The towering Panamint Mountain Range acts as a natural barrier that separates the Panamint Valley from Death Valley. Death Valley is a much lower elevation than Panamint Valley, but the difference in temperature is only a few degrees, so no relief from the extreme heat of summer will be found in this desolate place. Winter temperatures can be icy cold in this area, so it truly is a land of extremes. Trying to imagine living year round in this inhospitable environment may be difficult to do, but there once were several old west mining camps in the canyons on the west side of the Panamint Mountains and Ballarat was the most famous of them all.
Mining operations were full tilt in the Panamint region back in the 1890s and the town of Ballarat soon appeared on the map as a central hub because a reliable water source was located nearby. There were mines in nearly every canyon on the west side of the Panamint Mountains, so the local businesses in Ballarat had a steady flow of customers. Ballarat was the supply line hub for the local mining operations, so this town was a commerce center as well. Eventually Ballarat grew to a fair size population of less than a thousand people. Several saloons and hotels popped up during the initial boom and a Wells Fargo Station was located here.
Just like with so many other boom towns out west, the prosperous high times in Ballarat only lasted a few years before the local mines played out. Prospectors never hesitate to move on to more prosperous opportunities when the mother lode is depleted, especially when the mines are in a very inhospitable area. With no other economic drivers to save the day, Ballarat was abandoned and it practically turned into a ghost town overnight. Most of the raw materials were stripped and shipped elsewhere, while only a few stragglers remained to call this place home.
Ballerat has pretty much just sat idle ever since the Panamint mining era ended in the early 1900s. Not much of the original town remains, but a few of the original building foundations and adobe walls can still be seen. Mining artifacts and old broken down vehicles are scattered around the grounds, so this ghost town is a time capsule of the past. The old artifacts have interesting stories to tell and some have nothing to do with the early mining history of this ghost town. Ballarat came back to life during the 1960s hippie movement, a scene from the Easy Rider film was shot here and the Charles Manson followers lived in a ranch right next door. Manson Family artifacts can still be seen in Ballarat, which provide some subject matter to ponder over from a unique period in history.
In modern times, Ballarat has become a ghost town tourist attraction and the welcoming committee definitely is the wild burros. The docile wild burros actually are descendent of the stock that was cut loose after the local mines shut down long ago. There are several historical markers in this town and there is a local shop that acts as a welcome center of sorts. Ballarat is private property, so artifact collecting of any kind is taboo, but visitors certainly are welcome in this place. There are a few locals that maintain what remains of the old town and they certainly have plenty of stories to tell.
For those who plan to do a complete tour of Death Valley National Park, Ballarat is actually located just outside the National Park boundary, but is is an essential stop from a historical standpoint. Panamint City is another famous ghost town mining camp destination that is located just a few miles uphill inside the park boundaries. In order to tour Panamint, a visitor will have to drive through Ballarat to get to the trailhead parking area, so two ghost towns can be toured in one day. Panamint City is best to visit when the outdoor temperatures are conducive for hiking, so winter is definitely the best choice.
There is a lot to see and do in the Panamint Valley, yet the majority of visitors do not stray from the neighboring Death Valley in this vast National Park. The Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark is a few miles south of Ballarat, which is a remarkably unique Mojave Desert landscape to experience. The Panamint Springs Resort is just a few miles north, so it is easy to plan an extended stay when touring the vast Panamint Valley, which empties into the Mojave Desert many miles south. Once again, winter is the best time of year for touring the Panamint Valley and if you are lucky, there will be some picturesque snow capped peaks. Ballarat is an interesting place to spend some time and the wild burro greeters certainly add to the charm!
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