The Lonesome Miner Trail, New York Butte
By: Ron Jones, John McCully, Jerry McDonald
I have always enjoyed backpacks in the cooler locations of the desert and there are only a few opportunities in our DPS peak climbs. So when Steve Smith and I started exploring the Inyo mountains we saw some good opportunities. Then Steve and his "Friends of the Inyos WSA" did an enormous amount of working piecing together old mining trails they located and coming up with about a 40 mile long continuous stretch which they named "The Lonesome Miner Trail". This starts from near the mouth of Hunter Canyon in Saline Valley and ends at the Reward mine in the Owens Valley. I looked further at the maps and put together a 65 mile trail leading from the Cerro Gordo mine near the south end of the Inyos, staying on the crest to New York Butte and then dropping down to join the "Lonesome Miner" at Big Horn Spring. I term this trail, "The Grand Tour of the Inyos". After completing this backpack, I consider it the best and most interesting backpack I have ever done in more than 30 years of hiking. Also the hardest. I plan to repeat this as a Sierra Club scheduled hike perhaps in two segments starting next year. I am writing the trip this year in two segments and the conclusion will appear in the September SAGE.
The trip was advertised as a long difficult exploratory and it lived up to this description with a lot of adventure and excitement and fatigue as well. We had seven backpackers who took off from work the whole week and two more who joined us for significant potions of the hike for a total of 9. The trip started out Friday night, May 6th, in Lone Pine. Four of us met at Curt's Smoke Signal BBQ in Lone Pine to carbo load on barbecued ribs and chicken. It had snowed the night before and during the day and to the east, the crest of the Inyos was obscured by dark storm clouds and both the Inyos and the Sierra were dusted with snow down to about 6,000 ft. The Forest Service said that it might clear on Saturday, Sunday at the latest. It didn't look promising but after the first day, most of our trip would take place 4-5000 feet east of the summit on the drier Saline Valley slope.
After a comfy night in the Alabama Hills Motel (recommended by John & Carol, Jim Conley & me), we looked out at 6am and there was still snow and clouds and a cold wind had picked up as well. I called home and it had rained about an inch in L.A. during the night. After a quick breakfast John and Carol left to attempt the Swansea grade road to the Burgess Mine near New York Butte. They were dropping off water for us as there was none around and then they would drive along the crest to near the start of our hike at the Cerro Gordo Mine. Jim Conley and I met the rest of our group at the turnoff from 395 to Lone Pine Station. Surprise! We had 4 more participants. Jerry McDonald, a Sierra Clubber from Riverside, Ken Olsen from Escondido and Mario Gonzalez from the inner city of Los Angeles. Bob Emerick showed up but had to cancel because of a stomach virus he picked up on a recent hike across the isthmus of Panama.
We drove in 4 vehicles north to the Manzanar-Reward Road leading East to the Reward Mine. This turnoff is 9-1/2 mile north of the stop light in Lone Pine and shown on the Bee Springs 7-1/2' topo. After this road crosses the bed of the old Tidewater & Tonopah RR the main road makes a 45 degree turn to the NE to the Reward Mine (the tunnel of this mine is so large you can drive right into it). At this point make a 90 degree turn to the north and drive 1.1 miles on the main road (avoiding turns to the right) until you come close to a point of a ridge with a corral visible below. Turn east here and go about 0.3 miles to the end of the road with adequate parking for maybe 10 cars. This would be the end point of our backpack coming out from Pat Keyes Pass 8 days in the future. We left 3 cars here and piled packs and bodies into Jim Conley's Cherokee.
By 9:00 am Jim, Jerry, Ken, Mario & I were at 8,200 ft at the Cerro Gordo mine. The road was mostly clear but the ground and mine buildings were covered by fresh snow. We talked with the caretaker, Mike, asked and were given permission to leave Jim's Cherokee parked for the week. We waited half an hour for John & Carol to show up and then started out on the ridgeline road they would be driving on. After an hour we came across John's pickup and we saw their tracks leading toward the Burgess Mine. We cut off several hundred feet of elevation loss on the road (with our heavy eight day packs) by following the level water line trail to Cerro Gordo. The clouds lowered, visibility was nil and the snow began to float lightly down. After about 7-1/2 miles we came to the salt tram station at the head of Daisy Canyon. This is an awesome sight with a long massive framework and giant wheels and long heavy cables leading up from the salt works below us in Saline Valley and down to the old steamboat terminus south of Keeler on Owens Lake. This was the longest aerial tramway in the world in its time and the remains of lots of equipment lies along its route. There is a faint rough trail leading up the east side of the Inyos from Saline Valley and Steve Smith says it makes an interesting backpack (often without water) and sleeping at one of the tram towers and machine shop enroute. There are several cabin remains at the station on the ridge and we saw smoke curling out the chimney of one. Someone is staying here we thought, and then discovered John and Carol curled up in front of the fire waiting for us. It was a great spot to regroup.
