I'd not seen to this point on the trip.

As I turned around to head back to the Tacoma, I glanced up and realized that the colorful flora had distracted me from the real prize.

Over the next several miles, I steadily - and sometimes very quickly - gained elevation. I'd read several descriptions - prior to my departure - that this would be the case, so I constantly found myself waiting to turn a corner and think, "what have I gotten myself into?"

This loop requires a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle with very good clearance. If you are after a challenging ride, drive it clockwise, up the grade from Swansea. But be aware that many four-wheel-drive vehicles just don't have enough power to make it up this nasty bit of road.

This is fun for old timers, but a great recipe for disaster for novices, where, on the ridge, the road is so sheer and slippery with loose rocks that heavy vehicles tend to slip down even with the brakes on! The drainage crossings are the worst, with gauged bedrocks, narrow passages, and steep grades right by unprotected drop-offs.

I once tried it with a brand-new Ford Explorer and failed miserably. You will need the genuine article, a good old jeep designed for performance in the wild rather than for display of affluence in town. If you have limited four-wheeling experience, drive this loop the other way, north from Cerro Gordo; it is still tough, but easier.

Hiking Western Death Valley National Park

Please note: This trail has extremely steep sections. The grade was so steep it was unsafe to get out of the vehicle or even try to take photos of the group. Proceed with caution and never attempt this trail on wet or snowy days.

Trails Offroad

In the end, I'd have to say that there were only one or two sections where the combination of a steep grade, rough road, and a long drop - always on the passenger side - caused me to grip the wheel a little tighter. Sure, I'd have liked to have had more than 3/16" of tread on my tires, but picking a good line and keeping a steady pace seemed to be the key to success.

And boy, the views - as I climbed to, and then through, and then above the tree line - just kept getting better. And better. And if possible, better.

Up to the trees.

Surely, as I head into the trees, I'll lose sight of the snow.

Nope. Still there.

The higher I got, the further I could see.

Slightly after noon, I reached what I'd consider to be the halfway point along the route. Really, this was a pivot point - where I transitioned from a northerly trajectory to a southerly one - and I suspect that most would consider the upper control tower of the Salt Tram to be the midpoint, but for me it held other significance that I had been anticipating for the last hour or so.


It wasn't exploring the old Burgess Mine. Nor was getting my first view down into Saline Valley. It wasn't even the hike I had planned to the top of New York Butte at 10,668 feet. Nope, it was the three powdered donettes™ I planned to eat once I hit the pivot.

Of course, that other stuff wasn't so bad either. In fact, some of it was a lot more enjoyable as I stuffed three entire servings of the powdered rings into my mouth.

Above the tree line, it was only a mile or two until I reached the Burgess Mine.

Originally known as the Iron Sides, the Burgess Mine sprawls high on the spine of the Inyos. Established well after most other mines in the Beveridge district closed down, it held out - with mixed fortunes - into the 1940s. It was primarily a gold mine, with a side of silver, lead, zinc, and manganese. Unfortunately, this wealth was disseminated in swarms of dislocated quartz veins and skarns, and it took an army of workings to dig them up. In the 1910s, the Burgess Mine consisted of two shallow inclined tunnels. By 1920, they had been supplemented by a 160-foot shaft, a 700-foot crosscut tunnel, and 2,000 feet of galleries.

Recently refurbished by the BLM, the cabin is a curious breed of corrugated metal and pine boards, with a large entryway but no windows.

Today, the mine's 1.5 square-miles are pockmarked with more than 100 workings! The property was reached by a wagon road that closely followed today's road from Swansea. Supplies were brought in by pack train over the shorter Long John Canyon Trail. In its heyday, the ore, hand-sorted and milled in a small arrastre, assayed $20 to $40 per ton. But production figures are too scarce to tell whether it ever paid off.

Hiking Western Death Valley National Park

The real prize lay behind the cabin, as I looked over the edge towards Saline Valley.

Already a mile past the pivot point just to visit the Burgess, I pushed north an additional mile to the end of the road, and the head of the Beveridge Trail. For anyone familiar with the Inyo, Beveridge is a name full of struggle and mystery, a town that only the heartiest of hikers even attempt. For years, this trail was a major route between Saline and Owens valleys, but today I'd hike only a mile of its length - climbing 800 feet to the summit of New York Butte.

As I set out on the trail, the shores of Owens Lake - fuller than I've ever seen it - gleamed below.

And of course, the Sierra loomed high above across the valley.

As I plodded along at just over 10,000 feet, I found a small piece of obsidian. Clearly, I'm not the first to travel this route.

"Get off my mountain."
(I saw several of these very dark, blue belly lizards on this trip. Is this just a dark Western Fence Lizard?)

