Labor Day Weekend was upon us and we were planning on backpacking the North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail around Seven Lakes but could not get walk-in wilderness permits for the weekend. Luckily I had a backup idea, and we resorted to Bishop Pass Trail which started at South Lake. We spent Friday night at a drive-up campground called Horton Creek before we headed up into the mountains.
We pulled into the “town” of Ballarat around 9:00am on Friday morning and left the traditional beer donation on the porch of the trading post since it was not open yet. After leaving one car in the parking lot of the trading post we headed up Surprise Canyon Road to Novak’s Camp where we parked and got ready for the hike.
The road up to Novak’s Camp was in pretty good shape and I would say a normal car could have made it to the end of the road without much trouble. Novak’s Camp, which is the trailhead for the hike, is also called Chris Wicht Camp. There was another group of guys who had been camping there who were also planning on hiking up to Panamint City that day.
The hike up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City is pretty accurately described, and in length, on many website across the internet so I am not going to go into great detail about it here. I will say though, that even sounding like a short hike, at about 5 1/2 miles, the obstacles, bushwhacking, crawling, and climbing make it a nice long trek (especially with a pack on) up a constant grade. Check here for an in-depth description of the hike. A lot of people suggest taking two pairs of shoes due to the water hiking, but I was able to make due with a good pair of ankle-high waterproof boots. I may have just gotten lucky with the water level, but I’m also not sure how high it gets. One of the highlights of the hike was coming across some of the wild burros that frequent the canyon; however, they did not seem to appreciate our presence.
When you’re on the last leg of the trail and finally see that iconic brick smoke stack in the distance there’s a great feeling of joy and accomplishment. Also, you know you have just a little bit more hiking to do!
Once we arrived in Panamint City we found the other group shacking up in one of the cabins referred to as “The Hilton.” The cabin had a working water faucet in the kitchen and a manual flush system toilet in the bathroom. The floors were pretty torn up and the kitchen was a little messy, but I was still pretty impressed with the condition of the place. We set up our tents not too far away from this cabin so we could have access to the running water when we needed it. Due to the risk of being exposed to Hantavirus we had planned on staying in our tents, not the cabins.
At night we made dinner, ate, and chatted with the other group of fellows who we found out were from the greater San Diego area. They were all eating MRE’s; I’m not sure why I never though of that for camping food before!
Saturday after breakfast some of us decided to hike around the area and explore more of the old structures. We first hiked up Water Canyon to an area called Thomson Camp. Here we found a couple of dilapidated structures and a ’55 Oldsmobile jammed up against a hillside. A little further up the canyon there was a water tank with cold, flowing water.
On our way out of Water Canyon we came across “The Green Tank” which had a trickle of water flowing into it. The wooden top of the tank had broken and fallen into the tank. The water level in the tank was probably less than 8 inches high.
We continued our exploration over to the “Hippy Cabin” which no one had occupied. There was no running water at this location which I could find. The inside was in decent shape but a little dirty and there were definite signs that rodents frequent the place. I hung out here a little while enjoying the view from outside the front door. You get a good vantage point down on the rest of the buildings in Panamint.
As it got later in the day there were more people arriving in the area. Panamint City started to look more like an inhabited village rather than an abandoned ghost town. There was a large group of college students that came in from San Luis Obispo and another smaller group from the Los Angeles County area. Everyone was friendly and it was nice having some other folks to talk to while we were there.
It was our intention to check out “The Castle” cabin in Sourdough Canyon the next day; however, the rain we got throughout the night and into the morning kind of put a damper on that plan. Other folks had visited the cabin on Saturday and it was reported in excellent condition (better than the other two cabins) with running water. In efforts to get out of the rain and try to keep dry we left Panamint City without exploring anything else. The hike back was much easier than the hike in, although it still seemed pretty long.
This was definitely a trip for the books. I would love to come back in the spring, perhaps when the mountains still have a little snow left on them.
For reference: This trip took place November 18th-20th, 2016.