Skies were still cloudy and snow was still drifting when we started out on the last 4-1/2 miles to the Burgess Mine cabin. Just as we arrived at dusk, in various stages of exhaustion after a 15 mile backpack, 2000 feet of gain and 800 feet of loss with 8-day packs, then the snow started coming down more seriously. John had left several gallons of water for each of us earlier in the day. Five slept out in tents while Jim and I chose the shelter and the noise of a rattling tin-roof cabin with a fireplace whose chimney had fallen in and now vented inside the cabin. The smoke was fierce as we had wet wood to burn. There was lots of evidence of Deer Mice inside and we wondered if we might contract the Hanta Virus disease from our scuffling around in the dust and dirt floor of the cabin.
It snowed and stormed all night and the next morning we awoke to 6 or 8 inches of fresh snow with drifts up to two feet (nearly covering McCully's tent and collapsing Jerry's tent). About an inch of snow had drifted inside the cabin. The wind was still blowing and clouds were scudding overhead. I decided to call this a layover day instead of three days later at the Keynot Ridge cabin. We had enough water and if the weather did not break we could always hike back to the Cerro Gordo mine the next day or the next. Jokes were circulating about this trip ending up like the Donner Party and we were wondering who we might have to eat first. By noon the skies were mostly clear, but snow covered the ground. John took Carol and several others up the snow covered slopes of New York Butte while the rest of us sat around shivering in the sun at 9,200 feet.
Monday we shouldered our packs and started on the abandoned 4WD road leading down Craig Canyon. After the first mile and thousand feet of elevation loss we left most of the snow behind. We found a note written several years ago by the driver of a 4WD who started down the road but after 3 blowouts and a broken clutch he had to walk out. I thought this road was mostly downhill (you climb 700 feet crossing from Craig to Hunter Canyon) and led almost to Big Horn Spring, our goal for the day. Well, the road goes about 8 miles and the last mile and a half is cross country and there are hardly any level places for 7 people to sleep and it was difficult to get to water (plenty of it though) because of the nettles, rose bushes and grape vines. At 10 miles, with 700 feet of gain and 5,700 feet of loss with 6-day backpacks, it was quite a day!
Big Horn Spring has several nice pieces of mining equipment lying about. There is a large boiler with a really tall chimney still standing straight, a 4 or 6 stamp mill, several cabin walls, floors and foundations . This was a milling site because of the nearby water, and the mines were for the most part located up the smaller dry north fork of Hunter Canyon. Hunter Canyon and the surrounding Hunter Mining district were named for William L Hunter, a well known prospector of the Inyos & Panamint Range during the 1870s.
On the third day of our backpack the seven of us spent a pleasant evening at Bighorn Spring. Clouds were building at sunset and we were treated to a few drops of rain and magnificent colors in the evening sky. Next morning dawned clear and bright. While we were breaking camp for a 7 o'clock start we found a note scratched on a rock by Ron Hudson the day before. Ron was going to join us from the Bay Area but our one day layover because of the snow storm put us out of synch.
The trail shown leading from Bighorn Spring to the Bighorn mine on the New York Butte 7-1/2' Topo does not really exist. With our heavy backpacks we found this stretch and beyond to Frenchie's cabin in Beveridge Canyon very, very difficult with long stretches where we found no trail, to places where we found many faint trails, to lots of loose scree and then as we dropped down to Beveridge Canyon lots of rose bushes and willows to break through. The trail is easily followed to the small northwest fork of Hunter Canyon and then seems to disappear. It probably stays in the rocky canyon bottom to about the 5800 ft contour where we saw a galvanized metal water tank in the canyon bottom. From near this location we think we saw, and Steve Smith has heard, there is a good trail leading directly up to the Bighorn mine. At noon when we were near the Bighorn mine we encountered Robert Hayes from Bishop who came in solo over Forgotten Pass (about 1000 ft of trail on the west side washed out in the last year or two he reports) and who was going to meet us the day before in Beveridge. He had spent the night there and met Ron Hudson going north. Robert Hayes is an excellent backpacker and route finder who would be an asset to any trip. Robert is the son of a former Angeles Chapter hiker I know, and has done a lot of hiking in the Inyos. After checking out a relatively new mill site at the east end of the Bighorn prospects he returned with us to Frenchie's cabin. We passed over the ridge (UTM 182606) at 8700 ft and followed the trail occasionally marked with BLM carsonite markers to the drainage at UTM 175610 which we descended and then hiked up (!) Beveridge Canyon to the cabin shown at 6560 ft. I will say no more about this leg of the trip except to say it was 6 or 7 miles, 3900 ft of mostly trailess gain and 2600 ft of elevation loss. It took us from 12 to 13 hours, wore many of us out and was the hardest day of backpacking I have ever done. This section of our route might be a little easier done in the opposite direction, from north to south.
