One of the most remote locations you’ll ever likely encounter is Barker Ranch in Death Valley, California. It was the last hideout of Charles Manson and the Manson Family. Getting there is no easy task and requires planning and caution, due to the extreme desert conditions. To begin, you’ll have to head to the virtual ghost town of Ballarat, California, located in Inyo County. There are a few scattered people who pass through Ballarat, who are usually deliberately attempting to stay on the outskirts of society. One of the few buildings you’ll see in the town is the Ballarat Trading Post.
Directly in front of the Ballarat Trading Post is this truck, which for years has been rumored to have belonged to Manson Family member Charles “Tex” Watson. The rumor even got distorted one degree further, with some eventually claiming Charles Manson himself once owned it. The most common story is that when “Tex” fled Barker Ranch for Texas, he took this truck, which quickly broke down in Ballarat (Watson hitchhiked from there). However, according to locals, the actual truck “Tex” drove ultimately fell into the hands of another Ballarat local after it broke down, who was the caretaker of a nearby mining camp. He is said to have eventually dismantled the Watson escape truck. The one that sits in front of the trading post is similar, but locals claim it was never a Manson Family truck. However, the truck has sat in the same spot for quite some time and was likely in Ballarat at the time the Family was there, even if there is no direct connection. There is another truck, which is much more strongly argued to have belonged to “Tex” Watson, located at Barker Ranch itself.
Another old, rusty truck body, located near the Ballarat Trading Post.
To get to Barker Ranch, you will need to take a right at the Ballarat Trading Post, down Coyote Canyon Road. Surprisingly, most GPS systems, including Google Maps, can navigate you to Barker Ranch. However, it is strongly advised not to rely solely on GPS. Some GPS systems can be a bit off and cellular service is nowhere to be found in this region. So it is highly advisable to bring written or printed directions as well. There are no paved roads here, everything is dirt roads. Without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, Coyote Canyon Road is about as far as you will likely make it in a standard vehicle. Once you reach Goler Wash Road, you will likely traverse no further, unless it’s on foot or in a 4×4 vehicle. Here is a photo of the entrance of Goler Wash, which does not do justice to how rough the road truly gets.
Goler Wash is occasionally graded by the National Parks Service, which makes driving the road much easier. You can check online to see the various road conditions in a given season around Death Valley. Even with the road graded, it’s still difficult in certain spots. Even though it isn’t a long road, it will take you quite a long time to drive through it, due to the canyons becoming quite narrow at times (you can probably touch the rocky walls from your vehicle at various points). There is also a regular stream of water that runs through the wash. Depending on the season, this can be minor or significant. At one point along Goler Wash, you even need to drive up a small waterfall. Depending on the amount of water runoff, this can be fairly difficult. Another factor is simply all the loose rocks and gravel beneath you as you drive. It is recommended that an experienced off-road driver handle this road, but if conditions are agreeable in certain seasons, it’s possible for a first time off-road driver to handle it. Do your research and be careful if you do elect to attempt it.
Once you get through the war of attrition that is driving Goler Wash, you will finally arrive at Barker Ranch and Myers Ranch. Charles Manson first became aware of the ranches through Manson Family member Kathy Gilles, whose grandparents lived there. She brought Manson to the property, which he immediately liked for both it’s seclusion from society, as well as it’s perceived freedom from authority. Eventually, the Family began occupying both ranches, after Manson offered a Beach Boys gold record in exchange for permission to remain on the properties. While the Tate / LaBianca murders were planned from Spahn Ranch, it is Barker Ranch where Charles Manson and most members of the Manson Family were finally captured.
The path up to Myers Ranch and Barker Ranch.
The gates of Barker Ranch.
Some remnants of the outbuildings and stables at the ranch.
A plaque at the ranch, made by the National Parks Services, noting the history of the ranch. It shows a photo of what the ranch looked like before it was mostly destroyed by a fire. They also installed a picnic table beside it for travelers adventurous enough to make it out that far.
A view back towards the entrance, standing on Barker Ranch.
