2009 Catch-up Part 5 (of 5): Surprise Canyon

2010 starts tomorrow and I haven’t finished posting about 2009. The last few months have been a blur of activity and compositing so Live Journal updates have suffered. Fear not, my three readers, a flurry of updates has arrived!

After finishing the Zion Narrows, I knew I wanted to do another exciting backpacking trip over the Thanksgiving holidays. The tricky part would be finding a good hike that was passable in late fall, a bit strenuous, and not especially far from Los Angeles. I searched online and through a backpacking book and settled on Surprise Canyon. Surprise Canyon is in the middle of nowhere. If you find yourself nowhere, keep driving, you aren’t there yet. Technically, it is in Inyo County on the Western outer-rim of Death Valley National Park. It is in the desert, long past a town called Trona—a place we drove through twice, yet never saw a single person, only smoke pouring from the Salt Plant into the Sulphur-soaked air. Deep into the desert are the remains of a town called Ballarat. All that remains here is an abandoned jail-house and a somewhat functioning “general store” manned by the sole inhabitant of Ballarat. And lots of RVs and ATVs. Be careful in Surprise Canyon, help is hours away.

Surprise Canyon is aptly named. After driving deep into a dry, dusty desert and two miles up a tricky gravel path—leading into the mountains and ending at a burnt-down shack—you never expect to see a lush canyon full of running water. This is the beauty of Surprise Canyon—a hike up a flowing river that takes you to Panamint City, an abandoned mining town.

Panamint City doesn’t come easily. It must be earned. The hike up the canyon is short, only 5-6 miles, but it is a strenuous hike for all except the seasoned hiker. The first portion involves non-technical canyoneering as you climb beautiful waterfalls and verdant rocks. Shortly afterwards, the bushwhacking begins. This canyon is predominantly on BLM land meaning it doesn’t receive the attention a National Park does. The canyon is highly overgrown. Brush which allegedly was cleared a few years ago is now far above a human’s height. We traveled upstream and forced our way through the foliage as the slope increased. Once the bushwhacking portion ends, the climb begins. The slope increases greatly and the stream disappears. Panamint City rests 6300 feet above sea level. Much of the 4000 foot climb takes place over these last two miles. It is a tough climb if your legs are not trained or ready for it—especially when you are carrying 30-40 lbs. on your back. November is a month of limited light. Canyon walls are high. By 5:00 P.M., it was growing dark rapidly and we still had not seen the enormous smokestack marking the city. We set up camp and prepared for a cold night.

I awoke early, the Sun barely peeking over the horizon. My wet socks resting outside the tent had become frozen jerky in the night. I headed up trail alone hoping to see the city and return with good news when the rest of the group awoke. No luck. The morning was hazy and visibility was very limited. I returned to camp and waited for everyone to awake. As the Sun rose and we continued up trail, snow began to flutter down. Thankfully, we were less than a mile from the abandoned city. The closer the city got, the harder the snow fell. Soon we were crouched inside an old shack warming ourselves in front of a wood-burning stove while snow poured from the sky outside whiting the horizon.

Panamint City is comprised of various structures in a multitude of forms of disrepair. The most sought after is a single-bedroom cabin hikers call the Hilton. A couple was staying in this structure and allowed us to share it with them for the night. Hikers leave old gas canisters, sleeping bags, and various other items for others to use. it has a wood-burning stove, a fireplace, and is near a water pump. It also houses a very active mouse who inspects every surface in the building nightly. I am sure it climbed on our cot a couple of times throughout the night. Fresh droppings abound, along with the potential threat of Hantavirus and is the reason I refer to the Hilton as the Hanta Hotel. If not for the snowstorm and freezing temperatures, I would have gladly slept outside instead. This is not meant to insinuate that the insulation and convenience of the cabin was not appreciated. It was certainly a pleasant surprise.

We spent the day exploring the copious ruins and mine caves around the city. We inspected the smelter, smokestack, and various other contraptions and vehicles littered about the nearby canyons. After our night in Hanta Hotel, we started for the trailhead early in hopes of avoiding another snowstorm or dense fog. We were very lucky. The day was sunny and we were back to the car relatively quickly. The Zion Narrows still ranks at the top of my favored hiking trails, but Surprise Canyon is a worthy adventure with a variety of features and opportunities all its own. Next time you are nowhere, drive a bit deeper until you reach a secluded “General Store,” and see what Surprise Canyon may have in store for you.


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2009 Catch-up Part 5 (of 5): Surprise Canyon — 2 Comments

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