Frenchie's cabin is an excellent spot to camp. A water tight cabin, a good spring, other cabin ruins nearby and great views. It is also on a route out over Forgotten Pass to the west. The next morning the now 8 of us backpacked down to the site of the old Beveridge Camp. We passed the entrance to the side canyon leading to Cove Springs. It is marked by a jungle of thick vegetation and a cabin in pretty good repair. There are several cabin sites and surrounded by thick brush, a stamp mill and boiler at the upper end. The Cove Spring sites are most easily reached by a good trail leading down from the Keynot Ridge cabin. This cabin was our goal for the night, but via another trail leading directly from Beveridge.
We soon reached Beveridge, a relatively accessible camp (a good day hike on use trail up from the Snow Flake Mine and Saline Valley) which as a result has deteriorated a lot since I first visited it 15 years ago on a private trip led by Mark Goebel and June Lane. Still, there's lots to be seen. A nice 4 stamp mill, boiler, a pelton water wheel, a still standing roofed cabin, stoves and an elaborate tram and ore handling system. A couple of years ago Steve Smith led a Friends of the Inyos climb directly down Beveridge Canyon to Saline Valley which involved the most rose bushes and grapevine brush whacking he had ever done and some impressive rappels as well.
After exploring the mining camp with us, John and Carol checked out of the trip as he wasn't feeling well and Carol was exhausted from the previous day. After spending the night at Frenchie's Cabin they hiked up the South Fork of Beveridge Canyon past Goat Spring (reliable water) and followed the use trail south past New York Butte to spend the night at the Burgess Mine cabin. The next day they walked the road to Cerro Gorgo mine and their truck. Jerry McDonald from Riverside would be our capable sweep for the rest of the trip.
Starting from near the tram line at Beveridge we followed the trail up to the cabin on the Keynot ridge. It is shown on the New York Butte 7-1/2' Topo, located at 8280 ft. The Friends of the Inyos have stabilized the cabin, put a new roof on it (using helicopter to bring in supplies) and keep it stocked with emergency supplies, food and water and several six packs of beer. We enjoyed the beer and several of our trip members later sent Steve Smith money to reimburse him for new supplies. We also found a note from Ron Hudson who was climbing Keynot Peak (an easy ridge hike from here, passing an old mining timber camp with artifacts enroute). Ron was retrieving a few items left on the Keynot slopes by Marty Dickes when she broke a leg while solo hiking shortly before our trip. He joined us that evening and we were seven people in the party. We finished the day by exploring the ruins at the Keynot mine and hiking up to Keynot Well (a reliable water source). Our day #5 was a 10-1/2 mile day with 2650 ft of gain and 800 ft of loss.
The next day was our intended layover day when we were going to climb Keynot and Mount Inyo, but we had already spent that day snowed in at the Burgess Mine. So we backpacked over again to the Keynot Mine and followed the old ore tracks (with still functional hand pushed ore carts) to the use trail, obscure in many places, and out to the flats just below 8,000 feet on the next ridgeline. Here we were surprised to meet "Mr Mountain Man" of the Inyos, Tom Budlong (He lives in Los Angeles at 3216 Manderville and attended our last DPS Banquet). We spent some time visiting and listening to Tom tell us about the Bee Keeper of McElvoy Canyon. Tom was on his way to meet Steve Smith and his Friends of the Inyos at the Keynot Ridge cabin.
Just beyond where we met Tom is a short section of the obscure trail. In fact, the most obvious trail in this direction goes out to "Keynot Point" (Point 7742 ft on the Topo). But in the "flats" at about 7900 ft the trail (marked by two short hard-to-see BLM carsonite markers) turns sharply northwest and slightly uphill and then follows gently downhill for a mile to a cabin site at 7500 ft. We found a lot of nice artifacts here. By carefully tracing the faint trail (and passing a threatening 4 foot rattlesnake) we dropped into McElvoy Canyon at 5700 ft elevation. The canyon bottom had been recently burned in a accidental fire set by previous hikers and the vegetation was a mess of soot and charcoal. We thrashed our way through the burned vegetation and large boulder talus to the impressive site of the unburned Taylor-McElvoy mill. It is not as large a site as Beveridge but there is more high quality stone work. I thought this the most impressive ruins we saw on the trip. There is a large "bunkhouse" with several hand made three-legged stools, a great fireplace but no roof. There is a small cache of emergency food stored here. There is a 5 stamp mill surrounded by extensive rock walls. There is a steam engine powered by a boiler which drove both the stamp mill and a small arrastre. There are lots of trails in the area leading to ore tunnels which fed the mill site.
