A backpacking trip up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City is a personal favorite which passes by beautiful waterfalls in Surprise Canyon and ends up at the expansive historical mining town of Panamint City. Difficulties encountered on the backpacking route include driving to the starting point with the proper vehicle, obtaining drinking water from the springs at the proper places along the route, and navigating or bushwhacking through portions of very thick brush within Surprise Canyon. A Google Earth map of the full backpacking route can be found by clicking on the button above. GPS coordinates for the parking area are 36° 6.756'N, 117° 10.515'W. GPS coordinates for Limekiln Spring are 36° 6.841'N, 117° 9.085'W. GPS coordinates for Brewery Spring are 36° 6.942'N, 117° 8.037'W. GPS coordinates for Panamint City are 36° 7.059'N, 117° 5.706'W.
HELPFUL TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
MAPS AND INFORMATION -- (1) A good source of information for backpacking this route can be found within the pages of Michel Digonnet's "Hiking Western Death Valley" (his 2nd book) on pages 361-380. There are good maps and mileage info within those pages. (2) There is a special informational handout on the Surprise Canyon to Panamint City backpacking route which you can sometimes pick up (if there are any copies available) from the BLM trailhead station. This handout provides additional information about the route. (3) Extensive research can be done of the area by using satellite imagery such as Google Earth. This will help you get an overview of the terrain, areas of thick vegetation, portions of old road, and general route that you will be hiking. On Google Earth, you can also look at photographs posted by previous hikers (which are not always placed in the correct locations). (4) A hiking GPS would be a valuable aid along this route as you would be able to input GPS coordinates and track your general progress and current elevation as you head up Surprise Canyon.
DRIVING AND PARKING -- Reaching the trailhead involves driving across graded gravel roads to get to Ballarat and then taking a rougher and steep road to get to the parking area at Chris Wicht camp (which is now a camping area). A HC (high clearance) vehicle should be sufficient in order to do this. It is considered good manners to stop by the general store in Ballarat to inform the store owner of your plans, where you will be parked, and to pay the suggested parking fee (usually less than $5). You may also wish to buy a drink or snack from the store owner and many hikers in the past have left him a gift of either a case of soda or beer to thank him for keeping an occasional watchful eye on vehicles parked at the trailhead. Doing these things is not mandatory but has become customary for long-time visitors.
THE BACKPACKING ROUTE -- There are several things which first-time visitors to the area need to be aware of during the backpacking route up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City. (1) Do not underestimate the difficulty of this route. A big mistake that first-time visitors to the area make is thinking that the route will not be that hard due to the relatively short mileage of 5 1/2 miles one-way. The trail is continuously steep and 3,675 feet in elevation is gained during those miles. If you factor in climbing through waterfalls in the narrows, making your way through areas of thick brush as noted below, time spent backtracking when not taking the correct route, and time spent hiking in the creek, it all adds up to a long and difficult day. Some backpackers who do not start early in the day end up spending the night somewhere along the trail and don't reach Panamint City until the next day. (2) There is extensive overgrown brush along the route. The heavy amount of brush makes it difficult to figure out the correct route through the canyon at times. False paths sometimes lead to dead-ends and you can find yourself stuck on the edge of a small cliff or in the middle of impenetrable sections of brush. When this happens, you have to backtrack and try another route. One key to remember is don't be afraid to get your feet wet. It is nearly impossible to make it through Surprise Canyon without walking through sections of the creek. Many times, walking directly in the creek is the most efficient way of progressing up canyon. (3) There is a short section near the beginning in the waterfalls section of the narrows where it is usually necessary to perform a short climb up solid rock. It is considered medium difficulty and most hikers have no problem with it. The difficult part is doing it with a heavy backpack on your back. At times, the rock can be slippery because of water splashing onto it from the creek. So that can make it more challenging. (4) There is a long stretch of waterless hiking between Brewery Spring and Panamint City. On hot days, it is very important that you keep your water supplies full. This portion of the route has very little shade and you will find yourself feeling overheated in the blazing sun during steep uphill stretches. Don't forget to top off your water supplies at Brewery Spring. Upon arrival at Panamint City, you may have to continue hiking to nearby Water Canyon to obtain water. (5) Please read my two warning notes below regarding the Hantavirus risk and the danger of entering mining tunnels. Also, be sure to read my information about Hantavirus and Death Valley posted here.
