Surprise Canyon Wilderness sits on the western borders of Death Valley National Park and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The wilderness area contains 24 429 acres, entirely situated in the State of California, and became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1994.
The landscape features a perennial desert stream, Surprise Canyon Creek, rare for this extremely arid region, that winds through the Panamint Mountain Range. The creek sits at the bottom of Surprise Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, and the area contains springs, seven waterfalls, and riparian areas that support vegetation wildlife and recreational activities. Wildlife in the area includes over 70 bird species, the elusive and rare Panamint alligator lizard, and bighorn sheep.
The wilderness area has elevations ranging from 1000 to 7000 feet and is characterized by alluvial slopes rising from the western section to meet the jagged ridges and steep mountainous terrain of the Panamint Mountains. Canyons transect the area and limestone rock outcroppings provide habitat for Panamint daisies and Death Valley round-leaved phacelia, rare, sensitive native plant species that are found here. Other vegetation in the area includes creosote scrub, and desert holly, with pinon and juniper forests at higher elections, and cottonwood and willow in canyons. The remnants of four-wheel-drive tracks, used when historical mining activities took place in the area, crisscross the wilderness area, and run along Jail Canyon, Hall Canyon, and Surprise Canyon. A gate prevents vehicles from entering the BLM public lands.
While exploring the Surprise Canyon Wilderness you can also visit Bureau of Land Management's Manly Peak Wilderness area, 11 miles to the south. RV campers will find campgrounds to accommodate their units in adjacent Death Valley National Park. To rent an RV in the area, check out Death Valley RV Rentals.
The most frequented access point to the Surprise Canyon Wilderness is at the Chris Wicht Camp, an old mining camp location where a trailhead is situated. To reach the camp and trailhead, take Highway 178 in Panamint Valley to Ballarat Road. Take the Ballarat Road through the old mining town, and turn left onto Indian Ranch Road. Proceed for one mile to Surprise Canyon Road (BLM Route P71). Turn right into Inyo County on the maintained dirt road for four miles to Chris Wicht Camp. There is a small parking area at the end of the road. From this point, you can hike up the wash in the slot canyon.
The access road to Chris Wicht Road requires a high clearance vehicle. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is the best choice for navigating naturally surfaced access roads up to the park. However, during dry weather, a two-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance may suffice. Motorized vehicles are not permitted in the BLM wilderness areas and must be left at the border as they can cause damage to sensitive desert ecosystems.
Temperatures in the area frequently climb well above 100 F and travelers should take plenty of extra drinking water and water for vehicle cooling systems. This is a remote area with few amenities and services, so ensure your vehicle is in good mechanical order, bring spare tires, and any required tools and supplies. Cellular coverage is not reliable in the area so you should have an accurate map and satellite GPS devices to navigate the region.
Death Valley National Park's Wild Rose Campground is a designated park campground near and accessible to the Surprise Canyon Wilderness. Camping at this primitive campground is free, and it is very popular for overnight campers in the region looking to explore the canyons and mountains in the Death Valley area.
The campground is open all year and has 23 sites available. Some sites can accommodate RVs up to 25 feet in length. Amenities include running water and vault toilets, There is no RV dump station here or RV hookups. Individual campsites do have picnic tables and fire pits.
The campground is situated in a canyon in the Panamint Range in the National Park and boasts a spectacular wilderness setting. The campground is very picturesque and natural, and is ideal for those that want a wilderness camping experience with some amenities, yet is unspoiled by crowds and development. Hiking trails are situated nearby and great for wilderness adventures while camping in the region. The campground is situated in an open area, with little shade and is best visited in the peak season between October and April.
Backcountry camping for backpackers is permitted in Surprise Canyon Wilderness. There are no motorized vehicles allowed in the BLM public lands and most visitors park at the Chris Wicht Camp, a former mining campsite. Backpackers can venture into the wilderness area along trails and washes to set up overnight campsites. You are encouraged to use previously used sites on hard ground to minimize disruption to the environment. Campsites should be at least ¼ mile from natural water sources.
There are no services here, so be prepared with enough water and food. Reliable water sources exist in the Surprise Canyon Wilderness. but need to be purified prior to human consumption. Adhere to “Leave No Trace” principles which include packing out all your trash and burying human waste appropriately. The terrain is challenging in the area but provides solitude and unspoiled natural areas ideal for wilderness camping aficionados. Do not use live vegetation for campfires. Deadfall can be collected, and the use of camp stoves, as opposed to fires, is encouraged.
Hiking in the Surprise Canyon Wilderness is best conducted between October and April when temperatures in this desert area are more reasonable. There are washes and old four wheel tracks that hikers can follow in the wilderness area. The most popular trail in the area is the Surprise Canyon Trail at 10.3 miles in length. This is an out and back trail with elevation gains of 3838 feet and is rated as difficult.
The trail is lightly trafficked and wet! It runs along the Surprise Canyon Creek and hikers should wear footwear that will stand up to creek crossings. There are beautiful waterfalls along the trail.
Vegetation such as the sensitive native Panamint daisies cling to limestone outcrops, and rare species like the Panamint alligator lizard provide unique opportunities to snap some uncommon photos while exploring the area. The vegetation filled riparian areas along creeks contrast with the desert landscape and several waterfalls and abandoned mine buildings create interesting subjects for shutterbugs visiting the area. Vistas from high elevations are spectacular, and provide great views of the surrounding wilderness terrain, sunrises, and sunsets!
The Panamint Mountain Range provides excellent opportunities for climbing enthusiasts in the area. The 11300 vertical feet Telescope Peak looks down on the desert landscape below and you can see for miles. The last part of the climb up Telescope Peak requires some climbing and clambering over rocks and appropriate equipment such as an axe and crampons is required.
Many outfitters in nearby towns cater to climbers and can provide guided climbing experiences and required equipment. Be sure to be prepared with supplies, plenty of water, and required safety equipment to safely explore the mountain peaks and climb rock faces in the area.
During the heat of the summer or colder winter months, voyage to the past in the Surprise Canyon Wildernesses nearby Ghost towns. The Ballarat Ghost Town, at its peak between 1897 and 1905, was home to 500 people, and boasted seven saloons, three hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, and jail. Today the remnants and foundations of several of these buildings remain and there are still a few full-time residents and a general store, which is open afternoons and weekends. The Panamint City Ghost Town is also accessible via a 7.5-mile hike up Surprise Canyon to Death Valley National Park.
While snow may seem unlikely in Death Valley’s Panamint Mountain Range, the 11300-foot Telescope Peak has snow between November and March, and trails for snowshoeing. Be prepared for strenuous elevation changes and challenging conditions at high elevations. Wear layers that can be shed as you heat up with exertion and donned at rest stops where you can chill easily.
There is no reason not to enjoy this beautiful mountainous terrain, even in the winter, if you are well prepared. Outfitters in the area can help with snowshoe rentals, supplies, and directions.
Ski resorts in the mountain ranges surrounding Surprise Canyon provide downhill skiers and snowboarders with plenty of opportunities to glide down groomed runs and get in some alpine adventures. The Lee Valley Ski Resort is 189 miles to the east of Surprise Canyon and provides 385 skiable acres, with three chair lifts and a surface lift. There are also side alpine hiking areas and a freestyle terrain park. Lessons and equipment rentals are available on site.