There is no easy way to get to Panamint Springs Resort. The route from the east crawls from below sea level to 4,956 feet before plummeting down the side of a mountain. The route from the west twists like a carousel past steep dropoff after steep dropoff. The route from the south washes out with just a whisper of rain. And then there are the dirt roads in — harrowing passes that squeeze through narrow canyons over rocks big enough to gut even high-clearance vehicles.
When you finally find your way to the remote western edge of Death Valley National Park, where Panamint Springs Resort is located, its mere existence feels like a mistake. There are no power lines stretching across the desert floor. There is no cell phone service. Not to mention, this is the hottest place on earth. The resort, a 40-acre, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blip on the map, offers the only gas, lodging, and food within the 65-mile long Panamint Valley. This otherworldly area, defined by its glowing white playa, star-shaped sand dunes, and lava-colored hills, only officially became a part of Death Valley National Park in 1994 after the signing of the California Desert Protection Act. It is, in this same spirit, something of an afterthought to many Death Valley travelers, who often stick to the more touristy east side of the park where there are ranger stations, boardwalks, hotels with pools, and even a golf course.
So who ends up in the Panamint Valley? In some cases, it’s people looking for off-the-grid adventure. In other cases, it’s lost travelers with near-empty gas tanks. In the case of the latter, the sight of a gas station is welcome. The price of fuel, however, can come as a shock. On a recent day in April, it hovered between $3.50 and $5 a gallon.
“It’s a hard environment just to live in, let alone run a business,” says Victoria Harkins, who owns Panamint Springs Resort alongside her parents and five older brothers. According to Harkins, steep gas prices are the result of how difficult it is to get gas brought into the area. “Occasionally you’ll get someone who complains about the price,” she says. “It’s like, I’m sorry, but also do you see where you are? These big tanker trucks have to come down these tiny mountain roads to get to us.”
Another challenge: Panamint Springs Resort generates its own power using a diesel generator. When there is no power, the computer system associated with the gas pumps goes down. The satellite internet, which can be disrupted by weather, also causes problems. “There have been days where we have gas, but people have to wait until the pumps connect with the computer to actually get it,” says Harkins.
What Panamint Springs Resort lacks in electricity and internet, it makes up for in beer. That’s another thing that seems impossible about the remote operation: the surprisingly robust craft beer selection. Step inside the small bar and restaurant and you’ll be greeted by a walk-in closet-sized room of coolers. Typically, there are more than 150 beers to choose from, though due to diminished visitation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are currently about 40 — still an impressive amount for the middle of nowhere. Panamint Springs is one of the only places where one can find a number of beers from Indian Wells Brewing Company, a microbrewery in Inyokern, California, that uses water from the same artesian spring that saved the lives of settlers crossing Death Valley during the 1849 gold rush. There are also cocktails, though due to what Harkins calls “a weird alcohol license” (not uncommon in rural Inyo County, where the resort is located), hard liquor can only be served April through December.
On the menu, there are burgers, fish and chips, pizza, fried appetizers, salads, and warm apple pie. Like the beer selection, this has been temporarily pared down during the pandemic. In recent months, Panamint Springs has also experimented with temporarily leasing out its restaurant to the owners of El Mana, a popular Mexican food truck in Lone Pine, California, a small community located 50 miles away at the base of Mt. Whitney. The pop-up serves chilaquiles, tacos, fajitas and carne asada. Given the restaurant’s reputation for burgers (the BBQ bacon cheeseburger topped with craggy onion rings is a favorite among repeat visitors), Panamint Springs plans to make some of these menu items available during the Mexican pop-up.
If the unexpectedly large beer selection in the midst of a hot, dusty valley isn’t enough of a treat, there’s also that view. From the porch of Panamint Springs Resort, diners can see clear across the valley to the snow-capped mountains, including Telescope Peak, the park’s highest at 11,049 feet. Palm trees shift in the wind, the sun turns the playa dazzlingly white, and roadrunners hunt for lizards among the creosote and sagebrush. At night, there is nothing but starlight and silence.
“The sky is so big,” says Harkins. “And there’s nothing in the way.”
