This time, we called the Park Service and the BLM before leaving home, and both agencies assured us that the Pleasant Canyon Road was still impassable. So we arrived in the ghost town of Ballarat, at the foot of the Panamint Range, prepared for a hard, hot 2-day backpack trip featuring 10,000 feet of elevation gain. It was after 10pm when we parked our 4Runner in the very modest Ballarat campground, rolled down all the windows, and tried to get some sleep. A strong sirocco wind provided little relief from the nearly debilitating heat of the valley floor.
We got up the next morning as soon as it was light and began our drive up Pleasant Canyon. Much to our amazement, someone -- probably a 4WD club -- had been up in the canyon and had worked on the road, which was now passable even without a 4WD vehicle. Water flows down sections of the road from nearby springs, and the vegetation is thick in places, but all of the large obstacles had been removed and the areas where the road had previously been washed out had been restored.
Approximately 6 miles from Ballarat, we drove through Clair Camp. We continued up the canyon, past burro families with their spring newborns, another 2.5 miles to a fork. We turned right here and continued for another 1.3 miles to another fork. Here, we turned left and drove uphill for a little more than 1 mile to where the road forks again, but essentially comes to an end, and parked. The entire driving route would have been accessible to 2WD vehicles with high ground clearance.
We loaded up our daypacks, and at around 8am, headed directly up the Mormon Gulch drainage. Shortly, the drainage turned into a large talus field that took us all the way up to the ridge NE of Porter Peak. However, we found it easier, especially on the descent, to stay mostly to the north of the talus field. Upon reaching the ridge, it is a short jaunt left to the summit of Porter Peak. From here, we could see the entire 4-mile long crest that extends between Porter and Sentinel Peaks.
We dropped down from Porter and followed the crest to Sentinel. The crest was covered with the most amazing profusion of wildflowers, which created vast carpets of bright color, even in the rocky areas. It was an easy, highly scenic and enjoyable walk all the way to the base of Sentinel, where we had a relatively steep, loose final ascent to the summit. From Sentinel Peak we enjoyed breathtaking views of Telescope Peak to the north, Death Valley to the east, the Panamint Valley to the west and Porter Peak to the south.
We returned to Porter Peak, taking about 5 hours for the round-trip between Porter and Sentinel. After summiting Porter for the second time that day, we descended back to our car, arriving around 4:30 pm. The approximate stats for the day's hike was 8.5 hours and 11+ miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
We drove back down to Ballarat and stopped at the store to buy a couple of cold sodas and visit the caretaker and his very friendly dog. Then we continued on to the Panamint Springs Resort for dinner. As of March, 2006, PSR has a new and enthusiastic owner -- Tim -- who is working very hard to improve the food, service and accommodations at a place that we think has one of the most scenic front porches in North America. After a couple bad experiences over the years, we had almost given up on this place, but it is now owned by someone who really cares. Our dinner was basic but excellent, the prices were reasonable, the service was friendly, and it was a wonderful way to cap off a very successful peak-climbing day.