Surprise Canyon – Panamint City

This post was most recently updated on June 26th, 2019

Surprise canyon is a lesser traveled route on the in the Panamint Mountains located on the Western border of Death Valley National park. It is about 5.8 miles from the trailhead to the historic town site with significant elevation gain in between.

Notable features of the hike include:

  • A reliable spring/ stream in the middle of the desert
  • a 1970’s era ghost town complete with habitable cabins and fire places
  • several cars/ trucks strewn about
  • mine shafts
  • views of death valley
  • as of 2013 a working water system

Panamint city was founded back in the late 1800’s as a mining town and continued to be in operation well into the mid 1900’s. It was known for being a rough town and it’s remote location provided a natural getaway for those looking to escape the law.

Some of the remains of the original 1800’s city can be seen on the way up the canyon to the later settlement. Other surviving pieces in the area include the smelter chimney, several cabins and a garage/ workshop area.

First things first, you may be able to get to the trailhead with a standard car but that depends on how good of a driver you are, and when the last time the county actually maintained the road.I’d definitely recommend something a bit taller than a Honda Civic, but you don’t need 4WD or even a lot of clearance…just enough.

To get to the trailhead form the Los Angeles area, take 395 North to Trona Road. Take Trona Road to the 178 and make a right (east), then follow this through and past the great smelling town of Trona (You’ll notice the road is now labeled Trona Wildrose Road), then turn right (east) onto Ballarat Road (DIRT!). Left (North) on Indian Ranch Road and then right (East) Suprise Canyon Road.

Be sure to get an overview of the roads by using the google earth view below (currently set to the trailhead location)

Let us be frank here. This hike has the potential to kick your a**, but the reward is definitely worth the sweat equity that you will put in. You will experience sections during the hike where the trail and the spring are one and the same (waterproof shoes are your friend), as well as sections where there is no trail at all and you are forced to find your best route through the canyon. (don’t worry about getting lost, at that point you can’t get out of the canyon). The uphill never ends and the “trail” varies from a nice wide rock laden road to scrambling up rocks.

The trail is best hiked in the late fall through early spring. Remember, this is bordered on 3 sides by Death Valley National Park…you know…the place known for extreme temperatures?!?!! (not only hot, but it snowed when we were there as well)

The hike starts out innocently enough by walking around the locked gate that has prevented the 4WD genre from accessing the canyon since 2001. From there the adventure begins.

Looking up the falls near the mouth of Surprise Canyon
Looking up the falls in Surprise Canyon

The first obstacle is a series of 7 waterfalls that must be navigated. Most are easy, but there are a couple that those with questionable balance/ scrambling skills may require additional assistance. We experienced a few wet feet here as one of our group lost their balance and had a splash down.

Abandonded truck above the falls in Suprise Canyon
Abandoned truck just above the falls

After the waterfalls you can take a rest of the first of the sights, an old truck that is permanently a part of the wilderness now.

forever away from the city
So close yet so far

At about 4.5 miles in you can catch your first glimpse of the smelter stack…Don’t be so naive that you believe that you are almost there. For those that have seen the Muir Hut on the JMT from the distance, this is a very similar struggle as it just never seems to get closer.

Smelting tower and Panamint city hilton
Finally arriving in “town”

That being said, after what may seem like hours of never getting closer you will finally get to this view and then you know you have finally arrived. (just before this section though, off to your left you will see the ruins of the original 1870’s town site.

Looking Down surprise canyon
Looking west down Surprise Canyon toward panamint valley

Looking back down the valley provides a nice view of the Inyo Mountains and valley wells. you can still see the remnants of the old road that was used to access the valley.

DWP truck remnants in Suprise Canyon
DWP truck wreckage

There are still many vehicles and much machinery left in Surprise Canyon. It was not able to be salvaged after a large thunderstorm triggered a flash flood in the early 80’s  and washed out the road at the mouth of the canyon

The Castle, Panamint City
The main hideout in Panamint City

There are 2 main habitable cabins in the city, the one shown above is known as “the castle” and has a nice bathtub out front where you can build a fire under an old drum and actually have a warm bath. The water is supplied by a spring about 1/4 mile uphill and feeds a series of hoses. It was in need of repair when we were there last in 2012 so YMMV.

As of 2018 there was a working spigot in the garage where water can be obtained. The spring above the “castle” may or may not be reliable. It is extremely small with a flow that does not stay on the surface for long before being re-absorbed into the ground. There is an additional spring to the west of the town, but again, this spring has been known to be dry. Your best plan is to take sufficient water from Limekiln spring on your way up the canyon.

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