Death Valley II: Ballarat to Badwater

I finally decided to start writing trip reports about my past trips in May of 2018 as I am about to depart for the PCT. Of course I do not have time nor interest to write about every single trip, but I decided to start with this one as it is the first trip that my friend Ira and I planned completely on our own. I have very fond memories of this trip and it gave me the confidence to go on many trips since. This was also my first real experience hitchhiking. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone and would like to go back one day.

What is really cool about this trip is you walk from Panamint Valley across the Panamints and into the truely massive Death Valley. Just driving through these valleys does not reveal their true scale. Also although surprise canyon is fairly crowded (by death valley standards at least) we saw no one after Panamint City. Thus we were left to contemplate the massive desert on our own.


The grand finale of this route was a crossing of Death Valley. Although we could see cars the night before moving along the road on the other side of the valley we still had six miles down the endless alluvial fan and 5 miles across the featureless salt flats. This was mentally the hardest part of the trip as it felt like we were not moving at all. When we finally reached the road Panamint Pass and the alluvial fan looked so close, but we were not deceived, we finally understood how truely massive Death Valley was and why the Panamints were originally mistaken for the Sierras by the poor travelers who got stuck in Death Valley almost 200 years ago and gave Death Valley its name. After taking a “shortcut” to California a large group of settlers got stuck in Death Valley for months as their food and water dwindled dangerously low. Many mistakenly assume that this was in the 120+ degree heat of the Summer but it was actually in the mild temperatures of the winter.

Completing this hike was only half of the adventure. When we reached the road we still had to hitch 100 miles back to the car. The first ride took 3.5 hours to get and we got quickly discouraged sitting beneath the shadow of a signpost in the 100 degree heat. As we didn’t have much experience hitchhiking we did not yet know to always trust in the thumb. We also did not know that if we had gone a few miles north on  the road to Badwater there would have been over ten times as many cars and we could have gotten a ride out much quicker. Finally a nice women stopped gave us a ride on the condition that we would not murder her to which we quickly agreed. However after the long wait for the first ride our fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better.

She dropped us off just outside Furnace Creek, the first cell service we had had in days. Normally this is not something that I would place much importance in but it was then that I found out I had been admitted to UC Berkeley where I would eventually end up attending. I jumped up and down and screamed in joy. Not soon after a Spanish man in a nice convertible picked us up and whisked us through the hot desert at 60 mph. This was a very different way to see the desert.

He took us to stovepipe wells where we quickly got a ride to Emigrant campground, a free first come first serve campground where we stayed the night. The next morning we quickly got a ride to the northern end of Panamint valley just twenty miles north of our car.

Our last ride was perhaps the most memorable ride out of the 87 I have gotten as of May 2018. A women by the name of Elaine picked us up and after about 20 minutes moving all of her various belongings around in her trunk there was finally enough room to squeeze our packs in. As she drove us she told us she grew weed up in Alaska and traveled back and forth between there and Death Valley. It turns out when she was much younger she used to live at Panamint City and she even claimed to have raised her daughter there. She told us some crazy stories about her time there and what it used to be like. She drove us straight to Ballarat as she was going to a gathering there to which she invited us but we politely declined. As the settlers who were trapped in the valley said when they finally found a route out, good bye Death Valley!

(all pictures taken on my phone as I did not have a camera at the time)

Ira hitching a ride out
Our camp the first night after walking a few miles from Ballarat towards the mouth of Surprise Canyon.
Theres not much to see in the small ghosttown of Ballarat, but a year after taking this picture I learned that this is Charles Manson’s old truck.
Suprise Canyon
The mysterious Panamint City, where Elaine lived for 18 years.
Our first view of Death Valley from Panamint Pass.
looking back up Johnson Canyon
Random VW high up on Johnson canyon road, still not sure why this car was here as we never saw its driver.
Crossing Badwater Basin
The superbloom, in hindsight not a bad place to be stranded for three hours.

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