Event hosts: Yuriy
Distance: 5.5 miles to Panamint City
Elevation Gain: 3600 ft.
Time: 6+ hours approximately
We will hike up Surprise Canyon to the abandoned mining town of Panamint City. This is located on the western side of Death Valley NP in the Panamint Mountain Range south of the Telescope Peak.
The roads to the trailhead are rough and unpaved, so a medium- to high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Carpooling is strongly encouraged! Please post if you are willing to drive so that prospective passengers can contact you and make carpool arrangements.
This is an “out and back” strenuous trip of approximately 12 miles roundtrip and over 4,000 feet elevation gain. Most hikers take 6-7 hours to complete the trek up-canyon. The trail requires hiking along, and sometimes IN, the creek.
The backpacking route up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City can be divided into five different hiking sections — (1) Parking Area to Upper Falls, (2) Upper Falls to Limekiln Spring, (3) Limekiln Spring to Brewery Spring, (4) Brewery Spring to Marvel Canyon, and (5) Marvel Canyon to Panamint City. The distances included below and elevations are not exact, but are general figures copied down from the BLM handout provided at the beginning of the trail.
Part 1 of 5 (Parking Area to Upper Falls) — 650 ft elevation gain (2,600′ to 3,250′), 0.8 miles distance (0.8 of 5.0 total miles covered). A backpacking trip to Panamint City starts at the parking area near the mouth of Surprise Canyon, which also serves as an informal campground. There are other ways to backpack into Panamint City (such as via Johnson Canyon or Happy Canyon), but the majority of visitors begin their trip in Surprise Canyon. The parking area was once the location of Chris Wicht camp and Novak camp, but with the accidental burning down of the Novak home, it is now simply a parking area. One of the good things about parking here is that you can usually figure out if there will be anybody else in Panamint City. If you see one or more cars parked here and no people, that means somebody is probably hiking Surprise Canyon or staying overnight in Panamint City. This is important if you’re interested in staying at one of the cabins in Panamint City because it’s nice to be able to leave the tent behind and not carry it up with you, if you’re not going to need it. This part of the hike starts with the Surprise Canyon creek flowing next to you on the left as you head up the trail. After signing in at the trail register, it’s a relatively easy 1/2 mile hike to the bottom of the Surprise Canyon falls. You’ll be crossing over the creek a few times, but the brush in this lower portion isn’t too difficult to deal with. Once you reach the bottom of the falls, the walls close in and you are now in the narrows. The canyon begins to take on the feel of a little version of Yosemite. At this point, there is one tricky part where you need to either stretch yourself across a difficult rock crossing on the right side of the creek or scramble up some slippery steps on the left side. At the top of the falls, there is a nice place to cool down and get wet, before moving on to the next leg of the journey.
Part 2 of 5 (Upper Falls to Limekiln Spring and Limekiln Eden) — 750 ft elevation gain (3,250′ to 4,000′), 0.9 miles distance (1.7 of 5.0 total miles covered). The second portion of the hike takes you from the top of the Surprise Canyon falls to Limekiln Spring. If you’ve just climbed through the falls area, it’s usually a good idea to take a short break at the top, as the hike is about to change dramatically. From the upper falls, you first follow the trail through a part which is usually quite muddy and slippery for the first few minutes, so proceed with caution. About 10-15 minutes beyond comes more challenging parts. From this point on, there are various trails which follow either to the left or right of the creek. But during this segment of the hike, the secret is to stay in the creek and be willing to get your feet wet. If you’re afraid to walk through the creek, it’s going to make progressing extremely difficult and most likely impossible. The bypass routes around the creek are sometimes dangerous here. You may find yourself stranded on a cliff. In the end, you will probably backtrack and come to terms with having wet hiking boots. Once you’ve walked through the creek for a while and covered some of the distance in this segment, you will see the beautiful Limekiln Spring in the distance. When you arrive at Limekiln Spring, I recommend taking your pack off and searching for the hidden trail leading through the brush which leads to stunning Limekiln Eden. If you can find it, Limekiln Eden is a secret paradise of extreme beauty.