The remnants of Barker Ranch, as it is today. In 2009, a fire burnt down the majority of the building. However, the rock walls still partially remain, including the exact spot where Charles Manson was captured. The fire was reportedly accidental, when travelers passing through knocked over a grill. However, like so many things related to the Manson Family, this too has been called into question by some who believe it was intentional. In spite of the fire, it’s still fairly easy to identify each room in the remains of the ranch.
LOCATION: Just off of Goler Wash Rd., Death Valley National Park, Panamint, CA 93592 (easiest access is via Ballarat, CA, GPS coordinates: 35°51′34.57″N 117°5′18.76″W)
A closer look at the ranch, which was an extremely small building.
The fireplace, with a bedroom located behind it.
A seating area for eating.
A spot where someone carved their name, circa 1958.
The bathroom, where Charles Manson was captured. The discoloration to the right is where the bathroom sink was located. Manson spent his last moments as a free man hidden in a cabinet beneath it, in a space so small the arresting officer claimed he would’ve never even thought to look inside of it, if not for a piece of Manson’s hair sticking out. Before he could open the cabinet door up, Manson opened it himself and crawled out and surrendered. The arresting officer was not aware at the time of the magnitude of his capture. Most of the Family was arrested on two separate raids of the ranch, on suspicion of vandalism to some nearby government-owned construction vehicles. Charles Manson eluded capture on the first raid, but was captured on the second raid. It was only during their holding in Inyo County that the Family’s connection to the Los Angeles murders was initially pieced together.
Another angle of the spot where Charles Manson was captured, showing how truly tiny the space was. Surprisingly, the ranch fire did not destroy this part of the building and it’s still clearly identifiable today.
One of the outbuildings on Barker Ranch. Manson Family members Paul Watkins and Brooks Poston stayed in this building. It was Watkins and Poston who told prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi of the “Helter Skelter” motive. According to Watkins and Poston, the murders were intended to start a race war between the blacks and whites. The Manson Family would hide out underground in the desert until the blacks won the war, then they would return to rule over the blacks, who they believed would be incapable of running a society themselves. Bugliosi used “Helter Skelter” as the primary motive in his case against Charles Manson, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten and the theory became widely popularized as the motive for the murders. However, this motive has been disputed over the years. Many claim the murders were done as a copycat act, in an effort to make Bobby Beausoleil, who was a friend of the Family, appear innocent on the charges of killing Gary Hinman. Others still claim it was done as to instill fear into society, as an act of retribution for all the times those in power had rejected or imposed punishments upon the Manson Family. There are many different motives debated and the truth will likely never be conclusively agreed upon.
A view from behind the ranch. The most famous photos of the ranch from 1969 are from this angle, with the Manson Family bus parked to the center right of the frame. The bus was eventually dismantled and destroyed.
A swimming pool at the ranch, where members of the Family swam.
Many claim this is one of “Tex” Watson’s trucks, which is located behind the ranch. However, others dispute this as well. If you’re not familiar with the ranch, be careful in venturing back too far behind it, as it’s very easy to lose your bearings.
It’s difficult to make out through the rust and bullet holes, but the words “Helter Skelter” are written on the back of the truck.
Behind the ranch is also where some of the women were captured and arrested. The women were hiding in a hole in the ground, which was covered with some loose debris. This photo is of that approximate area, but perhaps not exact.
Another view behind Barker Ranch. From here you can get a better idea of just how small the building was.
A look at the nearby Myers Ranch, as seen from Barker Ranch. Members of the Manson Family also stayed at Myers Ranch. Today, it actually remains a private, occupied residence, unavailable for public visitation.
Footage of some of the members of the Manson Family at Barker Ranch can be seen in the Robert Hendrickson documentary “Manson,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, as well as his sister documentary, “Inside the Manson Gang,” which is mostly comprised of unused footage from the first film.
Barker Ranch is one of the most desolate places in the United States and it’s easy to see how one might have felt they could escape the eyes of the law in such a remote place. Everything there is sun-baked, rusted or worn down. It’s a unique experience to visit, but clearly one that is not for everyone. We of course do not endorse any of the crimes committed by those that took shelter here. Our aim is to simply show a unique place in American history, as it appears today.