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Jailed in Death Valley

Panamint Valley is about as middle-of-nowhere as you can get in the Mojave Desert. It’s 35 miles outside the tiny town of Trona, California, and then it’s another 35 to 50 miles in any direction before you can find the next small desert town. Most people hardly give it a glance as they drive through on their way to Death Valley, unless they decide to make a quick stop at the ghost town of Ballarat. Only the hardiest adventurers spend much time here, and I think that’s why I like it so much — that, and the fact that Panamint Valley has a rich history steeped in the Gold Rush age and a seemingly endless choice of off-road trails, ghost towns and mining camps to explore in the mountains that surround the valley.

Two weeks after enjoying Panamint Valley Days with Cal4Wheel, we came back to do more exploring. After doing the historic Slate Range trail and base camping at Panamint Dry Lake, we decided to check out Jail Canyon.

Jeep Wrangler Jail Canyon

Finding Jail Canyon Trailhead

The trailhead starts at the graded Indian Ranch Road, 7.8 miles north of Ballarat ghost town, and follows along the edge of the Surprise Canyon Wilderness.

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In two miles, the rough and rocky trail enters Death Valley National Park and continues up the alluvial fan toward the Panamint Range.

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We spotted some old mining equipment along the way, I believe the pictured item is a concentrator.

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At three miles, the trail drops down into the canyon before beginning the climb up the mountains.

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As you begin to climb there are some spectacular views of Panamint Valley and the Argus Range.

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Jail Canyon Trail Difficulty

Jail Canyon trail has a Moderate rating. Although most of it is fairly easy, you will have to climb in and out of the wash and negotiate some rocks once you are deep in the canyon.  

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We had to stop to check out this large boulder on the trail. It was more than 20 feet high, and it’s hard to imagine the forces that put it here. The edges where it broke off were sharp and jagged so we knew that, geologically speaking, it hadn’t been here long.

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Higher up in the canyon, the trail got rougher, and the views were even better.

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At one point we thought we had lost the trail. We got out to recon and realized that we needed to climb about 4 feet up to what looked like a river of white rock flowing down the canyon. The rocks weren’t large, but they were loose and constantly shifting as we drove over them, especially during the climb up.

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Corona Mine and Camp

We spotted the rusted yellow truck that marked the entrance to the Corona Mining Camp.

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There is a lot of old rusted mining equipment here.

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Further up the hill, the old shack is now an Adopt-A-Cabin used by off roaders and hikers. It had some restoration work done in 2007, but looks like it’s in need of a little TLC on the exterior again. There used to be another larger home at this camp, but it was removed many years ago.

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Despite the exterior appearance, the inside was fairly clean and well-cared for. There is an exterior shower with running water and two outhouses. A spring behind the cabin provides water.

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The library is well stocked with books and a board game.

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A picnic table and fire ring provide the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the valley below.

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If you have time to explore and are up for a short hike, the trail at the spring leads to the expansive remains of the Corona Mine, including a 3-stamp mill. This mine has been worked on-and-off since 1899, and is also known as the Gem Mine and the Burro Mine.

While we were exploring the camp, members of a Jeep club pulled up. We chatted a bit, then decided to clear out and let them have the place to themselves. We headed back down the canyon, retracing our steps. The trail is 5.6 miles each way.

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Jail Canyon is a fun half-day trip — longer if you take time to explore the mine above the camp. Remember that there are no services out here and no cell phone signal. It’s always best to explore these trails with a group and always be prepared with extra food, water and warm clothes in case something goes wrong. If you're new to these sorts of trails, you'll find our Off-Road Beginner's Guide helpful.


Looking for more adventure? We've got you covered with more trail reviews from the Mojave Desert.

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