Surprises Abound in Legendary Surprise Canyon

I first heard about Surprise Canyon from Ultra4 racer Eric “Mustard Dog” Anderson when we were discussing Johnson Valley land use issues a few years ago. The fight for Surprise Canyon was one of the most contentious land-use battles ever fought in the state of California, the stuff of legends, so when Steve Gardiner of Cal4Wheel offered to take us out there after Panamint Valley Days we jumped at the chance to see it for ourselves.

Getting to Surprise Canyon Off-Road Trail

Surprise Canyon is accessed via the graded dirt Ballarat Road off of Trona Wildrose Road. When you reach the ghost town of Ballarat, turn left onto what will become Indian Springs Road. Ballarat is the staging area for many well-known off-road trails.

Signpost at intersection of Ballarat Road

Ballarat isn’t entirely abandoned; Rocky Novak is the caretaker and runs the Trading Post, where you can buy a cold drink and an old Death Valley map, but not much else.

Ballarat Trading Post

Follow Indian Springs for 7 miles until you spot a large white boulder, and turn right onto Surprise Canyon Road, a semi-maintained, rough, gravelly road. High clearance 2WD is recommended.

Surprise Canyon map

The road was rough enough on this trip that everything started shifting around in the bed of Gardiner’s truck, and we had to stop so he could secure the contents before they started spilling out. We were heading up the alluvium into Surprise Canyon.

Jeep and Truck on Surprise Canyon Road

Panamint City's Shady Past

Surprise Canyon Road was built in 1874 so miners could get to Panamint City, a mining town located at 6.302 feet. The town was founded by bandits who were hiding out in the canyon when they found silver and gave up their life of crime. It was a bustling mining town that was home to thousands; the Death Valley National Park website describes Panamint City as the “toughest, meanest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town.”

004 surprise canyon road

The road suffered regular damage from floods, but in 1984 a flash flood wreaked havoc and stripped the canyon down to the bedrock. No one wanted to rebuild the county-owned road this time; the damage was too severe. Off-roaders could still get up the canyon to Panamint City with the help of winches by using anchors placed by the miners in the 1930s to lift wagons up to the city. In 1994, the California Desert Protection Act left the canyon open for off-roading by giving it a cherry-stem designation due to its historic use as access to mining claims.  

Not everyone was happy about this, and in 2001, environmental groups sued to prevent off-roaders from accessing the canyon. A gate was put across the road to prevent access during the lawsuit, but the government promised to maintain access for landholders via a key to the gate, which never happened. Eric Anderson was one of several off-roaders who had purchased property in Panamint City and took responsibility for maintaining the historic ghost town. Death Valley National Park doesn’t have the funds or people to care for the site, and the only other way to get supplies in is by helicopter.

The lawsuits went on until 2007, when the land owners and off-roaders lost and the road was closed forever. The maintained portion of the road ends 4.5 miles in at Chris Wicht Camp.

Chris Wicht/Novak Camp

Wicht was the bartender in Ballarat. The property was later owned by Rocky Novak’s family and is also known as Novak Camp. The camp burned under suspicious circumstances in 2006, but you can still see building foundations and old mining equipment. Members of the Tin Benders and Gear Grinders off-road clubs helped with the cleanup after the fire.

People often camp here, although the Park doesn’t recommend it (no reason why). There is plenty of flat ground and several fire rings. In its day, the camp was best known for its soaking pool.

Chris Wicht/Novak Camp pool

We parked at the camp and headed out on foot to explore the canyon trail. There is a visitor log at the trail head, and Gardiner signed us in.

Signing the log at Surprise Canyon

As we started our uphill climb the dry wash became damp, and we spotted the remains of an old mining claim. The canyon was lush and cool, and it wasn’t long before we forgot that we were in the Mojave Desert.

Surprise Canyon Mine

Surprise Canyon's 7 Waterfalls

The canyon soon narrowed and the stream was running full strength. After a few minutes of hiking, we reached the first of seven waterfalls. There is no real trail here now, and it’s hard to imagine off-roaders coming through here, let alone a real road that motorcycles and pickup trucks could navigate. We chose our route carefully, sometimes walking in the stream on slippery rocks, other times scrambling over the boulders. It’s a toss up which is the safest route. At this waterfall we chose to scale the rock to the right, but coming back down I slipped and landed on my back in the pool at the bottom (damaging only my pride).

Surprise Canyon Waterfall

Words carved into the rock are thought to be from someone unhappy about off-roaders driving through the canyon.

Human Stupidity quote carved into rock

The canyon continued to narrow, and it was impossible to envision a road through here. My research found that the road had covered the stream, and in some places, pushed it underwater before the flood stripped it all away.

I thought this surely had to have been one of the toughest off-road trails ever. There were spots where I couldn’t imagine being able to get a vehicle through, even though I’ve seen off-road rigs do some crazy things. When it was open to off-roading, Jeeps wheeled this canyon without the big tires and extreme modifications we do today. Just walking the canyon was hard enough, requiring great balance and rock skills and a willingness to get wet.

I was able to find an article from an October 1993 issue of Autoweek that described an adventure of getting ten rigs up the waterfalls and it has some fantastic photos that show just how much work it was. (Note: The first page of the article is at the end of the pdf at this link; the rest are in order.)

Surprise Canyon narrow marble gorge

We spotted the blasting holes in the rock walls where anchors were set to lift the wagons in the mining days, later used for anchors for winching. It took us about an hour to reach the top of the seven waterfalls, and we had only traveled roughly a mile. The trail continues for another four miles of bushwhacking up the mountain to Panamint City. I’ve read that in some spots you can still see remains of the old road.

Top of the waterfalls in Surprise Canyon

The canyon widened at the top of the falls, and we spotted the rusted hulks of several vehicles.

Abandoned vehicle in Surprise Canyon

When the flash flood wiped out the road, the vehicles in Panamint City were left stranded forever.

Abandoned truck in Surprise Canyon

We weren’t going any further on this trip; we were just here to see the legendary waterfall section of the canyon. After resting at the top of the waterfalls for a bit, we started our trek back down. It was only a little easier than climbing up.

Men at the top of Surprise Canyon waterfalls

Back in our vehicles, Gardiner headed for home while we took our time enjoying the scenery. The ride back down has some great views of Panamint Valley.

Jeep Wrangler on Surprise Canyon Road

I have mixed feelings about Surprise Canyon after visiting it. It’s one of the most amazing desert hikes I’ve ever done, but my friends used to 'wheel the trail. I know how much they loved it and the pride they took in maintaining Panamint City. Now only the hardiest of hikers can reach the hidden town at the top of the mountain, and it’s fallen into decay.

Surprise Canyon is a good reminder that if you have a favorite trail, enjoy it all you can and take good care of it, because it may not last forever.

View of Panamint Valley from Surprise Canyon Road

Looking for more off-road trail adventures? Here's Driving Line's round-up of Mojave Desert off-road trail reviews.

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