Ferns and Waterfalls in the Desert
A ribbon of lush green running down the western side of the Panamint Mountains, with Death Valley just to the east, this canyon is a surprise.
A narrow "goblet valley" formed earlier in the history of the range, and later raised high above the present Panamint Valley floor below, the Surprise Canyon hike covers a huge range of elevations and habitats.
Warm Sulphur Springs on the bottom valley salt flat is at 1,021 feet in altitude, while Chris Wicht Camp at the trailhead is at 2,640 feet in Mojave Desert scrub. Panamint City, a ghost town of mining activity, sits at 6,320 feet in Pinyon-Juniper and sagebrush. Panamint Pass above is 8,070 feet, while Sentinel Peak stands at 9,636 feet and Telescope Peak nearby looms over all at 11,048 feet.
All this granite, limestone, and metamorphic rock holds a lot of water, trickling down through the mountain from rains through cracks and crevices, and gushing out from several permanent springs throughout the canyon to form a lively creek. In places the stream is fairly wide and gentle, yet in other places where the canyon narrows into famous marble gorges of bedrock, it cascades down in splashing waterfalls, an amazing experience in the arid desert.
All this abundant water creates highly diverse and overflowing plant growth, from maidenhair ferns and green moss-covered rocks, to forests of tall willows and cottonwoods. Many species are otherwise rare in the region, relictual, or of isolated occurrence.
See the PLANT LIST>>
Extreme 4x4 Jeep Trail
Since the late 1800s, Surprise Canyon had a rather easily-driven dirt road, probably formed in part by the abundant vegetation building up soils over the bedrock, allowing silver miners to get up to Panamint City, as well as picnickers in the 1950s. Gravel fill was also placed at times by a later mining operation.
But change is the name of the game in Surprise Canyon. Periodic major flash floods have scoured the canyon, washing out the road, since the old mining days, making maintenance unprofitable. All vehicle traffic stopped after the big 1984 flood, but then a new sport developed.
Extreme 4x4 enthusiasts around 1990 began winching their Jeeps and 4-Runners up the bedrock waterfalls and cutting through the dense willow and grape riparian thickets.
Take a hike up Surprise Canyon in 2000...
Access: The canyon is about 30 miles northeast of Trona as the Raven flies. Drive along Highway 178 until you see Indian Ranch Road, a graded dirt road heading east. This is just south of the junction with Wildrose Canyon Road. Head south along the dirt road until you get to the turnoff for Surprise Canyon at 5.2 miles. This road runs up the fan into the canyon mouth, and is recommended high-clearance. Park at the trailhead at historic Chris Wicht Camp, 4.5 miles in.
The Bureau of Land Management owns much of the lower canyon to about 4,800 feet, as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The upper canyon, including Panamint City, is within Death Valley National Park.