This day was relatively easy, involving only 8 miles, 1500 feet of gain and 3600 feet of loss to our camp at 5600 feet. There is lots of running water. That afternoon several of our group hiked down canyon a mile or so to "The bee keeper's cabin". Lots of brush enroute and not much to see at the small cabin. That evening at dinner time we had an impressive short cloudburst that drove us all into our tents.
The next morning Ron Hudson left us to return up to the two carsonite signs near Keynot Point, over the point and down the old 4WD road to the Saline Valley and then south to his car at the mouth of Craig Canyon (lots of ingress and egress points into the Inyos). The six of us remaining started up the steep trail leading up and 5-1/2 miles over to the ruins in Pat Keyes Canyon. Shortly after leaving the Taylor-McElvoy mill site, while exploring one of the old mine shafts, we found the location of another of the Bee Keeper's homes with lots of his bee keeping paraphernalia including bee nets, a smoker for the bee swarms, jars for honey etc.
We stopped for lunch on the ridgeline near point 7848 feet on the Pat Keyes Canyon Topo. The spot we chose was coincidentally a former Paiute Indian camp and we found several arrow points, lots of obsidian flakes, bed rock morteros, pottery shards and more. We tried to leave everything in place all through our trip so that others who follow us can enjoy the artifacts. Then we followed a long stretch of near level trail at about 8000 ft before nearly loosing a one-half mile stretch of obscure trail leading past Pat Keyes Spring and down to the ruins at about 7100 ft. The Pat Keyes ruins are marked by a BLM sign at their upper end and include a large arrastre powered by a one cylinder liquid fuel engine as well as a smaller traditional animal powered arrastre and the usual cabin sites and other artifacts. The mechanical powered arrastre is the largest I have ever seen and heavy chains are still attached to the drag stones. This, our 7th day with much lighter packs, we did 2900 feet of gain and about 1100 feet of loss in the 5-1/2 miles. Our high camp was very pleasant and infrequently visited. The area is rather heavily forested in pines and firs with lots of blue jays and chickadees. There is plenty of water with a nicely running stream.
Saturday, May 14th, our final day of the 65 mile backpack and more than 16,000 feet of gain and 20,000 feet of elevation loss, started with an easy 1500 foot ascent over point 8688 ft and then a gentle trail over Pat Keyes pass at 9,540 feet. Here we were again rewarded with terrific views west to the snow covered Sierra Crest. Then a 4 mile descent through increasingly drier, hotter country, finally with no vegetation at all. Half way down there is the remains of an old cabin, an unreliable spring and a barbed wire stock fence. The trail is shown on the Bee Springs and Pat Keyes Canyon 7-1/2' topos but the trail from the ridgeline down to our last night's camp in Pat Keyes Canyon is shown on the 15' Waucoba wash topo. About 2 miles from the cars Mario Gonzalez called out, "Tell me when you see the next shade and trees". I looked ahead and responded that they were about half a mile behind us. Finally we reached a Forest Service sign-in register and then our cars. After resting a bit and celebrating the completion of our Grand Tour of the Inyos, everyone departed one way or another, Robert Hayes up to Bishop, Ken Olsen to Escondido, Jerry McDonald who served as a strong dependable assistant, back down to Riverside, while Mario took Jim Conley and me back up to the Cerro Gordo Mine where we had left Jim's car at the beginning of the week. Incidentally, we found out that the ailing John and aching Carol got out OK, the day before us.
I want to thank the Ridgecrest office of the BLM for helping and supporting over the years the opening up of the old Inyo trails, for the Friends of the Inyos and the Desert Survivors for doing a lot of exploration, to Tom Budlong in particular for devoting so much time in careful mapping and description of the trails (I hope he is writing a Guide to the Inyos) and especially to the DPS's own Steve Smith, BLM Ranger, who organized and spearheaded the ongoing effort at locating and popularizing the Inyo trails. For anyone who is interested, I carried my video camera the entire trip and have a 2-1/2 hour amateur video of our 8 day trip which is available from me at my cost of about $15.00. I am certain that ours was the first hike to ever cover all these trails, either in pieces or especially in one single trip which explored this much history and geography of the Inyos.
I plan to repeat a good part of this hike in the spring of 1995 on a scheduled Sierra Club trip. Join us if you are interested. Happy Trails
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