Chapter #375: Camping at Panamint Springs, Part 1 - September 29, 2020

In the summer, Death Valley often hits 130 f. degrees in the shade - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Camping at Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park, During a Pandemic

Friday May 1, 2020

My journey felt different this time, from Simi Valley to Death Valley. I had taken that road so many times before. With the National Park itself closed to all but through-traffic, the palpable fear of death hung in the air at Death Valley. To my surprise, the privately owned enclave called Panamint Springs Resort was open.

Ice is available in one of the hottest places on Earth - Panamint Springs, Death Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Panamint Springs is not a resort in the classic sense of the word… no pool, spa or golf course. Up a nearby canyon, the perpetual Darwin Falls feeds a year around supply of fresh water to the small settlement. Included in the resort are a hardscrabble campground, tent cabins, and a few “luxury cabins”. Rounding out the services are an unpaved RV Park, a gas station, restaurant, motel, general store, and a rough airstrip. The place gets its name from the Paiute or Koso word Panümünt, which breaks down to Pa (water) and nïwïnsti (person).

Out here in the vast and unforgiving Mojave Desert, almost any settlement qualifies as a resort. Since I wanted to isolate myself from the cares and worries of a raging pandemic, this seemed like the perfect hideaway for several days and nights. After confirming my reservation, I hooked up my fifth wheel and sallied forth from Simi Valley, California.

Two wild burros walk into the desert, near the Panamint Valley Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The portion of my trip from Mojave to the Panamint Valley was mostly uneventful. Knowing that Panamint Springs had no mobile telephone coverage, I stopped to call home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road. Having received past text messages there, I knew that there was AT&T 4G-LTE mobile telephone coverage at that location. The location of the cell phone tower that feeds data to that one small spot is a complete mystery.

While making my call, I noticed a small, hand-lettered sign. With two screws holding it to a stake, it read, “Yard Sale Next Sat. 7AM – 3PM”. Minietta is a gravel road, which heads off from the highway toward the southwest. Not far along, it disappears over a low hill. From my location, I saw no buildings, people or other vehicles. Still, the mysterious sign caught my interest. I planned to return on Saturday and check out the yard sale.

A small sign advertised a possible yard sale in the middle of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon arrival at Panamint Springs Resort, I went inside the general store to check in. Inside, the unmasked counter man told me that Friday was barbecued ribs night at the restaurant. After completing my check-in, he invited me to come and enjoy the food and drink. As the blood drained from my face, I smiled from behind my mask and thanked the man. “No way”, I whispered silently, while ducking out the front door.

Looking uphill from the store, I noticed a huge tent pavilion, which served as the outdoor dining area for the restaurant. At that time, all was quiet, with just a few people sipping their drinks and enjoying the expansive view of Panamint Valley. Until well past midnight, I could hear raucous sounds, including hoots and hollers echoing across the otherwise quiet landscape. That night, from the comfort and safety of my camp chair, I heard some serious, alcohol-fueled mingling under the big tent. Apparently, management later Evidence of ancient vulcanism abounds at the Panamint Springs Resort - Click for larger image (htttp://jamesmcgillis.com)changed the dining policies at the resort. As of late September 2020, their website included the following information. “Our restaurant is open for take out everyday for lunch (11:30 am - 2:30 pm) and dinner (5:30 pm - 8:30 pm). We have plenty of available shaded picnic options adjacent to the restaurant for your eating pleasure”.

The rustic campground and RV Park is located just across the highway from the Panamint Springs General Store. There, I found eight or ten RV sites with full hookups. Other than my rig, all of the other sites were empty. Elsewhere in the campground, there were only a handful of tent sites and tent cabins occupied. Over the next few days, a few campers arrived and a few departed. Still, no one spoiled my unobstructed view of the ancient seabed that is now the parched and dry Panamint Valley.

In May 2020, the entirety of Death Valley National Park was closed to visitors - Click for larger image (hhtp://jamesmcgillis.com)Saturday May 2, 2020.

At the national park entrance, a Public Advisory sign declared, “Death Valley National Park CLOSED Until Further Notice”. Through-traffic could transit the park on the main highway, but there were no services open to the public. The counter man at the store had warned me not to go sightseeing in the national park. “Even in the parking lots at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, they are handing out $1,000 tickets to anyone who lingers”, he said. Within the geographic confines of the national park, only Panamint Springs, a privately owned oasis, was open for business. Without access to the national park, it appeared that I would be a virtual prisoner in a place of my own choosing.

