Adventure entry by Linda Castro | Assistant Policy Director
Hike Name: Exploring the Panamint Valley, Surprise Canyon Creek Wild and Scenic River, and Death Valley National Park.
Name of area/general location: Panamint Valley and Surprise Canyon Wilderness (Bureau of Land Management) and Death Valley Wilderness (Death Valley National Park).
Land Acknowledgement: The Panamint Valley and Surprise Canyon Wilderness are located within the ancestral homelands and traditional territories of the Western Shoshone People. For more information, you can visit native-land.ca.
Trail rating: Surprise Canyon Trail is an in-and-out hike. The round-trip mileage from the trailhead to Panamint City according to AllTrails is 12.6 miles, with a 4,360 ft. elevation change. Backpacker Magazine says the round-trip mileage is 10 miles. However, a shorter option is to hike to the large waterfall/grotto and back, which is about half the mileage, but still a difficult hike, due to rock and waterfall scrambling with more than 1,000 ft. elevation change. This adventure includes a hike on Surprise Canyon Trail which meanders along, sometimes in Surprise Canyon Creek. It has a “hard ” trail rating due to the significant elevation change and required rock and waterfall scrambling. If you choose to hike the entirety of the trail to Panamint City, you will likely need to carry gear for an overnight stay.
The trail is open year-round, but the best time for this hike is late spring and early summer.
Permissible trail uses (dogs, horses, mountain bikes, others): Dogs and mountain bikes are prohibited on the portion of the trail that is located within Death Valley National Park.
It is not entirely clear whether any uses other than hiking are permissible on the BLM portion of this trail. While the trail is surrounded by Surprise Canyon Wilderness, it is not located in the Wilderness and as such, mountain bikes are likely permitted. However, given the significant amount of rock scrambling and often bushwhacking that this trail involves, it does not seem to be a trail that would be enjoyed by users other than hikers. In addition, it would likely present a safety hazard to both a dog and its owner if the BLM portion of this hike were to be attempted with a dog.
Description of the area, sights, wildlife, and any key markers on the trail: Surprise Canyon is a lushly vegetated canyon in the Panamint Range. The upper half of the canyon is in the Death Valley Wilderness in southwestern Death Valley National Park, while the lower half is surrounded by Surprise Canyon Wilderness which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Surprise Canyon’s riparian oasis is confined by white, glistening narrows. Cottonwoods and willows are found in the lower elevations, while forests of piñon and juniper are found at the higher elevations. The canyon supports important bighorn sheep habitat and the rare Panamint daisy among many other unique plants and animals.
The canyon likely received its name from the “surprise” visitors encounter when they visit the area and stumble upon the unexpected springs bubbling from the steep walls of Surprise Canyon. The springs feed a yearlong flow of water. Regardless of the time of year that you hike this trail, you will, at a minimum, get wet feet.
Other interesting places to explore while in the Panamint Valley include Ballarat ghost town, which was originally established in 1897 as a mining camp. It became a ghost town in 1917. There are three markers to visit at the intersection of Trona Wildrose Road and Ballarat Road (two for Ballarat and one for Panamint City). In Ballarat ghost town, you will find ruins of historic buildings, old vehicles (or what is left of them), mining artifacts, and an old cemetery.
Congress designated Surprise Canyon Wilderness as a wilderness area in 1994. The wilderness area shares its entire eastern border with Death Valley National Park. Congress also designated 7 miles of Surprise Canyon Creek as a Wild and Scenic River in 2019 due to its outstandingly remarkable values (scenic, recreation, and wildlife and plants).
Directions to the trailhead: From the greater Los Angeles area, travel to the city of Ridgecrest in Kern County. In Ridgecrest, proceed on Highway 178 East approximately 50 miles through the communities of Argus, Trona, and Pioneer Point, until you arrive at the Ballarat Marker. Highway 178 turns into Trona Road before you reach Trona and then into Trona Wildrose Road after you pass through Trona. The Ballarat Marker is located at the intersection of Trona Wildrose Road and Ballarat Road (BLM Route P170). To visit Ballarat Ghost Town, travel about 3.5 miles east on Ballarat Road (a dirt road that is usually graded) to its conclusion and intersection with Indian Ranch Road.
To visit the Surprise Canyon Trail, proceed north on Indian Ranch Road (a dirt road) from Ballarat Ghost Town about 2 miles until you reach Surprise Canyon Road (BLM Route P71). You will see a BLM sign for Surprise Canyon Wilderness at this juncture. Turn right and follow Surprise Canyon Road for about 4 miles to Chris Wicht Camp, which is at the terminus of the road. Free parking is available in a small parking area.
Important note: Monsoon and winter storms frequently take their toll on Surprise Canyon Road. Even in ideal conditions, this road is rocky and should only be driven with a high clearance (and probably 4×4) vehicle. There may be times when you will need to park your vehicle at either the intersection of Indian Ranch Road and Surprise Canyon Road or along Surprise Canyon Road and hike to the trailhead. In addition, heavy rains sometimes cause certain parts of the trail to be overgrown; in addition to rock scrambling on rocks that are sometimes wet and slippery, you may also need to bushwhack at times.
Areas to camp nearby: Camping is available in the town of Ballarat. There are no hookups and no marked spaces. It is our understanding that the camping is free, but that there is a small fee if you wish to use the bathroom or shower, which is payable to the private landowner. You can also dry camp for free once you leave Ballarat on BLM land on either side of Indian Ranch Road until you reach Happy Canyon Road (BLM Route P1278). The land between Happy Canyon Road and Surprise Canyon Road on the east side of Indian Ranch Road is private property, so camping on the west side of the road is recommended. Regardless of where you camp on BLM lands, if you plan to have a campfire or use a propane stove, you will need to have a valid Campfire Permit. The easiest way to obtain this free permit is to visit this website. The closest campground with amenities, including gasoline and food, is in Panamint Springs, about 30 miles to the north/northwest of Ballarat: learn more here.
If you choose to hike Surprise Canyon Trail as an overnight backpacking trip, you can camp at Panamint City, a ghost town at 6,500 feet featuring the ruins of the old mill’s 65-foot brick smokestack. Water and campsites are plentiful near the site. You can also spend another day exploring Panamint City and hiking the 4-mile round trip up Panamint Pass for expansive views of Death Valley National Park and then retrace your steps.
To camp at Panamint City (which is within Death Valley National Park), you will need to pay the Park entrance fee ahead of time here. It is also recommended that you obtain a free backcountry camping permit. For more information click here.