On Thanksgiving Day we decided to play around the Argus Range on the western side of Panamint Valley. Much of this range sits within the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center but the northern end is free for recreation so we packed the day full of some fun 4×4 and two desert peaks. We needed to burn some energy before that big Thanksgiving dinner in camp.
Darwin is an old mining town and though there are still a few residents it is on the verge of becoming a ghost town. It is accessible via any vehicle using the paved road that exits 190 about 17 miles west of Panamint Valley. It is also accessible via an older route that winds through the Argus range. This ‘Back Road’ approach is dirt and the first mile and a half has been badly washboarded by Death Valley visitors heading to the trailhead for Darwin Falls. After the Darwin Falls trailhead the road becomes heavily degraded in places, requiring high clearance and the occasional dip into 4WD. Of course this is where the fun is.
We followed the road up as it climbed steeply into the northern Argus Range, moving quite slowly and engaging the 4WD. Near the top the road conditions improved greatly and we found a nice place to pull out and park the trucks for our hike up Zinc Hill. Zinc Hill is the prominent peak of the northern end of the Range and it was the target of the day’s first hike.
The approach described by Zdon in his Desert Summits book is really vague for this peak. He describes roads and washes but they are so common it is very difficult to figure out what one he is talking about. Fortunately the peak is visible and we just took a reasonable route, following an old degraded mining road into a small canyon below the peak. We worked our way up the northern slope of the canyon and eventually up the steep rock-strewn hillside below the peak.
The rock was a bit loose and annoying and just as I was getting a bit frustrated we serendipitously popped out onto a nice miner’s trail. Zdon had described this trail as part of his route but we had long abandoned trying to follow his description. Upon reaching the trail we could look behind and see exactly where it went – we quickly decided that we would follow it on the descent. You can see it clearly in the photo below (click for larger size). This wasn’t clearly visible until we actually met the trail where it crossed the rubble pile in the photo above.
The miner’s trail topped out at a low point northwest of the peak and we simply followed the ridge the final 400 feet to the summit. Another great desert summit – views down into Panamint Valley to the east and across to the Sierra Nevada to the west made it worth the climb.
Descending the miner’s trail was fun. It was in pretty good condition and although it was narrow and cut across a steep hillside we made really good time on our way back. As we followed the trail (which eventually connected to the road and wash described by Zdon) the original route description became clearly laid out in front of us. It was definitely easier than our route up. So you don’t make the same route finding error you can use my GPS track embedded below – the southernmost red line is the descent route along the miner’s trail. The northern red line is our ascent. The waypoint in the middle of the southern line marks the place where the miner’s trail meets the old road (described in the book as being marked with a large cairn).
Back at the trucks, we continued up the road (which was now in better condition) until we eventually popped out in Darwin. Quickly passing through this rather creepy area we met the paved access road and continued a few miles northwest until turning off on the dirt road that would take us to the backside of Ophir Mountain (see the track below). Follow this road as far as possible – to get to the waypoint on the track below you will need 4WD for the last ~1/2 mile (steep). Simply follow the ridge to the top for a quick desert summit and nice view of the area.
After our full day of hiking we went back to camp to meet up with friends and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. What a way to spend a holiday!