Panamint Valley is sandwiched between two dry and barren mountain ranges. It is hard to imagine that tucked away in one of the many hidden canyons is a lush spring fed environment. Surprise canyon is aptly named; the drive up to the mouth of the canyon is dusty with no trace of water but as soon as we step out of the truck we can hear the sound of a flowing stream and the croaking of frogs.
We spent the night at the trail head and got an early start in the morning. Surprise canyon is a hike for those who do not mind getting their feet wet. Within the first mile the trail crisscrosses the creek many times. We climbed up waterfalls and leapfrogged over cattails and rushes. Although the first mile or so of the hike is well shaded there are long sections of the hike where the spring water retreats underground and the sun exposure is high. After 5 miles of wet feet and amazing views we reached the ruin of a 65-foot brick smokestack which marked the entrance into Panamint ghost town
At one time there was a road through the canyon up to the thriving and notoriously wild Panamint City. Panamint City was founded in 1872 after the discovery of silver and copper in the surrounding hills and a boom town was born. It was everything you imagine a western boom town to be, salons, brothels, and a general lack of law and order. Wells Fargo refused to travel to the city due to its dangerous nature and chance of robbery in the canyon. As is the story of all boom towns as the silver and copper was mined out, the town fell into ruin. Efforts were made throughout the years to extract the remaining metals from the rock but after multiple flash floods the road into the town was shut down. Now the only way to reach Panamint City is to hike the winding and wet 5 mile trail.
What is left of Panamint city begs the question of what is archeologically significant and what is just trash. The road to the city was maintained into the 1980s until a major flash flood washed out lower parts of the canyon down to the bedrock. Vehicles, trash, and old house trailers were left abandoned giving Panamint city a particularly creepy “the hills have eyes” kind of vibe.
We spent an hour or so exploring the ghost town and then headed back down the canyon. The best thing about out and back hikes is even though you are on the same trail you see things from a different angle on the way out.
Surprise canyon is a beautiful hike that can be enjoyed by nature lovers and history buffs alike. If done in the summer I recommend an early start as the canyon can be very exposed to the sun. Even when the rest of Death Valley is hot and dry Surprise canyon still flows with cold spring water. It is a hidden gem of a hike with flowing waterfalls, multicolored canyon bedrock, and 100 year old ruins that make you feel like you are stepping into an old western movie.