On a misty misty morning
When cloudy was the weather
I chanced to meet an old man
Clothed all in leather…
Just kidding! It was 114 degrees in Panamint Valley. Anyone wearing leather would have been a skeleton inside his own dried skin. So that possibility crossed my mind as I got stuck in the sand all by myself, hidden from humanity, behind Ash Hill on the jeep road to Lookout Mountain.
The drama wasn’t quite that dire in actuality. I was stuck for a moment before I switched the Jeep into 4WD, but in that hiccup of time I had a panic attack. I tend to be optimistic and throw myself head first into any idea I have. Usually at some point the enormity of what I’ve taken on hits me and I realize that I didn’t adequately anticipate the dangers involved and I have to take a minute to recalibrate my courage. At 114 degrees, without a soul in sight for miles, hidden in a small valley, with deadly rocky peaks surrounding me, I felt my vulnerability. I felt like a newborn baby rabbit, a tiny wet pink thing, at the mercy of searing spires. I did the math. I had nearly a full tank of gas, gallons of water, and a Spot button. I figured that if necessary, I could push the Spot button and relax in air conditioning for a long time and would probably not run out of gas before help arrived. This bolstered my confidence so I moved onward.
The goal this weekend was to hike the sister mountains, Lookout Mountain and Telescope Peak. The two mountains have a fascinating relationship. Lookout City on Lookout Mountain was a silver mining town in 1875. Trees from the Argus Range were used to make charcoal to smelt the silver ore, but the scant forest in that nearly barren range was quickly depleted and a new source of charcoal needed to be found. Across the salt flats of Panamint Valley stood the Panamint Range, peaking out at 11,049 ft. At high altitudes were prolific forests full of piñon pine and mountain mahogany. It was decided to build charcoal kilns on the mountain at the top of Wildrose Canyon. From there charcoal was transported by the Nadeau Trail wagon road to Lookout City (and Panamint City via Surprise Canyon) to smelt the silver ore.
Charcoal kilns across the valley in the Panamint Mountains
The Nadeau Trail is a long rocky traverse, originally a mule trail, between Ash Hill and the Argus Range. At Stone Canyon it becomes extremely rough and washed out, far too treacherous of a drive for me to take on by myself. Besides, what’s the fun in driving a “modern” road? Anyone can do that. For me the real juice was in hiking the more historic and exotic Pack Trail to Lookout City.
The pack trail was built for pack animals to carry supplies from the base of the mountain into town. It was constructed so soundly that most of its retaining walls have survived 150 years of erosion. Traversing 1.5 miles up a side canyon to Lookout City, only the first 1/4 mile of the historic trail that traverses a dry waterfall has been washed away, but wild burro keep the trail active and create a nice path that leads to the historic trail.
The short hike to Lookout City was blazing hot! Did I mention it was 114 degrees?!!! I’m not typically a profuse sweater. As they say, “Horses sweat. Men perspire. Women glow.” I usually fall neatly into the ladylike “glow” category, but this day everything on me was sweating. Even the tops of my arms were dripping sweat. I drank two liters of electrolyte enhanced water in a mile and a half, stopped often to rest, and even ducked into a mine shaft to sit for 20 minutes and cool off because my heart rate was soaring dangerously. The mine shaft was gloriously cool, by the way, maybe 50 degrees inside. I emerged from that cave refreshed, like a freshly chilled pitcher of margaritas, ready to hit the city, Lookout City.
Just before entering the ruins of Lookout City one starts to see shards of slag all over the trail. The slag are pieces of shiny black rock that look like obsidian. Slag is the unholy spawn of the marriage of the mountains, born of greed and rapaciousness. From the one mountain they pillaged the ore and from the other, the trees to smelt the ore, all in the name of the all mighty dollar.
Lookout City once had 50 residences, 5 saloons, and one child. Below is a tour of what remains of this mountaintop mining town.
The General Store was once a two story building. What remains is the basement level.
The foundations of several fine residences and saloons also remain.
Below is the remains of the Green’s Saloon where the last gunfight was fought. As it is written by Hal Fowler, Lookout Historian, “Jack McGinnis put the word out; he was gunning for Oliver Roberts to avenge the shooting of his friend C.W. Delahanty, in Darwin. Accepting the challenge, Oliver Roberts came into town and found McGinnes on the porch of Green’s Saloon. Both men drew their pistols and started firing. When it was all over, McGinnis lay on the floor with three bullts in him. After months of convalescing, McGinnis left Lookout with Dicky Shay and went to Mammoth City to work in the gold mines. McGinnis died of pneumonia during the great winter of 1879, in Mammoth City. On his deathbed, he confessed to several murders including Butcher Knife George and Miss Feather Legs (Nancy Williams) a darwin Madam who is buried in the Darwin Cemetery.”
After an exciting tour of Lookout City and enjoying the mountaintop view of Panamint Valley and the mountain spires lining the horizon I descended the Pack Trail as evening began to cool. I drove across the desolate valley and took the long way round, over Towne Pass, into the land of milk and honey, the Panamint Mountains. The meadows near Emigrant Pass are surely where many members of the Panamint Shoshone thrived during the summers. (See post about Emigrant Canyon Petroglyphs.) Water is abundant in grapevine canyons and a multitude of rabbits romp about waiting to become dinner.
I passed the charcoal kilns at the top of Wildrose Canyon and camped at the Mahogany Flat campground at the Telescope Peak trailhead, enjoying the waning sunset in 80 degree comfort. I would hike the 14 miles to Telescope Peak and back the next day after a cool, refreshing night’s sleep.
Telescope Peak is the highest point in the California desert topping out at 11,049 ft. That altitude rivals many of the high passes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Telescope Peak presents 360 degree views of both Panamint Valley and Death Valley/Badwater Basin. That mindbogglingly beautiful tour will be the subject of my next post.
In the late fall of 1977 my wife and I took a camping trip to the Panamint Vally. We towed a flat findered 1945 Jeep to do our exploring. I had three books that gave us directions to Lookout City and they were all different. We kept following the trails and found the town. It is an amazing place. I counted 49 total buildings in the area.
We also visited Panamint City that week and the Barker Ranch. The Barker Ranch is a story in itself. Great memories.
That sounds like a FUN FUN adventure. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing. It also took me 2 tries to get to Lookout. Ultimately I chickened out taking the road and just decided to hike. It was truly dangerously HOT!