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Death Valley National Park: Surprise Canyon

Splash through canyon waterfalls to an 1870′s ghost town in Death Valley National Park.

Rating

Few backpackers have discovered the oasis of Surprise Canyon—though other sections of the park are bone-dry, this hike along a rare desert spring makes keeping your boots dry a challenge. Believe it or not, this strenuous 10-mile out-and-back was little known to hikers until flash floods in the early ‘80s washed out the gravel road to reveal a striking marble canyon beneath. From the trailhead, hike between the steep rock walls, where water flows on the surface for the first 2 miles. Continue through patches of lush vegetation, where route finding can be difficult—when in doubt, hike right in the stream. Scramble around a series of waterfalls, keeping an eye out for desert bighorn sheep on the canyon slopes. At mile 5, you’ll reach 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. Spend another day exploring the ghost town and hiking the 4-mile round trip up Panamint Pass for expansive views of Death Valley, then retrace your steps.
Info: Free backcountry camping permit required. Moderate to high clearance vehicles recommended past Ballarat. (760) 786-3200; nps.gov/deva
Hike provided by Charlie Callagan, ranger, Death Valley National Park

To Trailhead

From Panamint Springs campground, take CA 190 E to Panamint Valley Rd. Turn R and drive 23 mi. to Ballarat Junction. Go E 2 mi. to Ballarat ghost town, then 7 mi. NE to Surprise Canyon Trailhead.

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