The backpacking route up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City can be divided into five different hiking sections -- (1) Parking Area to Upper Falls, (2) Upper Falls to Limekiln Spring, (3) Limekiln Spring to Brewery Spring, (4) Brewery Spring to Marvel Canyon, and (5) Marvel Canyon to Panamint City. The distances included below and elevations are not exact, but are general figures copied down from the BLM handout provided at the beginning of the trail. The included full set of pictures comes from the first three trips that I took to Panamint City (each being about 1 1/2 years apart) and have been combined, but appear in the proper order heading up canyon. This will give you a really good feel for what it is like to hike up to Panamint City. Also you can read our original journal written at the end of the first trip here. You may find that interesting as it gives my very first perspective upon experiencing the hike. Our first trip was taken in April 2006 and included Steve, Josh, Robert, and Joe. Our second trip was taken in October 2007 and included Steve, Brandon, Ryan D., and Loren. Our third trip was taken in June 2009 and included Steve, Gary, Tiffany, and Andrew. Our fourth trip took place in May 2011 and included Steve, Jim, Tobin, and Ryan M. For more insight on the fourth trip, check out the reports for Happy Canyon and the Hudson River Mine. Our fifth and most recent trip took place in May 2012 and included Steve, Tobin, Shawn, and Kathy. For more details about the fifth trip, check out the reports for Hall Canyon and Jail Canyon. A future sixth trip is currently in the planning stages (as of 2015) for sometime during the next couple of years. I am currently busy exploring other areas in Death Valley.
Part 1 of 5 (Parking Area to Upper Falls) -- 650 ft elevation gain (2,600' to 3,250'), 0.8 miles distance (0.8 of 5.0 total miles covered). A backpacking trip to Panamint City starts at the parking area near the mouth of Surprise Canyon, which also serves as an informal campground. There are other ways to backpack into Panamint City (such as via Johnson Canyon or Happy Canyon), but the majority of visitors begin their trip in Surprise Canyon. The parking area was once the location of Chris Wicht camp and Novak camp, but with the accidental burning down of the Novak home, it is now simply a parking area. One of the good things about parking here is that you can usually figure out if there will be anybody else in Panamint City. If you see one or more cars parked here and no people, that means somebody is probably hiking Surprise Canyon or staying overnight in Panamint City. This is important if you're interested in staying at one of the cabins in Panamint City because it's nice to be able to leave the tent behind and not carry it up with you, if you're not going to need it. This part of the hike starts with the Surprise Canyon creek flowing next to you on the left as you head up the trail. After signing in at the trail register, it's a relatively easy 1/2 mile hike to the bottom of the Surprise Canyon falls. You'll be crossing over the creek a few times, but the brush in this lower portion isn't too difficult to deal with. Once you reach the bottom of the falls, the walls close in and you are now in the narrows. The canyon begins to take on the feel of a little version of Yosemite. At this point, there is one tricky part where you need to either stretch yourself across a difficult rock crossing on the right side of the creek or scramble up some slippery steps on the left side. Either way, our groups have never found it too difficult but it still deserves a word of caution. At the top of the falls, there is a nice place to cool down and get wet, before moving on to the next leg of the journey.
Part 2 of 5 (Upper Falls to Limekiln Spring and Limekiln Eden) -- 750 ft elevation gain (3,250' to 4,000'), 0.9 miles distance (1.7 of 5.0 total miles covered). The second portion of the hike takes you from the top of the Surprise Canyon falls to Limekiln Spring. If you've just climbed through the falls area, it's usually a good idea to take a short break at the top, as the hike is about to change dramatically. From the upper falls, you first follow the trail through a part which is usually quite muddy and slippery for the first few minutes, so proceed with caution. About 10-15 minutes beyond comes more challenging parts. From this point on, there are various trails which follow either to the left or right of the creek. But during this segment of the hike, the secret is to stay in the creek and be willing to get your feet wet. If you're afraid to walk through the creek, it's going to make progressing extremely difficult and most likely impossible. The bypass routes around the creek are sometimes dangerous here. You may find yourself stranded on a cliff. In the end, you will probably backtrack and come to terms with having wet hiking boots. Once you've walked through the creek for a while and covered some of the distance in this segment, you will see the beautiful Limekiln Spring in the distance. When you arrive at Limekiln Spring, I recommend taking your pack off and searching for the hidden trail leading through the brush which leads to stunning Limekiln Eden. If you can find it, Limekiln Eden is a secret paradise of extreme beauty.
Part 3 of 5 (Limekiln Spring to Brewery Spring) -- 800 ft elevation gain (4,000' to 4,800'), 0.9 miles distance (2.8 of 5.0 total miles covered). The third portion of the hike takes you from the overgrown brush of Limekiln Spring all the way to the source of Brewery Spring. This part of the hike is kind of a mixture of the first two portions and the last two portions. Parts 1 and 2 of the hike are spent navigating through water and thick brush, while Parts 4 and 5 of the hike are essentially following the old road with hardly any brush or shade. This section starts out by working your way through some thick brush, as you turn the corner from Limekiln Spring and continue hiking up canyon. Soon, you emerge from the canopy and are following the trail, which is a remnant of the old road. After quite some time, Brewery Spring comes into view away from the trail. Both eventually intersect and you are once again walking through water. But this is one of the highlights of the entire hike, as you are walking through a place known as "The Tunnel of Love". The tunnel is a long corridor of beauty, with tree branches and leaves above you and to both sides, and the creek running down the middle. It's a special place that makes you want to stop for a while and appreciate the scenery. It's also the last place where you will be able to get water, so make sure to fill up all of your bottles here before moving on. As a side note, Brewery Spring received its name because there was an actual brewery located here in the days of Panamint City's boom.
