Part of the joy of visiting Death Valley is feeling like you’ve come to the ends of the earth, or even that you’ve landed on another planet entirely as you gaze over the cracked and alien landscape.
In the western Panamint Mountains, the relatively high number of creeks and springs, historical sites, and network of old roads that just won’t die create a different kind of planet—one more akin to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than Star Wars.
Old cabins and ghost camps are scattered through the wrinkled folds of the Panamints; some are forgotten, rotting into trickling springs, while others remain well visited by those still caught by the camp’s mystique. Tales of silver spread through the mountains and caused towns like Panamint City to swell and burst. Today, some time and effort can take you to these hulks of history to marvel at the sheer determination that got people and equipment up to these remote and rugged locations. The western Panamint canyons are wet by comparison to the rest of Death Valley, and it’s not unheard of for a flood to wipe out everything in its path, scouring a canyon down to the bare rock, marooning trucks and equipment. Of course, there’s the marvel of seeing water in the desert, plummeting down a canyon to form waterfalls and pools or gurgling along the surface, all making for a wet and wild hiking experience.
Joshua tree forests, a salt lake, and one washboard road make the Saline Valley a time capsule of tourism—Death Valley before Death Valley was a destination. In the Saline Valley, you give up your civilized right to a cell phone for a quiet and beautifully varied landscape. Driving Saline Valley Road will take you past rarely visited sand dunes and give you access to quiet ghost camps and scenic canyons.
Death Valley is known for its contrasts, and the Panamint Springs area is no exception. The drop from Telescope Peak, the highest mountain in the park, down to the valley floor is a dizzying 11,331 feet, higher than the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Enter Surprise Canyon from the blazing-hot ghost town of Ballarat only to have to fight your way through dense greenery, scrambling over waterfalls and past sculpted white canyon narrows. Winter brings snow and ice at the higher elevations; summer brings scorching sun. All year long brings the possibility of wind that has no scruples about scooping up your camping equipment to sacrifice to the desert gods. This western side of Death Valley will grab you with the stinging silence of the Saline Valley and rope you in with the untamed canyons of the Panamint Mountains. People come back year after year and season after season—it’s different every time.
Planning Your Time
This wild and diverse region is a favorite of the 4WD crowd as well as desert history buffs—4WD trails and historic sites dominate the landscape. But developing a plan of attack is key. The jutting elevation, long and lonely roads, twisting canyons, and adventurous hikes guarantee that you won’t be able to do everything in one driving tour. Pick your sights, pick your drives, pick your hikes, and explore this region with a full tank of gas and everything else you need to survive, including water.
Concentrate your exploration on three areas: the Emigrant and Wildrose Canyon Area, the western Panamint canyons, and the Saline Valley.
Emigrant and Wildrose Canyon Area
The Emigrant Canyon and Wildrose Canyon area is the most accessible in this region. Setting up a nice base camp at the Wildrose Campground allows easy access to notable hikes as well as fragments of mining history around the Harrisburg Flats region. Plan three days: one day to hike Telescope Peak, one to hike Wildrose Peak and visit the Charcoal Kilns, and one day to see everything else.
The high mountain elevations in this region mean that it might be possible to extend the Death Valley season and escape the summer heat. Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park, has snow most of the year, and most of the campgrounds in nearby Wildrose Canyon are only open March to November, the opposite of the schedule in the rest of the park. The upper-elevation hikes are best during early summer.
Western Panamint Canyons
Ballarat, on the eastern edge of the Panamint Valley against the western Panamint Mountains, is a good jumping-off point for exploring the Panamint Canyons with a 4WD vehicle or backpacking. All canyon roads require a 4WD vehicle, but it is still possible to explore some wonderful canyon hikes with a regular SUV. Even a passenger car can access a few special places.
The Saline Valley
All areas of the Panamint Springs region are remote, but the Saline Valley might win a competition for which gets the least visitors. Saline Valley Road traverses the region, beginning in the north near the town of Big Pine and intersecting with Highway 190 farther south, west of Panamint Springs. To drive Saline Valley Road takes the better part of a day without stops, no matter where you’re coming from. You will probably need a high-clearance vehicle, but a 4WD vehicle is usually not necessary, except when rain and snow have created hazardous driving conditions.
Plan at least three days to explore this area, and consider camping at primitive Warm Springs Camp, with a central location in the Saline Valley. The best times to visit are spring and fall. Summer sees blazing temperatures; in winter, rain and snow can render the Saline Valley Road impassable.