A good hike through Surprise Canyon averages about four hours, traveling distances between 1.6 to 2.6 miles round-trip depending on your route. It’s a moderate hike with an elevation gain of 665 feet. To reach the trailhead from Ballarat, drive two miles north along Indian Ranch Road to the signed turnoff for Surprise Canyon. At the junction, turn right (west) and drive four miles up the road to the historic Chris Wicht Camp; park in the small parking area. The road is rocky, but it is maintained by Inyo County and may be passable with a passenger car; take a high-clearance vehicle if you want to guarantee your hike.

Old brick smokestack in Death Valley, California.

Watch for the old smokestack at the end of the Surprise Canyon trail. It’s part of the mining ruins of Panamint City ghost town. Photo © Joe Decruyenaere, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

At times the trail and the creek are one and the same. If you just give in to the fact that you’re going to get wet, this can be part of the adventure.The Chris Wicht Camp is named for the superintendent of the Campbird Mine in the mid-1920s. The camp was in use on and off from the 1870s and now serves as the trailhead for Surprise Canyon. At the far (east) end of the parking area, an unsigned but well-established trail follows a creek east into the canyon.

The reason for the canyon’s name becomes abundantly clear as you encounter the lush greenery and narrows of this lovely place. Surprise Canyon serves as the main hiking thoroughfare to the picturesque ghost town of Panamint City, but is also worth exploring on its own.

Be prepared for an erratic trail. It follows the canyon and is difficult to lose, but it crisscrosses the creek to avoid the need to bushwhack through the deep vegetation at the canyon floor. At times the trail and the creek are one and the same. If you just give in to the fact that you’re going to get wet, this can be part of the adventure.

Aim for the narrows, a highlight of the canyon with their smooth marble walls and mossy waterfalls. The narrows begin 0.8 mile into the hike and last for about 0.5 mile. You’ll need to do some rock scrambling to get through here. The hike up through the narrows will only take a few hours, but if it’s hot, you might want to allow time for resting by the creek, soaking your feet in the cool pools, and picnicking next to the splashing creek. This is a good place to visit in late spring, and you might be satisfied to splash through the canyon, enjoying the contrast of the water with the hot desert air and the slight relief from the elevation.

Beyond the narrows, the trail follows the canyon to the ghost town of Panamint City at 5.5 miles.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Death Valley National Park.