I reached the summit - a rocky outcropping - just after 2:15pm. Here, an impressive 360-degree view easily made up for any lack of oxygen that I'd certainly not been feeling as I climbed the steep trail. To the east, the ground drops quickly between sharp spires - into the gaping void of Hunter Canyon - with Saline Valley beyond, tucked against the chocolate swells of the Last Chance Range. The western horizon - of course - is framed by 60 miles of majestic Sierra Nevada escarpment.

If you look closely, you can even see the Saline Valley Warm Springs as Hunter Canyon races down toward the valley.

Even with as many photos as I already had of this view, I couldn't help but admire it from each new vantage point.

After signing the summit log, it was time to get back to the primary reason I was at the top of the Inyo.

As I hiked back to the Tacoma, a pair of jets screamed by overhead as they exited Saline Valley. Unfortunately, even my additional 10,000 feet of elevation didn't make them seem any closer.

Back on the road, I found myself following the ridge of the Inyo range as I made my way south towards Cerro Gordo. This was an exhilarating experience - having spent so many days staring up at these mountains from the Saline Valley side, never realizing or expecting that there was a road here I could be exploring.

The going was easy up here on top, a bit of snow still melting from last winter.

Riding along the top of the world. (As long as you don't look west toward the Sierra .)

With smooth roads, the upper control terminal of the Saline Valley Salt Tram soon came into view.

Of the entire Death Valley region, Saline Valley witnessed what was one of the grandest and perhaps most unusual mining ventures. Unlike most, it was not concerned with precious metals but with a dirt-cheap commodity known as halite - table salt. The main driving force behind this effort was White Smith, an attorney who first came to Saline Valley to work as a teamster for local borax mines. Smith became fascinated by the vast salt deposits surrounding the lake. Discovered as early as 1864, they were worked superficially in 1903 and 1904, but full-blown exploitation did not start until around 1911, when Smith organized the Saline Valley Salt Company. Although a rough road led up the valley to Big Pine, the company contracted the construction of a 13.5-mile aerial tramway clear across the Inyos. It would climb some 7,700 feet across the deep chasm of Daisy Canyon to a control station at the 8,740-foot crest of the mountains, then drop 5,100 feet on the far side to a railroad terminal on the shore of Owens Lake. Crossing one of the highest, steepest, and roughest ranges in the California desert, it was a tremendous engineering challenge. The tramway, powered by electric motors, called for two terminals, four intermediate control towers, 21 rail structures, and 12 anchorage-tension stations. Along lower Daisy Canyon, the terrain was so rough that a temporary tramway had to be erected to transport supplies and water. The project consumed 1.3 million board-feet of lumber, 650 tons of nuts and bolts, and 54 miles of cable. When it was completed in 1913, it became the steepest tramway in the United States - and it remains one of the largest of its kind today.

Looking over Saline Valley salt fields, dwarfed by the upper control terminal.

The sheer size and amount of reinforcing structure here was astonishing.

In July 1913 the first salt was delivered at Tramway, the discharge terminal by Owens Lake. The salt was mined using a system of dikes to flood selected areas of the salt playa with local fresh water. The water was allowed to evaporate, leaving behind nearly pure salt crystals. The salt was shoveled into 2-foot piles, then loaded into special half-ton capacity buggies with foot-wide steel wheels. The buggies were winched back to shore, where wooden cars transported the ore to the tramway terminal. The salt was loaded into one of the tramway's 286 buckets, which were hauled away at a rate of about one bucket per minute. By the end of the year, 5,000 tons of salt had been delivered.

Mining was straightforward, but operating the tramway was another matter. Due to an engineering flaw, the grips that clamped the buckets onto the cable slipped when the buckets were more than two thirds full. During the two years it took to solve this problem, the tramway had to be operated at partial capacity. In spite of a steady delivery of salt, the company ran into financial trouble. It was forced to lease its salt claims and tramway to the Owens Valley Salt Company, with the arrangement that profits were evenly split between them.

Looking down through the upper terminal, the next control tower - and a mess of fallen cables - was visible on the neighboring ridge.

A marvelously constructed failure, at least initially.

By 1916, the grip problem was fixed, and the tramway was running at full capacity. Mining employed 40 men, the mill at Tramway was handling 25 to 30 tons a day, and for a few years a steady stream of salt came out of Saline Valley. However, the resale value of salt being what it is, profits were still insufficient to reimburse the enormous cost of the tramway. In 1920 the company that had erected the tramway repossessed it, and the two salt companies went under.

