Location: Surprise Canyon in Panamint Valley
Length: Roughly 10 miles out-and-back; factor in another 2-4 if exploring the town
Duration: 7-12 hours depending on pace and how long you wish to explore the town
Intensity: Strenuous with 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss
Death Valley is an inhospitable place, and its neighboring valley, Panamint, is no more appealing. With temperatures that can hover upwards of 100° F from May to October and a dry wind that can parch your skin into something reptilian, images of Panamint Valley don’t typically conjure lush oases. And, for the most part, they’re not. Surprise Canyon, sitting below the 9,600 foot Sentinel Peak in the Panamint Range, is, however. There’s water and, beyond that, there’s life–hermit thrush flit from branch to branch, Pacific tree frogs cling to moss, and thick, black carpenter bees whizz through the sky–all of which comes as a surprise. Hence, the name Surprise Canyon. Follow the trail to the end of the canyon and you’ll find the remains of a once-thriving silver mining town, replete with 2,000 residents at the height of its times in 1874. This, of course, is exactly what we did and here’s how you can do it, too.
On Saturday morning, after a six hour drive through Memorial Day Weekend traffic the previous night, Nick and I arrived at Chris Wicht Camp, the trailhead to Panamint City. From the ghost town of Ballarat, it’s little more than a fifteen minute drive along the salt flats and up into the canyon. We started our trip at 6:30 a.m and traveled lightly, but sufficiently (for us): we each carried two L of water along with macadamia nuts, corn tortillas, guacamole, apples, almond butter and quinoa. A word of caution: carry more than you think you’ll need. Additionally, we brought our dog, Cashew, with us for 14-mile round-trip hike. Cashew weighs no more than 15 lbs, so carrying him when he started to tire wasn’t an issue.
The first few miles of the hike are lush. The trail follows the spring, so you’re constantly in and out of the water. The first time I did this hike, I avoided the water as long as possible–don’t! There are sections further along the trail where you’re wading up the stream and no matter your agility, you WILL get wet. Besides, when the day heats up, the cool water will be a welcome reprieve.
Less than a mile in, you’ll come to a series of waterfalls. You might be tempted to climb the adjacent cliffs along the sides, but I found that the fastest and relatively safest method was climbing up the waterfall itself.
At some points you will be forced to clamber up slick rock–take care here as there are blood marks from where others have slipped and cut themselves up.
The best waterfall comes last (and is also the densest source of tree frogs we found.)
Following the largest waterfall, the trail will lead you up and over a series of small hills; there are several routes to be taken here, but try to stick on the southern side of the trail. Ahead, you’ll come to another stretch of green, known as The Grapevine.
You’ll crisscross through The Grapevine, then eventually make your way out of and into another thicket of green brush. Although there’s a path that goes up and over a steep hill, I recommend staying within the thick of the foliage. Here’s why–a shaded tunnel awaits!
The tunnel lasts less than a quarter mile, but it’s well worth the walk to enjoy the water of Brewery Spring. From this point forward, things got hot. And, unfortunately, you’re only at mile three by this point, which means that there’s still another two miles of uphill climbing to do.
The remaining miles are exposed, with a slow grade that eventually adds up to a total of approximately 3,700 feet in elevation gain.
Nick and I continued up the canyon. The lupines surrounding us made the hike prettier than we had remembered, and gave us something to enjoy as we searched for the smelter smokestack. Once you can see it looming in the distance, you know you’re just shy of mile five, and almost at Panamint City. We were stoked to finally see it in the distance!
It took us just shy of three hours to reach the city and, having not had breakfast, we hurried over to the remaining foundation underneath the precarious smokestack to eat our meal.
We spent another few hours exploring the remains of Panamint City. The largest and most obvious structure is the Panamint Hilton, a miner’s cabin that now hosts backpackers who wish to stay the night. There are a few beds, a sink, a non-flushing toilet and some emergency supplies, but don’t expect to be blown away. There are rat and mice droppings on most surfaces and don’t expect the appliances, such as the stove or refrigerator, to work. Still, the logbooks dating back to the early 2000s are incredibly fascinating to check out.
Although we explored other buildings, we failed to check out the Overflow Cabin that sits on the northern side of the town; there’s not much to see, however–it’s simply another building that backpackers may wish to take shelter in overnight.
Nick and I were anxious to see the Native American petroglyphs that nearly escaped us on our visit three years ago. Misreading the directions on how to find them, we searched fruitlessly in the pines at the foot of the mountains, east of town. The petroglyphs are actually located on the northern edge of town. If you stare at the hillside, you’ll notice two large boulders. The boulder farthest to the west is the one with the petroglyphs. And yes, they’re worth a gander!
Our last stop in Panamint City was the Castle Cabin; technically this gem isn’t in Surprise Canyon but in the adjacent Sourdough Canyon. As you leave Panamint, aim north at the first canyon you hit. A half-mile walk up another hill takes you to Castle Cabin.
In contrast to Hilton and Overflow, Castle was extraordinarily clean, especially given that these cabins are maintained only by backpackers who pass through the area. There’s a bathtub that’s hooked to a water heater, too. Though we didn’t take the time to turn on the water hose, it is possible to take a bath outside! Additionally, the inside has two beds, a full and a twin, and the sink is completely operable. Cashew immediately found himself at home on the bed and slept while we signed our names in the guestbook.
We relaxed in the cabin, enjoyed the last of our food and then headed back down the trail. It should come as no surprise that the way back is far easier than the hike in, given that you’re now descending nearly 4,000 feet in elevation.
Cashew began to slow as the strength of the sun intensified and the ground heated, so Nick carried Cashew in my backpack until we reached Brewery Spring. We slapped horseflies away and sucked in the last few sips of our water and dreamed about a glass of cold water to pass the time. Soon we were back at Limekiln Spring, then the waterfall, and, just as we had imagined, were reveling in an icy cold shower courtesy of Death Valley’s hidden surprises.
Directions: From San Diego, head north on the I-15 N to 1-215 N for 55 miles. Merge onto I-15 N for 15 miles, then take exit 141 for US-395 toward Adelanto. Continue on US-395 for 68 miles, then take right for Trona Road. Turn right for CA-178 E/Trona Road, then right onto Trona Wildrose Rd. After 19 miles, turn right on Ballarat Rd. Once arrived in Ballarat, look for the Ballarat Trading Post (one of the few remaining buildings.) There will be a sign that directs you to Surprise Canyon. Follow this unpaved road for 1.7 miles, then turn right. Follow this road to Chris Wicht Camp, where you will park your vehicle and begin the hike. *Note: It is somewhat customary to stop by the Trading Post to inform the Caregiver of your plans. Some guests choose to leave a thank you gift of $5 in the form of a parking “fee”, a case of beer or a sincere thank you.*