Surprise Canyon, is a lushly vegetated canyon in the Panamint Mountain Range. The lower half of the canyon falls under BLM jurisdiction, while the upper falls under Death Valley National Park. Until 2001 one could drive up the canyon via an old mining road that was built in the 1870’s, it led from the Panamint Valley floor to the mines of Panamint City. The old road suffered multiple times throughout the years from flash flooding that occurred in the canyon. The last several years that the route was open to vehicular traffic, only the toughest of 4WD vehicles and drivers managed to make it up the road to Panamint City. Because of the flash flooding, several waterfalls had formed in the canyon, creating obstacle which one had to winch their vehicle up.
Several environmental groups took up the cause to close vehicular access by use of the courts. In 2001, BLM agreed to close the lower portion of the road (making the entire road inaccessible) pending an environmental assessment. Environmental groups sighted the destruction of sensitive riparian habitat of the Panamint daisy and Panamint alligator lizard. They also documented spilled oil, gasoline, and antifreeze in the water (which there is still evidence of today).
In 2005 several land owners in the canyon that had been locked out of their property took to the courts to fight the closure, and regain access to their property. In 2007, U.S. District Judge O’Neill tossed their lawsuit, ruling that they had no standing to bring the lawsuit since they had no title to claim to the route.
Since 2001, the gates have remained locked, and the vegetation has grown back along the perennial springs that flow through this breathtaking canyon.
This author tends to disagree with the BLM and NPS on several issues; after having hiked Surprise Canyon on two instances in the last few years I am happy to see it only accessible via foot traffic. If the road would have never been closed, I may see it differently, but after 13 years of being wilderness, it would be a tragedy to allow the destruction of the regrowth that has taken place here.
Today, instead of the toughest 4WD vehicles, Surprise Canyon is hiked by the toughest hikers. Panamint City is still the main destination for most, yet it is common to come across birders, and botanist in the lower riparian areas.
The road closure begins at the site of the burnt out Wicht/Novak Camp, here is the site of the last of the mining to take place in Surprise Canyon. The camp burned down in 2006, likely at the hands of an arsonist, despite being called an accident. I don’t think anyone really knows the entire story, but apparently the fire only burned the camp before burning itself out.
The hike varies in length from each person’s account, some say the hike to Panamint City is 5 miles, while others figure on 7.5 miles. Either way it is a strenuous hike with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and many obstacles. On my most recent trip in May of 2014, I decided that I wanted to do the entire round-trip hike as a day hike.
I left my hotel room in Beatty, NV at 3:30am, and arrived at the Wicht/Novak camp a little over two hours later. I hit the trail by 6am; the sun hadn’t fully risen yet, but the light of dawn had well set in as I walked over the hill away from the camp. Almost immediately after clearing the hill, the trail begins to navigate back and forth across the lowest reaches of Limekiln Spring. The lowest portion is the swampiest, with a lot of mud that will attempt to hold your feet down. I didn’t bother attempting to avoid the water, as it is apparent most hiking this do based on the placement of rocks and branches across the spring. I had learned from my previous hike up this canyon, that the water eventually becomes unavoidable, so I embraced it early on.
Within the first half-mile the canyon walls narrow, and the vegetation becomes thick. Eventually you find yourself walking straight up a stream of water. There are no signs that a road ever existed here, the canyon clearly took it back. The plant life becomes so thick that one can’t see more than a few feet in front of themselves. Then you hear rushing/falling water ahead of you, you round a bend to find a waterfall with the words, “Human Stupidity Has No Limits” carved into the limestone beside it. One has to wonder if the carver was talking about themselves, and their need to carve words into a piece of nature…
There is a series of three waterfalls that one must climb over, all in just a short distance from each other. None of them are extremely difficult to navigate, but it is here that if one hasn’t embraced getting wet, you should. The easiest attack method is to walk straight up the waterfalls. There are boulders on the sides of some of the falls that are scalable, but with a little difficulty. I noted several blotches of dried blood on these boulders, probably from someone slipping and falling trying to come up or go down them.
Once above the falls, the tall vegetation thins out for a short period, the canyon walls widen, and you suddenly believe that you are actually following a trail…for a little while. It is here that if you pay particular attention to the water which lies stagnant, you will find puddles contaminated with oil. It wasn’t just a coincidence on this one trip that I saw this, I had come across the same a couple of years back.
Soon the vegetation closes in again, and the little bit of a trail system begins to become confusing. Several off-shoots begin to pop up, you might be tempted to take them to get out of the now heavily flowing spring and plants that tower overhead. Most of these offshoots lead to dead ends, which will force you to spend more time, and burn more energy than needed. The best advice, stick to the stream unless there is an obvious obstacle that you can’t get around.
Roughly at the mile and half point, you will emerge from the jungle, and find the first remnant of the old road. Both times that I have hiked this canyon, it is here that I felt as if I had just fought in a war. This is a great place to take a quick break and celebrate your small victory; but don’t celebrate too hard…the worst in my opinion is yet to come.
Back on the trail, you are quickly approaching the main source of Limekiln Springs. The massive amount of grapevines on the north side of the canyon wall, is host…yet a majority of the water doesn’t come out from underground for several hundred feet away along the south canyon wall. I will mention that on my first trip here, I collected water near the underground source for consumption. I did not filter it, and did not get sick. While I do not recommend drinking water without filtration, there didn’t appear to be any contaminates near the direct source if you don’t have any other option.
Once past Limekiln Springs the old road again reappears and becomes a very easy to follow trail. It is here however where I find the hell really begins. Depending on the time of day, you now have nearly a mile and 590 feet in elevation gain in direct sunlight before reaching Brewery Springs. My first time through, it was somewhere along this stretch that I first felt like throwing in the towel, but I didn’t. During this stretch, about a half mile after emerging from the jungle there is a very nice little rock shelter, which is a nice place to stop, take off your shoes and rest for a bit.
Back on the trail, and you are fast approaching Brewery Springs. Brewery Springs is another highly vegetated area, but not near as thick as what has already been conquered. This is also your last opportunity to collect water between here and Panamint City. During my 2014 May trip I collected water from Brewery Springs, and used a filtration system. I don’t know if it is a coincidence or not, but three days later I came down with a terrible case of strep throat. Enjoy the cover provided by the plants here, because it doesn’t last for long…
After exiting Brewery Springs, there are roughly 2 miles and 1,500 feet to go….there is again no shade, just open spaces and a trail that feels vertical at times. Three-quarters of a mile outside of Brewery Springs, Pinyon Pines begin popping up on the sides of the mountains, then before you know it they appear sparsely in the canyon beside you. With roughly a mile to go to the main site of Panamint City, stone buildings lay crumbling along the road. This was Main Street of Panamint City after all, and historical records indicate that Panamint City’s, Main Street extended out for a mile.
Shortly after the first ruins, you turn one last bend and you can see the smoke stack of the Surprise Valley Mill and Water Company’s Mill. It is the final mile, and the longest as you know you are finally about there, and you watch the smoke stack grow with every foot forward. Significant stone ruins of the houses and businesses that once lined this street 130 years ago are now collapsed along the road everywhere you look. Welcome to Panamint City; what was once one of the most violent towns in the west.
So did I manage the hike in and out as a day hike? I sure did. I reached Panamint City around noon, I spent about three hours in the “city limits” before making my way back down canyon. The last couple of miles on the way back proved to be very challenging as my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, and blisters popped as quick as they formed. I limped down the waterfalls, and the last mile back to my Jeep. 12 hours after I began, I sat my ass down in my Jeep and made the 5 hour drive home.