But Smith did not give up. While salt mining stood idle, he convinced the county to construct a road from Saline Valley to Owens Valley via San Lucas Canyon. The road took two years to complete. In May 1926 the salt fields, then owned by Smith and a partner, George Russell, were reactivated under the newly formed Sierra Salt Company. Trucks hauled 10-ton loads of salt over the new road to the railroad at Tramway. Smith died in 1927 and never saw his tramway come back to life. But it did the following year, when the Sierra Salt Company decided to acquire it, revamp it, and put it to use again. By December 1928, the tramway was delivering 60 to 100 tons every day. It did so until prices plummeted in the Depression and production was discontinued around 1933. Against all odds, Smith's dream had come true: during the 12 years it was in operation, his tramway successfully hauled some 30,000 tons of salt out of Saline Valley.

Hiking Western Death Valley National Park

By the time I was done wandering around a Salt Tram that I'd been curious about for more than five years, it was time to start thinking about where I was going to spend the night. I'm notoriously bad at predicting where I'll camp more than about three minutes before occupying a site. This is largely because I just have no idea how far I will get in a day, but with temperatures in the valley near 100 °F - something I did not want to endure - I realized that I should have at least done a little scouting before setting off on this loop.

It's not far now, Cerro Gordo is just beyond the right-most peak of the ridge.

A final section of narrow, off-camber trail.

And with that, I'd nearly reached Cerro Gordo.

I pulled into Cerro Gordo at 5:57pm. Parking next to a sign that read, "Tours Daily | 9AM | 5PM," I figured that since I was an hour past the second tour, I'd probably end up showing myself around a few of the streets, taking some photos of the buildings, and then continuing along my way.

Not. So. Fast.

As I grabbed my camera and ate a quick handful of trail mix, Brent (the "new" owner who is restoring the place) came walking down the street. Naturally, he had no idea who I was - or that I recognized him - and after a polite greeting, and my acknowledgement that I'd missed the last tour, he politely-but-firmly let me know that I was "welcome to gather myself in my truck for a few minutes," but then I "needed to skedaddle" because "we're all done for the day and doing our dinner thing."

Dang! On the one hand, it was a bummer, but on the other, I totally understand where Brent is coming from. It's gotta be a lot of work to rehab a ghost town while also trying to accommodate all the folks who come to check it out while he's trying to get real work - and life - accomplished. At any rate, I now needed to figure out what I was going to do about camp!

The heart of Cerro Gordo, with the new hotel starting to really take shape.

Because of the relation between the usual entrance and exit routes and the old mill at Cerro Gordo, it's hard to find many photos of the mill. It's a substantial structure high above the town!

At first, I thought I might head back towards the Salt Tram to find a spot to camp, but I'd noticed that there was already a 4Runner parked at the only short spur I'd seen, and I figured that if they were there at this time of day, it was a good bet that they'd be camping there.

Next, I considered descending down the backside of the mine - toward Death Valley - in hopes of finding a little spot to nestle myself into the trees, but so close to the Sierra, I was a little bummed that I'd wake up without a view.

And so, reluctantly, I headed down the Cerro Gordo road towards Owens Valley and Keeler. I knew that after a mile or two, the private property transitioned back to BLM, and I hoped to find somewhere - at a high enough elevation that I wouldn't be sweating all night - that I could call home for a few hours.

And boy, did I ever hit the jackpot! Near 6,750 feet - low enough to be warm, but high enough to be bearable - I found a faint road to an old mine. It'd washed out with the rains from Hillary, so I wasn't able to reach the large, flat waste rock pile that spilled out from the portal of the main adit, but I found a nice little spot near the end of the road with a fabulous view of the Sierra rising behind Owens Lake.

As early as it was, I was pooped. I'd started my day - after only a few hours of sleep - at 4:00am; it was time for dinner, some work with a cool washcloth, and bed.

The Following Morning

I didn't even set an alarm, figuring that I deserved a bit of extra sleep after my long day, so while my tent was still - shaded by the Inyo - nice and cool, the sun was already spilling across the valley floor when I finally climbed down the ladder.

Glad I camped on this side of the mountains!

As I put away the tent, I realized that in my exhaustion of the previous evening, I'd not even gotten a chance to investigate the adit a few hundred feet from camp. Arming myself with my LED puck lights - but completely forgetting a flashlight, which I was too lazy to go back for once I remembered how forgetful I was - I wandered in that direction.

Adit sunstar.

Though the waste pile was large, I expected this to be a relatively small working given the location. You can imagine my surprise then as I passed the 100-, 200-, 500-, 900-, and finally a 1,000-foot mark painted on the side of the drift! Straight into the hillside, this mine was much larger than I expected, and it was cool to see some of the veins through which they'd excavated material.

A colorful quartz intrusion.

Some sort of crystalline precipitate on the ceiling.

A ghostly rattlesnake passing through a colorful section of tunnel.

Old timers' signatures, with some recognizable places!