Part 4 of 5 (Brewery Spring to Marvel Canyon) -- 950 ft elevation gain (4,800' to 5,750'), 1.2 miles distance (4.0 of 5.0 total miles covered). The fourth portion of the hike is probably the most difficult, especially if it is hot outside. Once you leave the overgrowth of The Tunnel of Love in Brewery Spring, you emerge into the hot desert sun for the rest of the hike. It's simply a matter of pushing yourself to keep hiking while trying to forget about the pain which is now setting in because of the steepness of the hike. There aren't a lot of shady spots along the trail, so if you see one be sure to stop there. As you follow the old road, timberline soon appears and you will begin seeing more and more trees. This is a beautiful dwarf forest.
Part 5 of 5 (Marvel Canyon to Panamint City) -- 550 ft elevation gain (5,750' to 6,300'), 1.0 miles distance (5.0 of 5.0 total miles covered). The fifth and final potion of the hike is known as "The Long Mile". This is because you first catch sight of Panamint City far in the distance and start to feel like you are very close now. That is truly a sense of relief, but what you may not realize is that you still have an entire mile of hiking in front of you. After you pass the entrance to Marvel Canyon via the Hemlock Mine Road, the tall red smelter stack of Panamint City comes into view. Soon, you are passing stone foundation ruins of the old city and eventually you pass the junction on the left with Sourdough Canyon. As with most people, our first stop in Panamint City is usually a cabin known as the Panamint Hilton, which is where some people choose to sleep and write journal entries in the log book.
Activities in Panamint City and the Return Hike -- The first decision which needs to be made upon arrival to Panamint City is where your accommodations will be. Space permitting, you will have to choose between the Panamint Hilton, Overflow Hippie cabin, The Castle, or setting up a tent outside somewhere. It is good to schedule several days (at least) in Panamint City in order to fully explore the area. The city itself has extensive mining ruins and remnants to check out. Other areas of interest to mining enthusiasts will be Sourdough Canyon, Water Canyon, Marvel Canyon, the Wyoming Mine, and the Hemlock Mine. There is much more to see besides these well-known areas and you can read about those in the pages of the book suggested earlier. Hikers also have plenty of day hike options to keep themselves busy, such as the routes to Panamint Pass, Sentinel Peak, the top of Sourdough Canyon Road along the Hall-Surprise Ridge, and the top of the Happy-Surprise Ridge. With so much to do in the area, by the time you leave, Panamint City really begins to feel like home and it's almost like the rest of the world doesn't exist. Think of it as being trapped in a time warp 100+ years in the past. The return hike down Surprise Canyon is much easier than the long and tiring journey going up. It literally only takes a few hours to get back to the parking area. That's why I think it's important to take your time on the hike down and enjoy everything. Savor the short walk through the Tunnel of Love, drop your pack and wander through Limekiln Eden (if you can find it), scan your eyes back and forth looking for Bighorn sheep and wild burros, and if it's hot take a refreshing dip in the Surprise Canyon falls pool. Advanced backpackers can actually create a loop route to backpack out by using Happy Canyon (extremely overgrown with brush 100 times worse than Surprise Canyon) or Hall Canyon (very challenging with expert route-finding ability necessary). However, I cannot recommend either route because I have tried both and they are very challenging. You can read our experiences in attempting these on the reports for Hall Canyon, Upper Hall Canyon, Happy Canyon, and Hudson River Mine. Also, be sure and check out the reports for Surprise Canyon and all of the reports in the Panamint City box on the Main Page to get a better overview of the area and what you will see.
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is a potential risk when entering and sleeping in Death Valley cabins. So please educate yourself on the risks and safeguards before making use of the cabins, as Hantavirus has been found in Death Valley rodents. All hikers heading to Panamint City should read my Blog post about Hantavirus linked to above.
Please do not enter the mining tunnels of the Panamint City area. Potential dangers inside abandoned mines include unseen vertical mine openings, deadly gases, oxygen deficiency, cave-ins, unsafe structures, unstable explosives, and other assorted risks. As the NPS recommends -- Stay Out and Stay Alive!
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
TRIP REPORT FORMAT