Not to be mistaken for the original Ballarat in Australia (which is still a thriving city and a popular tourist destination), this Ballarat was named after the Australian town by an Australian miner. Originally founded in 1897, it provided services and accommodation for miners working several mines in the nearby vicinity. Its peak population was around 500 – like other remote gold mining towns, once the gold began to play out, the population dropped dramatically. The boom years were short – lasting from 1897 until about 1906 when the town featured several hotels, saloons and even a school. By 1917 the post office closed.
Ballarat is located about 3 hours from Bakersfield and about 4 miles from the lonely and little traveled paved Trona Wildrose Road. A historical plaque marks the turnoff onto the dirt road leading to this ghost town. Located next to the Panamint Mountain Range in the valley immediately to the west of Death Valley, summers can be brutal with temperatures easily reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters can be cold – the highest peak in all of Death Valley National Park is not far from Ballarat – the 11,049 foot Telescope Peak.
Today not much remains from the original town – a few falling apart buildings, a wooden restored building that used to function both as the jail and the morgue, some crumbling adobe buildings and a few other miscellaneous structures. Two of its most well-known residents were Frank ‘Shorty’ Harris and Seldom Seen Slim. And there is even a pool on site although it has never been filled with water during our visits.
Like with other mining towns, Ballarat features an abundance of old metal scattered about – including one old now faded green Dodge which was used as a getaway vehicle by Manson family member and murderer Tex Watson (stars painted on the ceiling of the cab were put there by some of the Manson girls). Charlie Manson and his followers set up camp about 75 minutes southeast of here at Barker Ranch. On the dusty drive there, about 10 clicks outside of Ballarat one will pass the sometimes large but very shallow seasonal Lake Levart (this lake was named by us).
Ballarat attracts a number of cool folks – including one of the owners, Chuck, and also Grant from the Napa Valley – who owns a mine in the Panamint Valley. The center of town is an old building (the Ballarat Trading Post) which now serves as a museum, store and meeting point for folks passing through town. Some cold drinks and miscellaneous products are sold including Ballarat t-shirts and bumper stickers. The massive snake skin hanging on the wall is an immediate conversation piece. A very clean bathroom is located near the rear of the building.
Ballarat becomes especially busy during Panamint Valley Days, an organization that focuses on exploring Panamint Valley via 4wd vehicles during at least one weekend each year.
Ballarat is best served with a cold bottle of beer or some desert likker (consumed straight from the bottle) while standing on the wooden porch of the museum building swapping stories about mining, off road adventures, or beautiful women that have touched one’s life. And the best song for a visit here is, “Hey Baby, Que Paso” by the Texas Tornadoes.
Flash Flood, Panamint Valley – waters flowing down to the very seasonal Lake Levart
This old ghost town is often used (in the winter and spring) by campers – amateur prospectors, off road enthusiasts and others looking to get away from it all.
Often fighter jets piloted by US Air-force fly overhead, often doing acrobats or practicing bombing formations. Less noisy, but certainly noticeable are the semi-wild burros that linger around town from time to time.
And for those who have been writing letters to aliens but haven’t been sure where to send them – a few clicks north of town along the dirt Indian Ranch Road is a mailbox for sending letters to aliens.