When Richard Elliott mentions his favorite hiking destination, most people get hung up on one word — “death.”
Death Valley — peppered with geological names such as Hell’s Gate, Dante’s View, Furnace Creek, the Devil’s Golf Course and the Funeral Mountains — has a way of getting people to think the worst.
But in the 66-year-old Manteca resident’s book — and he happens to be working on two of them — Death Valley in many ways exceeds the beauty of Yosemite where he got hooked on hiking 52 years ago as a teen.
“First I tell people it’s a land of history and a land of mystery,” noted Elliott who is a retired Tracy School District warehouse supervisor of 23 years.
But beyond the extensive mining history is something that Elliott values more than gold.
“It is absolutely quiet,” he noted of hikes up desolate canyons and remote mountains. “It gives you about one of the best gifts you can have, the ability to think clear.”
Elliott has found something more than expansive views to get him hooked on Death Valley since he started hiking there in earnest in 2009. He searches the seemingly endless landscape for mines put in place more than a century ago by fortune seekers lured by gold, silver, and other precious metals.
“It’s amazing how they knew where to dig,” Elliott said.
While mining in one year lured as many as 50,000 people to the greater Death Valley region including Rhyolite that boasted a population of 10,000, a $1 million train station, and several daily newspapers before fading to ghost town status, many of the mines that were dug often by muscle power and nothing else are elusive to modern-day explorers. And although hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of mining claims were made over the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century few yielded enough ore to be successful. The exceptions were the Keane Wonder Mine in the Funeral Mountains and the Skidoo Mine in the Panamints whose notorious nearby town site at one time was considered the deadliest place to live in the Old West making Tombstone, Arizona, seem like a peaceful enclave in comparison.
The search for mines has required him to play the role of a detective.
He scours old maps and mining claims. He tries to visually read mountains and canyons to determine logical locations for mines that would have to be fairly near to water sources which are in many cases springs that have long dried up.
Even so finding lost mines is pretty much a hit and miss business. His hunt for the Tarantula Mine and Broken Pick Mine in Trail Canyon high in the Panamint Range proved coordinates and descriptions provided by modern-day hikers aren’t even reliable at times. It took several trips before he found them.
But his crowning achievement was finding the Wonder Mine that had eluded both park rangers and other Death Valley mine enthusiast for more than a century.
“The claim descriptions often aren’t that great,” Elliott said of his research of old records.
That held true for the Wonder Mine.
Its exact location eluded him on several trips. Then last year he was in a side canyon on Trail Canyon and looked up and saw what looked like mining spoils on a step mountain side.
Getting to the mine site was dicey. But as Elliott noted, the more he has ventured into Death Valley mountains and canyons the more he has discovered that he can go places where he didn’t think he could before.
He is, however, acutely aware of how getting a bit cocky in wilderness areas like Death Valley especially while hiking solo can be a fatal flaw.
After reaching the entrance of the mine, he gingerly entered it and almost immediately made a rare find — four mining implements that included a shovel and a crowbar — that had been left behind. He went all the way to the end and slowly counted his footsteps out. The 140 footsteps almost perfectly matched the depth the old documents said the Wonder Mine was dug. A later trip with a tape measure verified it.
One of his hiking companions that has accompanied to Trail Canyon in search of mines was a fellow member of the Death Valley Hikers Association, 90-year-old Bob Greenwaldt of Rosemead.
Elliott combined his research and field observations to author a paper on “Locating the 1906 Death Valley Wonder Mining & Milling Mine” that was presented to the Death Valley 10th Historical Conference on Nov. 6 in Furnace Creek.
He is also working on a book on a mine in the Inyo Mountains northwest of Death Valley.
After retiring from Tracy Schools District, Elliott worked five years at the Stockton REI store where he conducted seminars on Death Valley.
He’d offer three versions of what one can do in Death Valley ranging from those that just want to make an auto tour, those willing to venture deep into four-wheel drive country and those that like long, remote hikes. Elliott also advises to visit between October and March before it gets too hot.
To win over skeptics that believe it is nothing but heat, rocks and desolation he references two men —William Manly and John Rogers. They were the two that set out on foot to find a passage through the daunting Panamint Range when a group of 49ers and their families seeking a shortcut to the California mines in 1849 stumbled into what is now known as Death Valley and became stranded and low on food.
“They told others in their party they’d find a way out and be back for them in 28 to 30 days,” Elliott said. “They kept their word. Stories like that are what Death Valley is about.”
Elliott travels to Death Valley three to four times a year often staying for up to a month. That prompts friends who have never been there to ask whether he’s run out of places to see.
“Its 3.3 million acres and bigger than New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined,” Elliott said he tells them. “I could live to be 150 years old and still go down four times a year and still not see everything.”