Sunday, March 29, 2015

Death Valley: Surprise Canyon to Panamint City

Essence: Surprise Canyon's riparian oasis is confined by glistening narrows. Slosh up a series of gentle, sparkling cascades. Walk through two green, spring-fed tunnels. Soaring canyon walls have intoxicating colors and textures. Significant mining ruins in Panamint City include a perfect smelter tower. Miles are rugged with a consistent steepness in this exceptional canyon--a pleasure top to bottom.

Surprise Canyon, south of Telescope Peak, just right of image center, cuts through the western Panamint Range. It is an historic thoroughfare, uncommonly free of impassible barrier falls. Panamint City is almost 4,000 feet off the valley floor. It is nestled under the pink columnar wall at the horizon. This image was captured while rolling along the Panamint Valley Road.

Travel: From Panamint Springs, drive east on CA 190 for 2.4 miles. Zero-out your trip meter and turn right/south on Panamint Valley Road. CA 178 is paved, flat, and narrow. At 14.1 miles, turn right on Trona-Wildrose Road. Telescope Peak dominates the eastern skyline. At 23.6 miles, turn left on Ballarat Road, dirt, and pass a radar installation. In the town of Ballarat, at 27.2 miles, go left on Indian Ridge Road. At 29.2 miles, turn right on Surprise Canyon Road at a green sign post. The crushed-rock road goes northeast, steeply up an alluvial fan covered in creosote. Enter Surprise Canyon at 31.5 miles. Park at Chris Wicht Camp at 33.3 miles. 2WD vehicles with good clearance and sturdy tires should make the trailhead. Note: While Ballarat is a "virtual ghost town," there was an operational general store in 2015 and some RV's parked randomly on the outskirts.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12.2 miles includes wandering around Panamint City; 4,000 feet of climbing
Time: 7:00 minimum; 9:00 allows for time to explore the ghost town
Difficulty: Trail, historic mining road; navigation moderate; no exposure
Maps: Ballarat, CA; Panamint, CA 7.5 Quads or Trails Illustrated: Death Valley National Park, #221
Reference: For the definitive guide to the mining history of Panamint City, natural history and geology of Surprise Canyon (and everything else Death Valley), consult: Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline, and Eureka Valleys, Michel Digonnet, 2009.
Date Hiked: March 29, 2015
Quote: For its many well-preserved structures, historic significance, and beautiful setting in high forested mountains, Panamint City is the most exceptional mining site described in this book.  Miles of roads zigzag up into the mountains to dozens of sites--cabins, mills, tunnels, mining equipment, and colorful ore. You will see lots of birds and wild flowers in the warm season, run into burros every day, and soak in the cool springs. Everywhere you go the isolation, both geographic and temporal, is almost palpable. A trip to Panamint City is a bit of all this: you get caught in a spellbinding space-time capsule. Michel Digonnet
Route: Hike generally east up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City. Explore, and return as you came. The lower canyon is brushy, the trail braided, and occasionally you'll have to search around for the best route up the drainage.

Mining operations at Chris Wicht Camp began in the 1870's and continued for 130 years. Mining wreckage and ruins are scattered about the trailhead, 2,630 feet. The up canyon trail begins past a vehicle-blocking gate. The NPS and BLM closed and bared the road in 2005. You'd never dream there was a road in the lower canyon. It's been blown to smithereens by floods. The riparian area is lush with cottonwood, horse tails, and willow. Birds sing sweetly, orange dragonflies dart and blue butterflies flutter.

At 0.6 mile enter the gleaming white, igneous narrows. Digonnet claims the brilliant, resplendent walls are one billion years old. A contrasting diabase dike goes from canyon floor to sky. 

At 0.7 mile, the walls constrict and narrows-play begins. Your feet are going to get wet.

Panamint City was a draw for 4-wheelers. They winched vehicles up the cascades, much to the derision of Ballarat locals who carved their disdain into the wall.

Walk up the ivory, stair-stepped cascades covered in green moss. It is one of the supreme pleasures in Death Valley.

The canyon widens at 1.0 mile. How hard can it be to hike quickly up a canyon? The terrain is brushy, there is a high bypass upcanyon-right, the trail is threaded and the wrong choice left us cliffed out more than once. Go back. Thus, the going is slower than anticipated. The incongruous Limekiln Spring, is at 2.0 miles. A tangled, thick mat of grapevines covers the slope north of the trail. Plow through the vegetation.

Above the spring, the canyon is dry, vegetation dissipates, and the old road appears to assist progress. At 2.4 miles, the canyon makes a left bend and a large side canyon comes in on the right.

At 3.2 miles, water once again flows in the desert. Walk through a green tunnel in the shaded shallow stream to Brewery Spring. Burros live in this area so you may wish to treat water you gather. (THW, photo)

At 3.7 miles, a large side canyon joins upcanyon-left. In March, flourishing clumps of lupines dominate the flowering community.

At 4.3 miles, Woodpecker Canyon joins upcanyon-left. The grade is continuous and consistent. Progress accelerates on the abandoned, gravelly road. Euphedra and sage line the track, piƱon-juniper cling to steep slopes.