Adit exploration complete - and the hours ticking away on another full day - I worked my way back to Tacoma to finish up the final few miles of the Swansea to Cerro Gordo loop. All that was left was a 2000-foot descent to the valley floor, but I new it'd be a fun one, with fantastic views the entire time!

Out of camp we go, the sun shining bright on some of my favorite terrain.

Through the narrows, it's easy to see why this road has washed out a few times in the heavy rains of the last couple of winters.

And with that, I was back where I started, and in need of fuel. Hopefully I'd have enough to get me to Independence, before I'd head back into the Inyo for another day of adventure!

I never tire of this view - and having the road to myself - as I headed into Lone Pine.



The Whole Story


Filed Under

California(50 entries)
Inyo Mountains(2 entries)


    JOHN D MORAN June 20, 2024

    I've seen some videos from people that made the drive up to Cerro Gordo, definitely not a trip I would drive myself plus don't have an appropriate vehicle, no 4WD. Also have seen a number of videos of the work being done at Cerro Gordo, pretty impressive how they got some heavy equipment and materials up there and kinda scary! The guy (Brent) did a video of a cross country hike he did to Beverage over several days, the kind of thing I would be interested in doing back in the days when we were backpacking in the Sierras. So, more great photos, especially that amazing overlook of the Saline Valley, and another great adventure, thanks for sharing!

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 20, 2024

      Thanks John, as always! 👍

      The main route up to Cerro Gordo - from Keeler along CA-136 is unpaved and steep in places, but generally - assuming no recent big rains - a reasonably well-graded county road that even a passenger car can get up (but be sure to use a low gear and go slow coming down to save the brakes). I say that only to encourage you to get up there if you want to go; it's a cool place and totally worth the price of a tour!

      I have seen Brent's video of the Lonesome Miner's Trail, and that's a hike I'd love to do. My biggest hurdle there is that I really hate carrying weight on my shoulders when I'm hiking, and there's no way - for me at least - to get that hike done in a day. Maybe a really long day with a shuttle, but then I'd just be rushing it, and that's no good either when trying to enjoy the splendor.

  2. Skidoo
    Skidoo June 21, 2024

    Your trip on the Swansea / Cerro Gordo loop brought back many memories.

    My shakedown trip for my newly modified Land Cruiser was on that loop back in 2008.
    Was my and wife's first off-road adventure. We ran it the other way around and the off camber section out of Cerro Gordo had the wife questioning ever going off-road again.

    In 2013 I ran it with my photography buddies and had time to take the tour from Robert (the caretaker then). Highly recommend you get back at some point to take the tour.

    Lots of artifacts from the mining days. I expect the items in the American Hotel were lost in the 2020 fire, but tons of other interesting things to see.

    I hope they can get a replacement for the wood stove in the American Hotel, it was the centerpiece of the main room.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 21, 2024

      Awesome, glad it was able to bring back what sound like a couple of great trips for you (though, perhaps not for your wife, lol).

      The first time I was up there - back in 2018 - Robert was still there and it was definitely a different vibe than it is now. Much more “laid back ghost town” before Brent moved in, and now it feels like a bustling center. Pros and cons to that, obviously, and depending on who you talk to it’s either a good thing or a very bad thing. Personally, I don’t have much of an opinion in this case - it always seemed a little “commercialized” to me since there was someone living there, tours have always been paid, and the land has always been privately owned. In fact, after passing through the first time, I figured I’d never be back... though now I’ve been back twice, just passing through.

      The hotel is coming along. Slowly, since it’s so hard to get materials up there (and probably costs a fortune), but I’m sure it’ll be a nice place when he’s done (he does seem to do good work and love what he’s doing, despite the social media hate that I’m sure he gets a lot of).

  3. Rob K
    Rob K June 25, 2024

    A shame what happened to Cerro Gordo the past few years...

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 25, 2024

      I know people have different opinions on what’s happening up there. Why do you think it a shame?

      • Rob K
        Rob K June 26, 2024

        It would have been better if the State purchased the town, stabilized and preserved it similar to what was done at Bodie. Certainly, one more historical building would be standing now... I should just leave it at that.

        • turbodb
          turbodb June 29, 2024

          Ahh, Bodie is an interesting comparison, and I completely see what you're saying about two different ways that the whole situation could have gone. Now, I'll be the first to say that I don't really know much about what Brent is/isn't doing - I've watched a few of his videos - which seem entertaining if you're into that kind of thing - and he seems quite passionate about what he is doing. At any rate, I was talking to my wife about what's going on there in Cerro Gordo, and we sort of came to the uneducated opinion that Brent owning the place is bad for historical accuracy and good for historical interest. That is, he is surely destroying some of what was there, but in turn he may be increasing interest/awareness in the history that is all around us; that education - of people who might otherwise be unaware - could be a good thing.

          Again, I don't really know, but I hope that's how it's all going down.

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