Surprise Canyon is a rare perennial desert stream flowing from Death Valley National Park through the Panamint Mountains to the vast Panamint Valley. The year-round stream flow, spring seeps, riparian vegetation, narrow slot canyon, and waterfalls of Surprise Canyon provide outstanding scenery and exceptional primitive recreational opportunities, including hiking, bird watching, botanizing, photography, and backpacking. The hike up Surprise Canyon from Chris Wicht Camp to the historic mining camp and abandoned ghost town of Panamint City is one of the most outstanding treks in the Mojave Desert.
The perennial flow in Surprise Canyon grows the most extensive riparian habitat found in the Panamint Mountains. The vegetative diversity supports one of the most diverse and significant wildlife communities in the California Desert. This habitat is home to a rich assemblage of more than 70 bird species as well as the rare Panamint alligator lizard, which inhabits the canyon’s rocky bottom near permanent water and riparian vegetation. Limestone outcrops in Surprise Canyon provide micro-habitat for several federal sensitive plant species, including the Panamint dudleya and the Death Valley round-leaved phacelia. Surprise Canyon is also an essential source of water for the desert bighorn sheep population in the Panamint Mountains.
In recognition of Surprise Canyon’s outstanding scenic, recreation, historical, fish, wildlife, and cultural values, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act of 2011 (S. 138) proposes to protect 7 miles of the stream from Panamint City to the canyon’s mouth as a National Wild & Scenic River.
Directions: Fall, winter, and spring are ideal times to visit Surprise Canyon. The canyon is truly located deep in the Mojave Desert and visitors should take reasonable precautions, check local weather and road conditions, carry plenty of water and food, and always let someone know of your travel plans. From the City of Ridgecrest, proceed east and north on Hwy 178 through the small mining towns of Argus and Trona. About 47 miles from Ridgecrest, turn right on Ballarat Road. At this point, all road surfaces are dirt. Drive 3.6 miles on Ballarat Road and continue left on the road through the nearly deserted mining town of Ballarat. Turn left on Indian Springs Road. Proceed north approximately 1.9 miles to Surprise Canyon Road, which may or may not be marked with a sign, but there is also a large white-painted boulder marked with a red “S7”. Turn right and drive 2.5 miles to where the dirt road crosses Surprise Canyon creek at the mouth of the canyon. Depending on the time of year and recent rains, the road crossing may or may not be passable to normal highway vehicles at this point. But road’s end and the trailhead to Surprise Canyon at Chris Wicht Camp is just 1.5 miles further up the canyon.