At 4.8 miles the smelter smokestack comes into view, right of center in the image below. Look around. The road, once Panamint City's 1.5 mile-long Main Street, is framed with stone ruins of the once bustling town of 2,000 people. Many walls are beautifully crafted. Digonnet writes the discovery of silver-bearing quartz veins in 1872 yielded enough silver bullion to ship out 400 pound ingots by 20-mule team.

It took us a little over three hours to hike the 5.7 miles to the smelter smokestack at 6,300 feet. Precisely cut dolomitic limestone blocks form a robust foundation for this gorgeous monument to perfection.

The towering smokestack of the historic smelter is the town's crowning jewel. Built of half a million bricks, it is a magnificent 45-foot tower tapering from a massive square base to a finely ornate crown. In all of the California desert, there is not another structure like it.  It stands watch over the town like a timeless sentinel, a priceless landmark in the history of the American West. Erected in 1875, it was for one short year the silver-churning heart of the Panamint mines, their life-line and pride, and it survives today as their finest symbol. Digonnet

The workshop, open-sided with a metal roof, houses a generator and assorted machinery. I resupplied water at an open spigot. Cabins are shockingly well-preserved. Two have tin roofs and intact glass windows. Backpackers shelter here; the cast-iron stove is functional.

The porch is festooned with metal mobiles artfully made from mining relics and kitchen utensils. They put up a pleasing racket when the wind blows. A dump truck is parked outside the workshop.

A hillside cabin has a sweet iris garden. My favorites are the beds of ornamental irises. Originally planted to brighten the town's gardens, they took a liking to the high desert and have been blooming over and over for more than a hundred springs. Digonnet

The Coso people, known for their rock art, are a Native American tribe associated with the Mojave Desert of California. Polychrome pictographs in white, yellow, orange, and red are painted on a ceiling darkened with soot inside a rock shelter in the Panamint City area. (THW, photo)

The rock of Surprise Canyon presents a sensory overload. Colors are bizarre, textures complex, and the variety is endless. While I especially favor dazzling dolomite, ores are multi-hued: malachite, azurite, silver, zinc, gold, and tungsten.

Return as you came, perfecting your down canyon route. Two burros forage between the springs.

 In the cascade-infused narrows, frogs hopped and croaked.

Surprise Canyon is one of the few drainageways in Death Valley that successfully penetrates a mountain range. I'd like to return and climb Panamint Pass, then continue east down Johnson Canyon into Death Valley. See Digonnet for a lengthy description of hiking options in the Panamint City region, especially suited for backpackers.


  1. Great Information! I have been looking for an out of the way trail to hike. I have done Darwin Falls twice already. Appreciate the work you did in documenting this hike.


  2. Well I did the hike on Tuesday Nov 29th on my own.
    Only made it just past Woodpecker Canyon to Marvel Canyon. If I could see the smokestack from the camp I would have gone there but could not and decided not to risk it any further. My Camelback was 1/2 empty of water. Legs were feeling sore and I knew they would be in much worse shape if I went further and there would be a high risk of falling downhill. No cell phone service and it gets cold this time of year so I needed to be back before sundown.
    I was more exhausted than I wanted to be due to some rock climbing when I lost the path. Should have stayed to the right and got the feet wet instead. Instead I fought back brush and climbed like Bear Grylls taught us with the 3 point technique. Thankfully I brought gloves. I wore a rigid cowboy hat and that helped deflect brush away from my eyes (did plan or expect it but appreciated that hat).
    I failed in my secondary objective of reaching the camp.
    However I succeeded in my primary objective of getting out alive after a long hard uphill, rough terrain hike in Death Valley.
    I'll reach that camp another time...

  3. Yes, it is a long tough day hike. Glad you made it out in one piece. Debra

  4. Do you think I could make it to the Chris wicht camp parking with a low clearance station wagon?

  5. The road is rough. My notes indicate "good clearance." It will be a challenge but you might make it. Wish I could be more definitive. Good luck.

  6. I did the hike to the Visitor maintained cabin and back down to Ballarat in one day.....not a good idea. I was under the impression from a park ranger that it was a manageable day hike. I should have stopped but I was so determined. I was told it was only five miles from the trail head so after what felt like forever, I kept thinking to myself, “It MUST be up ahead!”
    The group I was with didn’t want to stay, neither did I quite frankly, and we walked back at night.
    By the time we got back, my legs might as well have been broken. I had a leg injury in my groin area that took over a year to heal.

    1. You walked six miles from Ballarat and then started the hike? Impressive, darn impressive. It is a difficult enough trek from the trailhead. I'm glad you healed up. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. Debra

  7. I love this area of our great nation!

    I first started going to Death Valley & the Panamint Mt area in the 70's as a teenager. Then started to explore deeper, further, more remote areas in my Jeep. When Surprise Canyon was still open for folks to drive in their 4x4's, we started at zero dark thirty AM and made a day trip from San Diego, CA & made it to ~waterfall #6 before we stopped. Good times.

    1. It is so wonderful to hear from a life-long Death Valley enthusiast! I love your back-in-the-day story. Gnarly. Debra