Southern Panamint Range
(Wildrose, Telescope, Sentinel)
(Porter, Manly, Needle)

Revised Jan 2012 - please send updates to the webmaster

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GENERAL NOTES:

The Panamint Range forms the western side of Death Valley. In the north are Dry and Tin, near Towne Pass are Canyon Point and Panamint Butte. The high point of the range is Telescope Peak (rising over 11000' from below sea level in Death Valley). The southern end of the range contains two pairs of very different peaks: Porter and Sentinel are over 9k (a real snow climb in the winter) between Pleasant and Surprise Canyons, while Manly and Needle are near Mengel Pass (a serious 4WD road from the west and a long drive from the east).

Southern Panamint trailhead areas are clustered around Ballarat (a ghost town, waypoint BALRAT), between Trona and Panamint Springs. To get to any of them, you need to be on Hwy 178 between Ridgecrest (waypoint RIDGEC) and Stovepipe Wells (waypoint STOVEP). This part of Hwy 178 is roughly parallel to Hwy 395 but on the other side of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Hwy 178 gets very narrow and poorly maintained north of waypoint 178PVR, where the far superior Panamint Valley Road connects to Hwy 190 (at waypoint 190PVR).

Northern Approach:

 - From Lone Pine go east on Hwy 136 and Hwy 190 through Panamint Springs.
 - From Olancha go east on Hwy 190 through Panamint Springs.
 - From Death Valley go west from Stovepipe Wells on Hwy 190 over Towne Pass.
 - Between Towne Pass (waypoint TOWNPS) and Panamint Springs (waypoint PANSPR) is the Panamint Valley.
Turn south on the well paved Panamint Valley Road (waypoint 190PVR) and follow it about 14 miles to Hwy 178.
 - Turn north on Hwy 178 (waypoint 178PVR) and drive 18 miles to Mahogany Flat (waypoint MAHOGF) in Wildrose Canyon.
 - Turn south on Hwy 178 (waypoint 178PVR) and drive about 9 miles south to the Ballarat junction (BALJCT)for other trailheads.

Southern Approach:

 - From Ridgecrest go east and then north on Hwy 178 to Trona.
 - From Mojave, bypass Ridgecrest by going through Garlock and Searles to the Trona Road, then take Hwy 178 to Trona.
 - From Kramer Jct, go north on Hwy 395 to Red Mountain, bypass Searles on the Trona Road, then take Hwy 178 to Trona.
 - There is no gas in Trona! As of 2012 you'll want to fill up before you get here (in Ridgecrest or Panamint Springs).
Just south of Trona Hwy 178 crosses railroad tracks (waypoint TRONA). Continue north on Hwy 178.
 - About 15 miles from the tracks is a small pass with a great view, after which Hwy 178 drops into the Panamint Valley.
 - The Ballarat junction (waypoint BALJCT) is about 23 miles north of the Trona tracks on Hwy 178.

Ballarat

There are two monuments near the turnoff for Ballarat (waypoint BALJCT), one yellow and one brass. The junction is well marked, but as if you needed ANOTHER clue, Ballarat Road sports a radar installation with a spinning dish and flashing lights. Can't miss it. Go east from Hwy 178 (waypoint BALJCT) on a surprisingly good mine haul road, DOWNHILL to a lake for the first 2 miles! The road bends north (waypoint BALTRN) across that dry lake bed. The road is SLIGHTLY raised above the lake but muddy when it rains hard. The Ballarat caretaker told me (in 2010) that the road may stay underwater for a couple of days at a time after extended rains.

Ballarat (waypoint BALRAT, 3.6 miles from Hwy 178) is a store where you can get cold drinks, but no food as of Feb 2010. There is a "campground" (or gravel parking area) near the store which costs $2/night (same price for Bud or soft drinks at the store) and is a somewhat permanent home for miners working just south on Wingate Road. To avoid the crowds and the fees, just drive north from Ballarat on Indian Ranch Road and look for wide spots to pull out.

Area Map: see below for detailed maps of the trailheads:
Wildrose Canyon, Surprise Canyon, Pleasant Canyon, and Mengel Pass.


Wildrose Canyon - Passenger car access to Wildrose and Telescope

Drive north on Hwy 178 from the Panamint Valley Road intersection (waypoint 178PVR) on good pavement. Almost 6 miles from 178PVR there is a yellow gate (waypoint WCGATE) that can be used to close lower Wildrose Canyon, but it was open in Jan 2012 and there was no indication under what conditions it might be closed. The road gets much narrower at the gate, and the pavement is very deteriorated with some large potholes and stretches where the road is just gravel. Higher in the canyon there are springs which produce sheets of ice in the winter.