I called home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Undaunted, I knew that the phantom yard sale, which I saw advertised on Minietta Road lay outside of the national park boundaries. That afternoon, I navigated The Panamint Valley Road back toward Trona and the Searles Valley. Ten miles east of Panamint Springs I located the turn-off to Minietta Road. There, I sat inside the air-conditioned confines of my truck and called home once again.

After my call, I headed up the dirt and gravel surface of Minietta Road. After surmounting the first set of hills, I paused to survey the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon. Could there be a home with a yard at the end of this dusty track? Alternatively, did the little sign represent some kind of code or a prank? After four-wheeling over dry hills and washes, I spied an ersatz settlement tucked up near the base of the barren mountains.

Unpaved Minietta Road disappears over a knoll and into the depths of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a wildcat mining operation consisting of about ten vehicles and various small buildings. I could not see a gate, garage or any sign of welcome. Near there, in 1969, Charlie Manson and his murderous “family” faced arrest at Death Valley’s Barker Ranch. With that in mind, I decided against rolling up unannounced at this foreboding enclave.

From my location in a broad arroyo, various unmarked roads and trails split off in all directions. Not having an atlas or topographical map to consult, I was wary of driving deeper into the unmarked desert. Getting stuck or breaking down out here could be deadly. When the main road turned into a trail, I stopped. There, about twenty yards away were the remains of an automobile. I knew it was an automobile because I could see one wheel and tire still attached. When I approached on foot, I discovered the flipped-over and rusting hulk of what once was a small sports car.

The remains of a small sports car, wrecked many years ago in the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon, near Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Looking around the area, I located two other tires and wheels. One of the whitewall tires featured the embossed words, “JCPenney Aramid Belted Radial”. In later research, I found of an old Desert Sun newspaper advertisement that dated the tire back to circa 1978. There was still some chrome on one of the wheels, but what remained of another tire looked like it had spun apart at very high speed.

What was the story here? Did the wreck happen here on this dusty track? More likely, someone had gotten that car up to high speed on the Panamint Valley Road. If that tire had blown at high speed, the car could have rolled over on its roof. Resting upside down, flat as a pancake, there was no room between the car body and the desert floor for a human to survive. Rather than transport the wreck to the nearest junkyard in Trona, someone may have simply moved it several miles and dumped it in its current location.

After I remounted two of the wheels on the wrecked sports car, it began to look like an automobile again - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After I located two of the detached wheels nearby, I rolled them back to the rusting hulk. Although the fourth wheel was not anywhere in sight, I soon had three wheels resting back on their original wheel hubs. Satisfied that I had turned back the hands of time, I took a few pictures and left the rusting remains for the next visitor to find. I pictured an elderly couple, in a 1937 Chevrolet coming across this wreck in the desert. “Mabel, how do you think those wheels got back on that car?” asked Henry. “Divine providence, I suppose”, Mabel replied.

Returning to the highway, I paused to enjoy the view out my front windshield. Directly across the Panamint Valley was the impressive Panamint Range. Tallest of all was Telescope Peak, elevation 11,043 feet, 11,049 feet or 11,053 feet, depending on which source you consult. Is it possible that the mountain had grown or shrunk by a total of ten feet? The 7.5 magnitude Owens Valley (or Lone Pine) Earthquake of 1872 occurred only fifty miles west of my Snow-capped Telescope Peak, as viewed from the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)location. That event generated a fault scarp more than two meters high. Therefore, it is possible that the Telescope Peak did grow or sink by ten feet between official surveys.

Since the base of the mountain is at 1,800 feet elevation, Telescope Peak makes for an imposing sight. Snowstorms in early April had blanketed the upper reaches of the Panamint Range. The angle of repose is so steep there; avalanche-chutes were clearly visible on the upper reaches of the range. The west-facing flank of Telescope Peak featured three avalanche chutes, all of which converged at a single point. It was an awesome and fearful site. No human could survive a climb up that face. If the steep terrain and baking sun did not kill you, the avalanches would.

After ruminating on the effects of geologic time, I drove back toward my campsite, ten miles away.

This concludes Part One of a Two-Part Article. To read Part Two, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 05:07 PM | Mojave Desert | Link

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