Having heard Saturday night (September 26, 1998) that Inyo County Road
Department had bladed Goler Canyon Road through the Panamint Range, I
decided to check it out for myself and see if that bastion of
four-wheeling was tamed.

Goler Canyon Road runs up the west flank of the lofty Panamint Range to
Mengel Pass, then turns north then east and drops into the southern end
of Death Valley. At the boundary of Death Valley National Park, a road
turns south and east and after about a mile reaches Barker Ranch,
notorious as the last hideout of Charlie Manson and his "family" during
and after the gruesome murder spree instigated by him in Los Angeles.

Goler Canyon Road has always had a reputation as a rough one. The
canyon's mouth at the sheer foot of the Panamint's is only a narrow slit,
and the byway takes up all of that. A series of dry waterfalls has
generally made 4x4 or a dune buggy mandatory. For a short time this past
spring, after the torrential rains of El Niño of the winter / spring of
1997 / 1998, Goler Canyon was reportedly impassible to all vehicle

In May 1998, I traveled to the canyon along with a friend in his 1997
Jeep Wrangler to see if we could make it. My friend's Jeep is stock with
exception to 32" BF Goodrich T/A Radials, and a 3" lift. It runs the
stock 4-cyl engine and 5-speed transmission. He had also just purchased
a winch and was hoping to use it. We managed to get up Goler Canyon but
it was challenging and exciting, although we didn't need the winch.
There were two bad spots: the first was at the mouth of the canyon in
which there is a short but steep pitch upwards. It was worn down to
bedrock, so was a low range crawler. The next bad section is about a
mile inside the canyon, in which there was a large dry fall and a series
of smaller falls above it. The large fall was washed down to bedrock and
a sheer face, a large hole had been eroded at its base. Off-roaders had
prior built up a stone ramp to access the top of the fall, but climbing
that ramp made up of basketball sized stones with a six to eight foot
drop off on one side and overhanging protrusions in the bedrock on the
other made for some interesting driving.

Today I drove to Goler Canyon to see if the report of its blading was
true. The caretaker at Ballarat General Store told me that Inyo County
bladed the road three weeks ago, or the first part of September. And
yes, Inyo County did some taming of the road.

But, I'm happy to say, 4x4 is still mandatory. At the canyon's mouth and
at the dry fall series, all the bad places where my friend's Jeep had
difficulty were still there, though Inyo County has placed a soft bed of
gravel on top of the stone ramps that off-roaders had built since the
washout. I run a bone stock 1996 Chevrolet S-10 4x4 pickup with V-6 and
5-speed transmission. I kept it in low range the entire trip up. Over
the falls I had it in 2nd gear and my tires tried to dig into the soft
gravel (I run 30.9 inch BF Goodrich T/A's), though I was running street
tire pressures. That was the only area I had any sort of difficulty,
above the first spring and beyond the Newman Cabin, I had no trouble at

Inyo County's road work seemed to be limited to pushing away loose stone
and rock and defining a road course through the gravel and sand wash in
the middle canyon; as well as some drainage work on the sides. They
bladed the road to Sourdough Spring at the boundary of Death Valley
National Park. The roadwork was most evident from the canyon mouth to
the Keystone Mine camp, but from that point to the boundary seemed like
it has washed back out a bit (there were some heavy monsoon rains in
early September in the area). At those points the road is wherever
others have made obvious paths along the wash bottom but posed no

So even though Inyo County has tamed the road, I would heartily recommend
4x4 and truck based 4x4 rigs with low range. There are still some fair
sized stones on the road that would snag smaller, car based 4x4 vehicles
smaller than a Suburu Outback or Honda CRV. And also at Sourdough
Spring, off-road enthusiasts have filled in the main stream channel with
dirt, but I was a bit nervous even with my small S-10 crossing it, having
the outboard tires skimming the edge and the other side pushed firmly
into the heavy grapevines and willows of the springs. I would not
recommend a Humvee in here!

I went on up to the Barker Ranch, which had a family camping on the
premises, so we said "hello" and turned around and left them in the peace
that they had come to enjoy. I did note that the pomegranate bush in
front had a nice crop of the fruit hanging from its branches. The ranch
house seemed to be in the same shape that I last saw it in during a visit
in 1996. I wonder if Charlie ever wonders about "retiring" here?

It was here that Inyo County Sheriff Department and National Park Service
law enforcement personnel captured Manson and his followers in 1969. But
at the time of his arrest, they really did not know what they had on
their hands. All they wanted at the time was to prosecute the person or
persons who torched a Park Service front end loader further north at
Racetrack Valley, not a mass murder suspect and a flock of doped out
kids. A good book to read on the Goler Canyon aspect of the Manson
DEATH VALLEY by Bob Murphy. It is available for $9.95 at the General
Store in Ballarat or most book outlets in Death Valley.

As for the remainder of the road over Mengel Pass and into Butte Valley,
I cannot say since I didn't go farther than Barker Ranch on this day. I
went over the route last in December 1997 and it was then showing the
effects of the heavy winter and spring rains and required some tedious

After Barker Ranch, I drove down to Ballarat and then up to Skidoo and
visited the millsite. I had not been to the ghost town since 1990. It
hasn't changed a bit. It had nothing then, it has nothing now.
Overlooking the townsite from the west in 1990, I could still see (and
photographed) the faint grid of the original town streets. But today I
could only see one street paralleling the current road through town. It
seemed that the same amount of broken glass and 1-gallon tin cans still
litter the townsite.

I had not been to the Skidoo Mill before so I looked around and after a
while finally found it (I had driven within 500 feet of it on the first
road I tried, but stopped at a locked gate and turned around -- there is
a small sign on the gate indicating it was a 600 foot walk to the mill).
The Park Service appears to be in the process of stabilizing the
structure (actually two separate structures are left, all originally
under one shell), perched on a near vertical canyon wall. The three
batteries of five stamps each are all intact and appear to be complete.
There is also a small crusher upstream.

The Park Service has released a study on the millsite this year. It is
called SKIDOO STAMP MILL / MINE by Harlan D. Unrau, Death Valley National
Park. It is 83 pages long and covers the entire history of the mill,
along with a brief history of Skidoo itself. I don't know if it is
available to the public, I received a copy courtesy of Blair Davenport,
Museum Curator at the museum at Furnace Creek
([email protected]).

And, if such things are of interest to you, I was able to get a good
cellular phone signal on the road to Skidoo at the point where you can
overlook Furnace Creek, about the junction with the road leading to the
Giribaldi Mine. I have found over the years that at any point where
Charleston Peak (near Las Vegas) is visible, I can get a signal.
Something to remember if you break down or have an emergency in the back
country of Death Valley.

David A. Wright
Great Basin Research