It feels timeless, perhaps because so little has changed about Panamint Springs Resort in the 84 years it’s been open. Part of the property was built in 1937 by William and Agnes Reid, the latter of whom was the cousin of the famous William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The Reids opened the property as a restaurant and motel serving miners traveling along one of the original roads in the area. After William Reid died, Agnes continued running the operation until 1959 when she sold it. Over the next few decades, the resort opened and closed intermittently while also expanding to add a gas station, general store, and more lodging, including a campground. In 2006, Victoria Harkins and her family purchased it and moved to Death Valley from San Jose.
In addition to the restaurant, motel rooms, campground, gas station, and general store, the purchase also came with the water rights to nearby Darwin Falls. A rare Death Valley sight, the 18-foot waterfall tucked inside a lush canyon is a crucial ingredient in the continued survival of Panamint Springs Resort. “We don’t own Darwin Falls but we own the water that comes out of it,” says Harkins. “That’s the reason why we can be here.”
Much like generating their own power, sourcing water from a desert waterfall comes with its challenges.
“My brother and my dad are constantly working on the water line,” says Harkins. “The donkeys like to kick open the pipes and drink the water out of there, and we’ll get people that are camping and they’ll loosen up the couplings to get the water. And then there’s just nature — expansion and contraction. It is always challenging.”
Challenging is a word that comes up a lot when Harkins talks about running Panamint Springs Resort with her family. It is challenging for gas tanker trucks to carry fuel over several dangerous mountain passes. It is challenging to ship fresh ingredients in for the restaurant from 180 miles away in Las Vegas. It is challenging to communicate with motel guests when there’s no cell phone service. Even fixing the occasional broken doorknob is an all-day operation requiring a 70-mile drive to Ridgecrest. And then there’s the extreme heat. Summer days in Death Valley can soar above 120. In 1913, the park recorded the hottest air temperature ever at 134 degrees — recent years have come close to breaking that record. This is the kind of heat that causes jewelry to burn skin, that makes it possible to bake cookies inside a car, that requires travelers heading into the Panamint Valley to turn off their air conditioners so their vehicles don’t overheat.
“Things degrade faster because of so much heat,” says Harkins. “I can put a plastic bag outside for three months in the summer and by the end of the summer, it’s dust. The environment is so harsh. We have to pay attention to our personal belongings, our motel units. Everything needs to be assessed regularly because of the extreme climate and how dry it is.”
In 2020, Panamint Springs Resort was met with an additional challenge: COVID-19.
“The pandemic had a big effect on tourism in the park,” says Harkins. “In April of last year, we had to close everything down and pretty much just ran our gas station and campground to keep the lights on.”
In November 2020, a group of self-described “Panamint enthusiasts” took it upon themselves to start a GoFundMe to help keep the resort afloat; the fundraiser earned $32,653. With restrictions easing up, the restaurant is now open on weekends. The campground and tent cabins are also open, and the general store is open with snacks, camping supplies, and Death Valley souvenirs. In the restaurant, three family members cook and serve food, hoping that tourism will pick back up. Harkins is worried about the warmer months ahead — Death Valley summers are typically some of the busiest months of the year. From June through August, Europeans flock to the park, eager to experience the American West and famously hot desert destination. During non-pandemic summers, the porch at Panamint Springs is reliably filled with German motorcyclists, grinning in the heat and drinking Death Valley Pale Ale. As of spring 2021, tourists do seem to be returning to Death Valley, but the heat-seeking crowds who give Panamint Springs Resort so much of their business may or may not reappear.
“We’re just a family trying to keep something going that’s been going for 80 years,” says Harkins. “We’re doing the best we can with the limited resources that we have. I don’t really know if people understand what it means for us to be out here and the trials we have to go through daily just to keep the lights on.”
With all of these obstacles, one might wonder whether it’s worth the trouble of operating a business in the middle of a place like Death Valley. This is a question posed by those who have never been to Panamint Springs Resort, who have never seen the mountains go pink or heard the howls of coyotes, who have never had a beer in the company of strangers on a desert porch after hours of travel with nothing cold to drink.
The sunsets are different in Death Valley. The air is clearer, cleaner. As a result of the remoteness, the strangeness of it all, the people are different too.
In the 16 years that her family has owned Panamint Springs Resort, Victoria Harkins spent about seven years waiting tables at the restaurant. She recalls busy nights when there were more visitors than places to sit. Often, people from different countries would crowd around tables together. With nothing but the desert night and each other, they became friends.
“Total strangers can have organic relationships here,” says Harkins. “Being in Death Valley brings them together. When I think about it now with so much turmoil going on in the world, I try to keep my memory on those moments.”