Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Fleeting Flow With A Long-Lasting Impression: Surprise Canyon at the Panamint Range

Date: January 13, 2016
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
I had visited Ballarat three years ago with my botanist friend , looking for desert bloom. We got there to look at what we were told was a ghost town, and indeed, most structures there were deserted and falling apart with some historic landmark signs posted in front of a few crumbling stone buildings. We were surprised to find that people do live there still. Not many, and not in anything that looks like a regular family housing, and there is a US Post Office there. We didn't interact with any of the locals so I have no idea as to who lives that and what do they make their living from. I assume that they prefer desolation over crowded city life, and I certainly can understand that.

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. 
By the time we were all packed up and ready to go the sun was up and I could appreciate the nearby vegetation.

Creosote (Larrea tridentata), with gall
A car passed us before we were ready to move on. We got into our car and followed them all the way up to Novak Camp.

Once upon a time Ballarat was the center of a lively mining community. Mining camps were established in various places in the Panamint area. Novak Camp was one of these mining camps. Another mining community was all the way up Surprise Canyon - in Panamint City, which now is a ghost town as well.

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 
While the mining operation was active there was a road inside Surprise Canyon that allowed vehicles all the way up to Panamint City. The Panamint City mining rubble was pushed down the canyon and covered the waterfalls, making the base road for traffic. When the mining operation ceased a few flash floods cleared it all, exposing the cascades once more.

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.
I was relieved when the other two visitors went back to their car and drove out. I didn't really feel like sharing that day and trail with other people.

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
Wherever there's water, there's life. The creek bed of Surprise Canyon was carpeted with a thick layer of vegetation. So thick that going through it was a really painstaking task. There's no maintained trail there, just a path beaten by others before us. And in parts, that path was submerged in water and mud.

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.

Horsetail Lawn
And then I spotted a flower!  It was the only bloom I saw on that hike.
White Sweetclover (Mellitus albus). Non-native.
In some points the canyon widened somewhat and we were walking with ease on the gravel. Not having to struggle with the vegetation I could pay more attention to the canyon walls.

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
The canyon walls are made primarily of marble - a hard metamorphic rock, off-white in color.  It wasn't the only rock there, however. Twisted layers of dark rock are time-frozen testaments of the sheer forces that raised the Panamint Range over the valley's fault line.

Rock Twister
The rocks are exposed but not stark. islands of vegetation grow on think top soil and in cracks. Ledges provide a nice growth self for barrel cacti.

Barrel Cacti (Ferocactus cylindraceus)
We were walking on a thick gravel layer on the creek bed, no doubt containing much mining rubble still, dumped mining equipment from Panamint City. In the gravel - half-buried vehicle that must've been swept down by the flash floods.

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.

The dipper kept its eyes on us and then started dancing on the rock ledge. It was bobbing up and down on its legs, turning in circles on the spot, always keeping an eye on us. I assume It was telling us that we can't catch it by surprise so we'd better not waste energy trying :-)

American Dipper
I stood there, transfixed, for a long while, constantly switching between the binoculars and the camera, until my friend nudged me. I bade farewell to the little bird and we moved on.

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.


Then it was time to make a decision: shall we go further or is it time to turn back? 
The BLM naturalist who recommended that trail to us said we could backpack all the way up to Panamint City and camp there overnight. We seriously considered that option - we certainly had all the required equipment, and the ability and will. The only problem was time. We had already taken on of our planned days in Death Valley NP for the hike in Surprise Canyon. Backpacking to Panamint City would have taken another day. Our compromise was to go on - but only a little bit further up the canyon.

It was now time to prove right the statement on the rock.
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?

Rock Dwellings

Either way, we both made it up the second water fall. The canyon opened up aa bit there, and it seemed like an easy hike later on.

Upper Surprise Canyon
My friend, however, had enough. Her feet, which were exposed to the cold water since the beginning of the hike, were seriously aching now and I wanted to make it into Death Valley NP while there was still some daylight. So with a silent promise to be back I hoisted my backpack and followed my friend back down the cascade.

Looking down
It was hard turning my back to this canyon. I kept stopping to look around, trying to etch the sights in my brain.

Over the canyon 
Barrel cacti strewn all over the rock face. It looked to me as if a giant had spilled a whole bunch of them and they rolled down and sunk their roots wherever they came to rest.

Dikes and veins od marble run through the darker rock in elaborate patterns. My photos really don't do justice to these beautiful and impressive formations. 

We were getting closer to where we had begun. By then, my friend had picked her pace up, hurrying to reach the point where she could put her socks and shoes back on. I followed slowly, having already donned my shoes after coming down the cascades. 

Down and Out
We took a few extra minutes to explore Novak Camp some more. At that time I didn't know what was mined there and I tried to find clues in the deserted equipment. I was quite surprised to see signs of fairly recent activity: newer looking plastic hoses and sealants. I found out later that the place was mined up until the 1970s but it is possible that some privateers had tried finding their fortune there even later.

Our time was running out. My friend and I got in the car and drove down the gravel path out of the canyon and its alluvial fan and into Panamint Valley where we connected with SR190 to Death Valley National Park.

I stopped to look back and take a goodbye photo of the Panamint Range domineered by the snow-capped Telescope Peak. 

Telescope Peak, view from the west
Along that road there is an alkali pond where 4 years ago I stopped with my botanist friend to look for flowers and wildlife. This visit we didn't have the time to explore that area, and the only animal we saw there was a lonely burro that roamed about, looking very tired. I took a few photos of this offspring of the early donkey workers. 
Looking for Gold - a lonely Feral Burro
It was nighttime when we finally arrived at Texas Springs campground in Death Valley. On the following day we would look for the wildflowers that had lured me there in the first place.

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.


  1. The views are beautiful, but I'm not sure whether the surprise was the flower or the dipper 😉