The intersection of Hwy 178 and Wildrose Canyon Road (waypoint WILDCJ, 9.6 miles from Panamint Valley Road) can be confusing because Hwy 178 turns sharply just south of this intersection and then turns again at the intersection. The map makes it look straight, but it's actually a 90 degree right turn when going uphill. There is another gate just south of this intersection, again with no clues as to when or if it might be closed. Hwy 178 continues north up Rattlesnake to Emigrant Pass (EMIGPS) on the way to Stovepipe Wells but I don't know what condition the road is in.

Just east of Hwy 178 on Wildrose Canyon Road is the Wildrose campground, which may require a fee. A quarter mile from the intersection is the Wildrose Ranger Station (waypoint WILDRS), the first building you come to on the south side of the road. The station seems to no longer be staffed - maybe in summer? The pavement improves greatly above the Ranger Station, but 5 miles from the WILDCJ intersection there is a pullout/turnaround and the pavement ends (waypoint WILDPE). The road is well maintained but rocky gravel which gets steeper, looser, and larger as you continue toward Mahogany Flat.

The Charcoal Kilns (waypoint CHRKIL, 7.2 miles from the WILDCJ intersection) are a major attraction. This parking lot, with a very clean outhouse and prominent No Camping signs, serves as the
Wildrose Peak trailhead. There is yet another gate at the kilns, which I presume is closed when there is heavy snow on the road. All vehicles can get to the Kilns easily.

The Thorndike Campground (waypoint THRNDK) is just under 8 miles from the WILDCJ intersection, under a mile from the end of the road, and is a good place for passenger cars to park. It features a very clean outhouse, tables, fire rings, and no fees (at least in winter)! In Jan 2012, I could have driven to the top in a passenger car except there was ice on the road. A small parking area is just outside the upper entrance to the campground.

There are more campsites at Mahogany Flat, which unlike Thorndike has a great view, in addition to Telescope Peak trailhead parking (waypoint MAHOGF). The trail to Telescope
goes up the east side of the ridge, the gated road to the radio towers on Rogers Peak goes up the bowl on the other side of the ridge. You can go the other direction and run the ridge out to Wildrose Peak, which is straightforward navigation with easy footing but there is no trail most of the way.


Surprise Canyon - 2WD access to Sentinel and Porter, possibly Telescope

Leave Hwy 178 at the Ballarat junction (waypoint BALJCT), drive almost to the store (waypoint BALRAT), and turn left at the campground sign. If you miss this sign, turn left in front of the store and you'll end up at the same place... on Indian Ranch Road going north from Ballarat. RVs park at pull-outs all along this road, apparently once you are beyond the obvious "improvements" around Ballarat it's all free camping.

Turn right (east) to Surprise Canyon at a white boulder (waypoint SCTURN, 5.5 miles from the pavement). There is no sign, just that out-of-place rock. It is possible to continue north around east side of dry lake (past Warm Sulphur Springs) to reach Hwy 178 further north at waypoint 178IRR, but it's worse road and going through Ballarat is faster.

Soon after SCTURN, you'll see a long parking area first on the south side of the road and then on the north. Camping and parking for a virtually unlimited number of vehicles continues to waypoint SCPARK, 6 miles from the pavement, above which the road narrows but remains easy for passenger cars.

9 miles from the pavement and 0.5 mi from the end of the road (waypoint SUR2WD) is where passenger cars should park. Beyond there the road gets steep, loose, rocky, and there are clearance issues. There is no place to turn around after SUR2WD, you would have to back down if you spin out or high center. In Jan 2012 my sedan made it without dragging, but it's loose and could get rutted easily from one or two crazy 4WDers.

The Surprise Canyon road ends 9.5 miles from Hwy 178 at what the USGS map labels as Chris Wicht Camp (waypoint CWCAMP), a large parking area by the ruins of some buildings and a running stream. Fight your way up the brushy slot canyon and the "surprise" is that the canyon opens up just before Panamint City, the ruins of an old mining operation. Above the slot you're walking on a road, and waypoint SOURCJ is a fork: left to Sourdough Canyon (and The Castle, an old cabin with running water) or straight to Panamint City (and The Hilton, a newer cabin that's being maintained by volunteers). A foot path connects Sourdough to Panamint without going back down to fork.

Frenchman's Canyon road comes out into Panamint at waypoint PANMIN between large stone building and steel frame shed, just up the canyon from The Hilton. There is no longer a real road or even a clear trail, but you can get to Panamint Pass quite easily and down the east side of the range to Hungry Bills and Johnson Canyon.


