One of the many activities my wife and I like to partake in while RVing is exploring ghost towns, abandoned mining camps and other forgotten places. At the urging of Chuck Woodbury, I am turning our experiences into a monthly column.
In each entry I will be sharing a bit of history about the site, our exploration of the site, directions so you too can visit it and places to camp nearby. Regardless of whether you are an adventurous RVer that will follow in our footsteps or will follow along from your easy chair, it is my hope you will gain knowledge and/or enjoyment from this column.
We will start our adventure by visiting Ballarat, California. I chose Ballarat as it is best visited in late fall, winter or early spring. I suspect many of you reading this may be currently camped out in the California desert this winter. Hopefully you will take the time to visit.
Ballarat sprang to life the latter half of the 1890s (accounts vary) as a supply post with the discovery of gold up nearby Pleasant Canyon at what would become the Radcliff mine. The town was named after a gold mining camp of the same name in Australia by a young Australian miner. By 1899 the town contained upwards of 500 residents along with a post office, Wells Fargo station, jail, school, hotels and multiple saloons.
As with most Western mining camps, once the profitable ores were depleted, the mine closed. Residents began to drift away as there were no jobs and the town had no reason to exist. Ballarat was no exception. The mine closed in 1905 with the post office following suit in 1917. A few prospectors hung around the area looking for the next big strike, but without much success. One such dreamer was Seldom Seen Slim. Slim is buried in the town cemetery, with a grave marked by a plaque and ornate fence.
My wife and I visited Ballarat several years ago. We boondocked (listed below) near the dirt road turn off to the town, as the road was not suitable for RV travel at that time due to severe washboarding. At the time of our visit, multiple buildings were still “standing” in various stages of decay. Many of the buildings constructed of adobe are slowing melting back into the earth from which they came.
One of the more interesting items in town is a 1942 Dodge power wagon which belonged to Tex Watson, a member of the Charles Manson Family. They hid out at the nearby Barker Ranch for their involvement in the Tate–LaBianca murders. A pentagram, a symbol that the Manson Family used to represent themselves, is drawn on the ceiling of the truck. That is the only clue of the truck’s dark past.
During our visit we were lucky enough to meet Rock Novak, who watched over the place. He had many stories to share with my wife and me. Sadly, I am told Rock no longer resides in Ballarat.
We also visited the cemetery and found the grave of Seldom Seen Slim. The epitaph on his grave marker proclaims, “Me lonely? Hell no! I’m half coyote and half wild burro.”
Click here for more information on Ballarat.
Ballarat is located in the very isolated Panamint Valley northeast of Ridgecrest, California. From the intersection of Hwy 395 and Hwy 178 in Ridgecrest, head east on Hwy 178 (aka Trona Wildrose Road) for approximately 45 miles to the signed turn-off for Ballarat. Turn right on Ballarat Road and in about 3.5 miles you will have arrived in Ballarat. The intersection of Ballarat Road and Trona Wildrose Road (Hwy 178) is located at N36° 02.019 W117°16.896. At the time of our last visit to the area the graded Ballarat Road was in good shape (suitable for RV travel). This is thanks to a mining company maintaining it for a new mining venture south of town.
As you travel down Ballarat Road, you will notice a radar station to your left. That will leave you wondering why would anyone locate a radar station in the bottom of a valley lined with mountains? The answer will be abundantly clear once you are buzzed by the low-flying fighter jets from nearby Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake. The Panamint Valley is their training ground for low flying missions. If the radar was located higher up the planes could not be tracked.
Ballarat Campground Conveniently, there is a campground (no hookups) in town which will allow you to commune overnight with the ghosts of Ballarat. It also makes for a great basecamp from which to explore other ghostly sites scattered along the east side of the Panamint Valley. Learn more here.
Panamint Springs Resort
The resort is located at the northern end of the Panamint Valley. It offers RV hookup sites with 30- and 50-amp service. Dry camping is also available, along with restrooms. Click here to learn more or make reservations.
Boondocking The public land surrounding Ballarat is under the control of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), which allows dispersed camping (aka boondocking). Learn more about dispersed camping on BLM land here.
A convenient spot to boondock, if you don’t want to drive down the Ballarat Road, is to continue north on the Trona Wildrose Road past the turnoff to Ballarat. In about two tenths of a mile, you will encounter a road leading off to the right (east) at N36° 02.196 W117° 16.852. In about 600 feet this road will split multiple times providing your choice of boondocking camps. Note: There have been multiple flash floods since we last camped in this area. I suggest you walk this road in advance to see if it is suitable for your RV.
Be aware that cell phone service is limited-to-nonexistent in the Panamint Valley. Consider carrying an alternate form of communication like a Spot Messenger if you plan to visit Ballarat.
Dave will be speaking at the FMCA Convention in Tucson, AZ, March 25th and 26th. He would love to meet RVtravel.com readers that are attending. Feel free to introduce yourself after one of his seminars.
Look forward to your post/stories
I have lived in Ridgecrest for the past 35 years and prior to that was raised in Trona from the time I was 4 to 44. As a teen in Trona, we had to improvise for entertainment during summer months and spent a lot of time exploring the Panamints including Ballarat. Not mentioned in the article is Indian Ranch that is a few miles north of Ballarat and Wildrose Canyon with the Chinese Kilms that produced charcoal for the mine smelters boilers. In addition to Ballarat, there was a large community up Surprise canyon called Panamint City.
Speaking of Manson, he and his group would come to Trona for supplies and became well known to many of the Trona residents with one of the girls that still resides there (she wasn’t part of the murders). Barker ranch still exists and is easily accessible by 4×4 vehicles.
As you mentioned there is much to explore in the Panamint Valley. Most drive through without a clue at what exists in the nearby foothills. It is my understanding Barker Ranch burned several years back, not sure what remains.
I’ve been to Ballarat via Dual Sport motorcycle. Cool place. When we were there a few years ago there was a store of sorts that had drinks and snacks. Might have been temporary for our ride but not sure. Then rode a canyon into Death Valley
We visited the ghost town of Bodie, CA in the 70’s before it became a state park. It is located off Hwy 395 East of Yosemite National Park and north of Mono Lake. It was also a mining town.
Thanks for the information! One suggestion is that if you have a drone, fly it over the road to check conditions and possible boondocking sites.
Agreed, it was on my boondocking gift ideas last month.