Place: Surprise Canyon, Ballarat, California
Coordinates (of Novak Camp): 36. 113057, -117.173996
Length: 3.2 miles in to Limekiln Springs and back out
Level: Strenuous (involves going through thick vegetation, mud, icy-cold water and rock climbing).
When my friend visited my last January I took her on a week-long road trip to see (some of) California treasures. After visiting On the Way San Joaquin NWR, Must See Yosemite NP and Winter Wonderland Sequoia NP, it was time for the big desert. Now, big is an understatement. The deserts in California are vast. All we could do on the few days we had was a quick sampler. Taking a tiny taste that was far from getting us sated.
We started the desert part of our trip at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in the town of Ridgecrest. I had in my plan to visit the Trona Pinnacles and I wanted to get a fire permit and some more info about the BLM lands in the area. What I got was a wonderful chat with the local naturalist who directed me to a number of good places to hike. Of all her recommendations the one that stood out was Surprise Canyon, up in the Panamint Range, near the almost ghost town of Ballarat.
That chat and some other errands we ad to run had kept us in Ridgecrest a bit longer than we had planned so it was already afternoon when we arrived at the Trona Pinnacles , and the sun was already setting as we drove past the mining town of Trona ant onto the dirt road leading to Ballarat.
|Sunset on Panamint Range|
Seeking solitude ourselves we drove on to the alluvial fan of Surprise Canyon. A sole RV parked off the dirt road. Two stargazers were sitting there, getting their telescope ready. We continued toward the mountainous wall and into the narrow crack that was the opening of Surprise Canyon.
Going up Surprise Canyon's dirt road was a very slow business. That road isn't maintained much, if at all. We didn't make it that evening to the mining camp where the BLM naturalist said there was good wilderness camping area. The light was fading fast and we didn't want to continue on that road in complete darkness, not knowing what lies ahead. So we found a little flat area off the road where it was clear that someone had camped there before and we stopped there. We pitched the tent, lit a campfire and cooked dinner. After that we laid back and enjoyed the night skies with all the brilliant, sparkling stars.
The morning was very cold. We started a fire and had breakfast. Then we followed the sound of water and washed at the narrow creek. The creek was only a trickle there, soon to be swallowed in the gravel not to make it above ground to the valley floor. That trickle was enough for us, though. We filled our bottles (warning! wilderness water need to be treated before drinking them) and went ahead to break camp.
We did take the time to appreciate the view below. Panamint Valley lay beneath, bordered on the west by the Inyo Range. The tops of the snow capped Sierra Nevada peaks peeked beyond the Inyo Range mountains.
|Morning view to the west from our campsite.|
|Creosote (Larrea tridentata), with gall|
After arriving at Novek Camp, my friend and I spent some time exploring the remains of the mining operation. What was mined there was silver ore, and it was mined on and off until the 1970s.
|Novak Mining Camp|
Nowadays there is a barrier at Novak Camp preventing vehicles from going any further up the canyon. My friend and I waved to the couple who had passed us earlier and we started walking along the creek.
|A sattelite image of Surprise Canyon. Our hike from Novak Camp to Limekiln Springs is labeled yellow.|
The near Novak Camp the canyon is a bit wider than in other places, and the creek curves. hick layers of creek sediments, much of it no doubt came from the mine of Panamint City, form inner walls that tower over the little stream. A small tributary had cut its way through the sediment barrier, making its stand in the ongoing battle between the forces of sedimentation and erosion.
|Sediment and Erosion|
My friend had brought her sandals and changed to them. The first step in the water had her swear loudly - the water was ice-cold. I had my waterproof boots on but was careful still not to get them too deep in the muck.
We progressed slowly on a narrow path beaten before us in a thick growth of horsetail. The horsetail grow right in the water. Whenever we could circumvent the horsetail we found ourselves ducking under dry poplar boughs or hopping over willow branches. Either way we collected plant parts in our hair and clothes.
|White Sweetclover (Mellitus albus). Non-native.|
The geology of that area is striking. Naked of vegetation cover, the desert rocks display the story of that land that is millions of years old.
|A dike through the marble|
|Barrel Cacti (Ferocactus cylindraceus)|
And then the canyon narrowed again and we started going up on a steeper grade. More of the water flow was visible now, running over the rocks, and the sound was that of cascades.
Then, all of a sudden, a small dark bird flew up from the water and settled on a nearby rock. I could hardly believe my eyes: it was an American Dipper! This bird's habitat is speedy creeks with rushing cascades. I had seen it before in places like Yosemite NP, Lassen Volcanic NP, and the mountains of South Warner Wilderness, in Modoc County. I didn't expect to see it in the desert, so far away from that species' normal habitat. That individual had found that isolated stretch of running water, only 5 miles long and well hidden in the arid Panamint Range. Now, how's that for a surprise! And from other reports I understand it's been coming there for the last two years at least.
A few steps higher and the waterfall that attracted the dipper came into view. A very delightful sight in the dry desert. That certainly counts as a surprise :-)
The easy path disappeared. Moving on meant climbing up the rock on the side. That rock was wet and slippery but we mad it to the top and continued on in the even narrower marble canyon above.
Then we came upon the second waterfall, which is more lie a series of small, step cascades. It was beautiful and there was a nice pool at the bottom and an area of dry gravel next to it, so we took off our backpacks and sat down.
At the bottom of the rock near the waterfall was an inscription in the marble. Nothing artistic but certainly a strong statement: "Human Stupidity Has No Limit." The inscription was dated to 1997.
I rested my back on the rock and looked at the waterfall. A growth of fern in the water was more interesting to me than a message from past visitors.
A lush fern, and little floating water plants growing hydroponically in the pond. A little oasis in the dry, desolated desert.
My friend hopped on the rocks like a mountain goat and was at the top of the waterfall in no time. I, on the other hand, did not have it in me to climb there. My alternative was to take my shoes off and climb the watery steps of the cascade.
Oh, the agony! I mentioned earlier that the water was ice-cold. Well, that was an understatement. But after a flash of burning pain I ceased feeling my feet and could move on with no problems, stopping only to take a closer look at a cluster of tiny rock nests of some insect. Wasps, perhaps?
|Upper Surprise Canyon|
|Down and Out|
|Telescope Peak, view from the west|
|Looking for Gold - a lonely Feral Burro|
The hike up Surprise Canyon was an unplanned, but very rewarding surprise. A real treat. I hope to make it back there again soon, and next time to make it all the way up to Panamint City. I already started whispering this thought in Papa Quail's ears, ("There's a dipper there!"), and the chikas too. ("You might find silver there!")
What I want to find there is the swell of the heart.