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The Panamint Hilton isn’t what you’d call luxury accommodations. It’s a run-down, ratty cabin that’s miles from civilization. But it does have one massive selling point: it’s nestled within Panamint City, one of the most secluded and well-preserved ghost towns in the United States.
To reach it, you’ll have to hike, wade, scramble and squeeze through over seven miles of sparsely marked trail in Death Valley’s Surprise Canyon, climbing more than 3,600 feet in the process. You won’t have to deal with Death Valley’s legendary heat, though: The canyon is an oasis within the area’s arid landscape (that’s the surprise!) filled with waterfalls, streams and lush greenery. The trail itself is long, treacherous, and occasionally waterlogged, but at its end lies Panamint City and some of the best-preserved ruins from the “Old West”. Only about 100 people a year attempt to reach it.
Before settlers arrived, the area now occupied by Panamint was home to Timbisha Shoshone people. Prospectors founded the town after a silver strike in 1872, and, funded by a pair of Nevada senators, Panamint City became a booming mining town. Visitors will see that the little town is remarkably well-preserved despite weathering flash floods and desolate conditions for over a century before its abandonment – its Main Street remains dotted with cabins, saloons, mines and more. But first, they have to get there.
For many, the journey begins in Ballarat, a nearly-abandoned town that served as a temporary home for the notorious Manson cult (the “family’s” ranch is nearby, and the remains of Manson’s faded green Dodge Power Wagon are still there). Stop in at the Ballarat Trading Post for a drink or information on the surrounding Panamint Range, then drive about five miles up Surprise Canyon Road to the trailhead at the Chris Wicht Camp, where parking is available.
From there, the adventure begins in earnest. Hikers will first have to navigate Surprise Canyon’s narrows, scrambling across rocks, tunneling through thorny brambles, slogging through streams, and backtracking from dead ends. Flanked by white stone walls, the creek sometimes creates waterfalls and pools that provide respite from the heat, as well as two springs where water’s often available. (Pack in a gallon per person per day to be safe.)
After completing the four-mile trek through the narrows, the canyon basin transforms into a juniper and pinyon-covered mountainside. Atop the canyon, hikers will have to contend with crumbling ridges and narrow ledges, but the trail becomes more defined around the five mile mark.
Just a mile further on, the silhouette of Panamint City’s massive smokestack comes into view, signalling that the end of the journey is near. The smokestack once vented fumes from.a smelter that cast silver into heavy, cannonball-like spheres, designed to be hard for bandits to carry off. The final stretch of the journey, nicknamed “the long mile,” is bounded by stone walls that will finally lead you into the town’s Main Street.
Once there, you can wander at will. Panamint City’s seclusion has protected its structures from the elements, so there’s plenty to see. Several cabins lining the main street are mostly intact, including the old miner’s cabin that hikers have dubbed the “Panamint Hilton,” so named because of its furnished interior – including beds, tables, chairs and a full kitchen. (A word of caution: the Hilton is known as a hotspot for Hantavirus, a rare disease spread by rats, so I’d recommend camping just outside the cabin – and don’t drink the water before filtering it!)
Visitors can set up camp outside one of Panamint’s many cabins and stay for days, exploring relics of the past including old bars and saloons, scrappy automobiles, and even Native pictographs that date back to well before the town’s founding. Mining ruins can also be found scattered across the town and the nearby Sourdough Canyon (to the northwest) and Marvel Canyon (to the west).
For those brave enough to make the trek, Panamint offers a combination of history and scenery unlike any place in the United States. Even the experienced hikers are known to struggle with the seven-and-a-half mile climb—but what’s an adventure without a little struggle?