Part 3 of 5 (Limekiln Spring to Brewery Spring) — 800 ft elevation gain (4,000′ to 4,800′), 0.9 miles distance (2.8 of 5.0 total miles covered). The third portion of the hike takes you from the overgrown brush of Limekiln Spring all the way to the source of Brewery Spring. This part of the hike is kind of a mixture of the first two portions and the last two portions. Parts 1 and 2 of the hike are spent navigating through water and thick brush, while Parts 4 and 5 of the hike are essentially following the old road with hardly any brush or shade. This section starts out by working your way through some thick brush, as you turn the corner from Limekiln Spring and continue hiking up canyon. Soon, you emerge from the canopy and are following the trail, which is a remnant of the old road. After quite some time, Brewery Spring comes into view away from the trail. Both eventually intersect and you are once again walking through water. But this is one of the highlights of the entire hike, as you are walking through a place known as “The Tunnel of Love”. The tunnel is a long corridor of beauty, with tree branches and leaves above you and to both sides, and the creek running down the middle. It’s a special place that makes you want to stop for a while and appreciate the scenery. It’s also the last place where you will be able to get water, so make sure to fill up all of your bottles here before moving on. As a side note, Brewery Spring received its name because there was an actual brewery located here in the days of Panamint City’s boom.
Part 4 of 5 (Brewery Spring to Marvel Canyon) — 950 ft elevation gain (4,800′ to 5,750′), 1.2 miles distance (4.0 of 5.0 total miles covered). The fourth portion of the hike is probably the most difficult, especially if it is hot outside. Once you leave the overgrowth of The Tunnel of Love in Brewery Spring, you emerge into the hot desert sun for the rest of the hike. It’s simply a matter of pushing yourself to keep hiking while trying to forget about the pain which is now setting in because of the steepness of the hike. There aren’t a lot of shady spots along the trail, so if you see one be sure to stop there. As you follow the old road, timberline soon appears and you will begin seeing more and more trees. This is a beautiful dwarf forest.
Part 5 of 5 (Marvel Canyon to Panamint City) — 550 ft elevation gain (5,750′ to 6,300′), 1.0 miles distance (5.0 of 5.0 total miles covered). The fifth and final potion of the hike is known as “The Long Mile”. This is because you first catch sight of Panamint City far in the distance and start to feel like you are very close now. That is truly a sense of relief, but what you may not realize is that you still have an entire mile of hiking in front of you. After you pass the entrance to Marvel Canyon via the Hemlock Mine Road, the tall red smelter stack of Panamint City comes into view. Soon, you are passing stone foundation ruins of the old city and eventually you pass the junction on the left with Sourdough Canyon. As with most people, our first stop in Panamint City is usually a cabin known as the Panamint Hilton, which is where some people choose to sleep and write journal entries in the log book.
Activities in Panamint City and the Return Hike — The first decision which needs to be made upon arrival to Panamint City is where your accommodations will be. Space permitting, you will have to choose between the Panamint Hilton, Overflow Hippie cabin, The Castle, or setting up a tent outside somewhere. It is good to schedule several days (at least) in Panamint City in order to fully explore the area. The city itself has extensive mining ruins and remnants to check out. Other areas of interest to mining enthusiasts will be Sourdough Canyon, Water Canyon, Marvel Canyon, the Wyoming Mine, and the Hemlock Mine. Hikers also have plenty of day hike options to keep themselves busy, such as the routes to Panamint Pass, Sentinel Peak, the top of Sourdough Canyon Road along the Hall-Surprise Ridge, and the top of the Happy-Surprise Ridge.
Fires are allowed in Panamint City so we can have a campfire at night to help keeps us warm.