Pleasant Canyon - access to Porter and Sentinel
(and cross-country access to Manly and Needle via Middle Park and South Park)

Leave Hwy 178 at the Ballarat junction (waypoint BALJCT), drive straight past the store (waypoint BALRAT), following a hand-painted sign saying that Pleasant Canyon is straight ahead. The road up Pleasant Canyon starts off a bit rocky, but was OK for my passenger car. At the first branch (waypoint PLCN01) take the right of several choices. This was not the best looking choice! With care, I drove a sedan into the canyon (waypoint PLCN02) and up to what I'd call the passenger car trailhead (waypoint PLCN03, 2100'). There is a small parking area above which the road steepens considerably and climbs 200' before narrowing along a brushy stream. In some places, especially when snow is melting, the road IS the stream. In other places the brush is 10' high and obviously trimmed into vertical walls by passing vehicles.

The road is rocky but not muddy even with running water (soil seems very stable). 2WD should be OK if high clearance, but water or mud may make traction a problem. Somebody pulled a 5th-wheel trailer up to Clair Camp, so how bad can it be? At waypoint PLCN04 a side road goes off to left, apparently joining one of the road forks from PLCN01. I've heard that the road may be gated at Clair Camp (waypoint CLAIRC, 4500') but I didn't see a gate and vehicles were driving through the camp in 2010. The snow line was 4500' when I was there, so I can't say whether it was 2WD or 4WD beyond that, but I could have gotten to Clair Camp with a high clearance 2WD pickup or a Subaru.

There was a vague junction at 5400' (waypoint PLCN07) where I stayed left. This junction (unlike the one at PLCN06) is not on the map and may have just been a wash covered with snow. I think I saw big cat tracks here. Near the Stone Corral label on the USGS map there is a junction to the Porter Mine at an NPS boundary sign (waypoint PLCN08). Just over a tenth of a mile later is the DPS Guide's 2WD trailhead (waypoint PLC2WD, 6000') at the junction to the Cooper Mine.

Stay right at PLC2WD if you're headed for Mormon Gulch and the SE ridge of Porter, go left if you're headed for Cooper Mine and the SW ridge of Porter. The Cooper Mine 4WD trailhead (waypoint COOPER, 7000') appears to leave you with tougher terrain than the Mormon Gulch trailhead.

At the drainage south of Cooper Mine (waypoint PORTSR, 6200') there is a minor fork. Take the right fork to continue to Mormon Gulch, or walk east from here to reach the south ridge of Porter on an all-year cross-country route.

Continue up Pleasant Canyon almost to 6400' (waypoint MORJCT) and turn left (northeast) to reach the Mormon Gulch 4WD trailhead (waypoint MORMON, 7000').

I don't know if the road is open in the summer, but in 2010 I went over a 6800' pass (waypoint MIDMOR) from Rita's Cabin (waypoint RITCAB) by taking the left fork just beyond the Mormon Gulch fork. It seems that this road is drivable in the summer, but since it was under 3' of snow when I was there I'd appreciate comments from someone who tried it. If it's open, the road goes across Middle Park and over another small ridge to South Park, where it ends at the edge of Butte Valley (overlooking Willow Springs and Mengel Pass). I used this route (on snowshoes) to climb Needle in February.


Mengel Pass - Tough 4WD access to Manly and Needle

This route is south of Ballarat (waypoint BALRAT), which is about halfway between Trona and Panamint Springs. See the Pleasant Canyon directions for how to reach Ballarat. I'll provide a map and waypoints here, but NO DETAILS because I haven't driven this road in many years.

WARNING: I've heard from many people that they won't drive over Mengel Pass ever again. One famous DPS climber had to jack up his rented 4WD and push it off the jack to get unstuck there. On the other hand, the only time I've been over Mengel Pass was in a 2WD Ford Ranger with a madman at the wheel. We had to stack a few rocks into the bad spots, and he was completely airborne once (with me watching safely from the sidelines), but we didn't get stuck and we made it up the west side and down the east side without 4WD or extreme clearance. It's a much easier drive from the east, but it's interesting that both the western and eastern approaches are from Hwy 178!

gjerstad adds in July 2010: I went over [Mengel Pass] last fall in a Jeep Wrangler. The link below goes to a video of a path through the tough spot on the way into Butte Valley. The toughest part is at about 0:53 to 1:05 in the video. I followed the same route in my Jeep without much difficulty. I've seen Jeeps go up the pass, but the drivers looked experienced. I went down the pass and out Warm Springs Canyon Road to the West Side Road in Death Valley.
See the YouTube Video.


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