Death Valley National Park: Surprise Canyon

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

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

Waypoints

DVP001

Location: 36.1119384765625, -117.175277709961