The trailhead is actually located outside the National Park boundaries on BLM land, so an open desert camping policy is in effect. This means we can camp anywhere in the area as long as we’re away from the main roads.
Panamint City– A Hard Broiled Hell Hole
Once called the toughest, rawest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town, Panamint City got its start after several bandits, who were using the area as a hide-out, discovered silver in Surprise Canyon in 1872.
While hiding from authorities, stagecoach robbers, William L. Kennedy, Robert L. Stewart, and Richard C. Jacobs were searching for the Lost Gunsight Mine (http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-lostmines2.html#Gunsight Mine of Death Valley) and doing a little prospecting, when the lucky outlaws (http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-outlawindex.html) discovered promising deposits of silver ore in Surprise Canyon. Obviously, the men wanted to profit from their find, but, there was the ‘little” complication of them being “wanted” for stealing $12,000 from a Wells Fargo (http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-wellsfargo.html) stage.
By 1874, the town boasted a population of about 2,000 people and its 1 ½ mile-long rutted and muddy main street was lined with about 50 buildings, which included not only more than a dozen saloons but also the Bank of Panamint, a brewery, a hotel, the post office, and the offices of the Panamint News, which printed its first issue in November. The town also consisted of about 200 houses, many of which were no more than log and rock huts. Others made their homes in simple tents. The local butcher shop’s wagon also served as the town hearse which made frequent trips to a cemetery located a short distance up Sour Dough Canyon.
PLEASE – Know your limits and abilities. Bring snacks and drink plenty of liquids when hiking. Check weather conditions and dress accordingly and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Watching out for poison oak, snakes, ticks, uneven footing, spectacular views, beautiful fauna all while interacting with awesome (usually) fellow hikers can be extremely hazardous, rewarding and fun.
VHC HIKE RATING SCALE
Rating a hike is subjective, meaning the difficulty of a hike will be in direct relation to how often you hike and the type of hike you prefer. Keep in mind that any hike can have the following: un-even hiking surfaces, various obstructions, water and/or water crossings or bouldering and/or rock hopping. A great hike will have all of these!
1 – A long walk
2 – 4 mile hike w/little elevation gain
3 – 5 mile hike w/up to1000 ft. elevation gain
4 – 5+ mile hike w/up to1500 ft. elevation gain (heart rate increases at times)
5 – 7+ mile hike w/over 1500 ft. elevation gain (heart rate increasing even more at times)
6 – 7+ mile hike w/over 2000 ft. elevation gain (at times you might be trying to remember how to perform CPR)
7 – 5+ mile hike w/over 2000 ft. elevation gain (at times you might be muttering expletives to yourself)
8 – 10+ mile hike w/over 3500 ft. elevation gain (at times you might be angry with the hike leader)
9 – 10+ mile hike w/over 5000 ft. elevation gain (at times you might be thinking of reporting the hike leader to the authorities)
10 – Use your imagination
Class 3 Scrambling: Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You must use your hands at times to hold the terrain or find your route. This may be caused by a combination of boulders, steepness and extreme terrain. Some Class 3 routes have ropes in place for assistance.
DISCLAIMER / RELEASE OF LIABILITY
IMPORTANT, PLEASE READ BELOW IN ITS ENTIRETY:
I am a volunteer (i.e. not liable for the group). Safety is a priority for everyone in the group. Think of this as hiking with a group of friends.
Outdoor sports and other events we plan can be inherently dangerous and accidents may happen. By participating in any posted event, you’re taking responsibility for your own safety and well-being. The VHC Meetup Group and its organizers are not trained leaders and we do not confirm the qualifications of any of its members to lead or participate in trips. All participants take full responsibility for their own actions. If you choose to sign up for any VHC Meetup events, you are releasing the VHC Meetup Group and it’s organizers from all liability in case of possible injuries as stated in paragraph 6.2 of the Meetup “Terms of Service” located on the bottom of the Meetup website. Your personal safety depends on your own judgment and experience.