A Mind-Boggling Chunk of Lonely: Backpacking in Death Valley National Park
By Michael Lanza
“Can you believe how much water there is?!” Katie asks incredulously. It’s a logical question, and the response of silence from the rest of us answers her pretty succinctly: No, we can’t.
We’re backpacking in a lonely corner of the water-starved and nearly barren Panamint Range in southern California’s Death Valley National Park. One of the most insufferably hot and dry deserts on the planet, Death Valley averages less than two inches of rainfall a year. The temperature on this mid-May evening still hovers around a steaming 90° F in the shade, even as sunset fast approaches. That actually feels relatively frosty compared to when we stopped at the park’s Furnace Creek visitor center this afternoon, at 190 feet below sea level, where the outside thermometer read a searing 108° F.
The cooling effect of the sweat-soaked T-shirt clinging to my clammy torso may be the only thing saving me from heat stroke—that, and having started our hike in the merciful shade of evening rather than in direct afternoon sunshine.
It’s the kind of severely inhospitable environment that challenges any rational person’s ability to conjure one compelling reason for coming here in the first place. My three hiking companions and I may quietly contemplate that question—maybe multiple times—over our three days out here. The pleasures of the desert can prove extremely elusive under the best circumstances, but particularly when you’re walking through it, carrying your home on your back, in temperatures friendlier to iguanas than humans.
And yet, in this driest and hottest of deserts, we are standing at the base of a crystalline cascade tumbling some 15 feet over terrace-like ledges of moss-covered stones, deep in the narrows of a canyon with sheer walls of white marble vaulting to the sky. Beside a knee-deep pool at the bottom of the cascade stands a 20-foot-tall, leafy cottonwood tree—undoubtedly the only tree for miles.
Wet and cool place in a desert. Greenery in a predominantly brown land. Life springing forth amid a landscape of stone and dirt that appears—especially from a distance—nearly lifeless. It’s a canyon of contradictions. Little wonder that it’s called Surprise Canyon.
But this little oasis and cascading stream are just the first of several unexpected incongruities we will encounter on this three-day backpacking trip.
I’ve come to Death Valley National Park with three professionals from the outdoor industry: Rosie Mansfield, head of product development and design for Osprey Packs; Katie Hughes, lead content strategist for Big Agnes; and Elisabeth Brentano, an ambassador for both Big Agnes and Oboz Footwear. We are here to test out new packs from Osprey, tents, sleeping bags, and pads from Big Agnes, and boots from Oboz.
And to explore a park that’s virtually unknown to most Americans—including me.
After staring mutely at the waterfall for a few minutes, I pull off my boots and socks and wade into the pool. It feels marvelous.
Death Valley National Park
One by one, we make an exposed scramble up a 15-foot cliff to skirt around the waterfall (lead photo at top of story), and then the four of us continue up Surprise Canyon. We had followed a trail up the first mile of Surprise Canyon to the waterfall; but beyond it, there’s no trail—we’re just hiking up the canyon, scrambling at times over ledges to skirt shorter falls (nothing higher or more exposed than that first, 15-foot cliff). At times we backtrack to find our way through or around dense brush choking the streambed. Often, we’re hiking right in the stream, which rarely rises above our ankles.
It’s beautiful, but night falls and drags on as we follow the beams of our headlamps. It’s just five miles from the trailhead to Panamint City, where we plan to camp for a couple of nights—but the rugged, off-trail route gains nearly 3,700 feet of elevation. It’s hard and slow going, and as everyone grows tired, our progress slows. Finally, in the broad, upper canyon, we stop long after dark and pitch tents amid sagebrush a five-minute walk below the ghost town of Panamint City.
When most Americans think of Death Valley National Park, they think of two things. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, the continent’s basement at 282 feet (86m) below sea level. And Death Valley is most famous for the hottest temperature every recorded in America: 134° F (56.7° C) on July 10, 1913, at the weather station at Furnace Creek. Fortunately, we won’t see temps anywhere near that. But over the course of four days here, exploring from bottom to top in a park with one of the biggest elevation gradients in the world, we will see a temperature range of 80 degrees Fahrenheit—not something you encounter every day.
The Panamint Range in Death Valley rise to just over 11,000 feet at their high point, Telescope Peak. These brown, sear desert mountains dwell in relative obscurity—partly for the park’s inhospitable environment and partly for their proximity to one of America’s (and arguably one of the world’s) most scenic mountain ranges, the High Sierra.
But few places in the country have the relief of the Panamints: There’s well over 11,000 vertical feet separately the crown of Telescope Peak and Badwater Basin—as much relief as there is between the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, and the tiny Eastern Sierra towns lying at its foot, and between the summit of Mount Everest and its primary base camp.
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The next morning, we take a stroll back in time.
After packing up our camp to relocate to a spot near a flowing creek at the mouth of Water Canyon—in a small, sagebrush meadow flanked by a falling-down cabin and the rusted-out shell of an old car—we hike about five minutes up into “downtown” Panamint City. The brick smelter chimney and remains of a mountainside mine come into view first. Then we walk past several long-abandoned cabins in various states of dilapidation, scattered around an area of perhaps a few acres.
What remains of Panamint City resembles a junkyard from a lost civilization: stone foundations slowly settling into the earth, with sagebrush growing up inside and over them; the rusting shells of old pickup trucks, cars, and a pair of motor homes; mining machinery artifacts; tires and barrels; and thousands of rusting, discarded cans littering the ground. In the center of town stands a largely intact cabin, its front porch adorned with hanging wind chimes; a pair of sneakers of more-recent vintage have been left behind on the porch, as if someone was still living there. Assuming it’s mice-infested, and given the concerns I’ve read about hantavirus here, we don’t bother opening the front door to look inside.
Several mining ghost towns dating back a century or more are sprinkled around Death Valley, but the park website describes Panamint City as “the toughest, rawest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town.” Outlaws hiding from the law in these harsh mountains found silver in Surprise Canyon, abandoned their life of crime (as fast as miners would one day abandon this town), and founded Panamint City. The town reached a peak population of about 2,000 in 1874—mostly, it’s easy to imagine, unmarried, hard-drinking men toiling in the mines and spending their earnings in local bars. A year later, the boom had already passed, and in 1876, a flash flood destroyed most of the town.
Hiking the rugged, mostly off-trail route up Surprise Canyon today, it’s hard to imagine how the hulks of old trucks rusting into the earth could have ever gotten here. An old jeep road existed here until it washed out in the 1980s. These ruins and artifacts of a lost era became part of Death Valley National Park in 1994.
Walking around this postage stamp of land where a couple thousand people once lived and worked, it strikes me as a fascinating window back onto a time when whoever lived here, for whatever reasons, either had no long-term vision of staying here or, by all appearances, were devoid of concern over the steady accumulation of their own trash. Maybe it simply reflects a population that was predominantly young and male and not thinking beyond the next workday, paycheck, and bottle of whiskey.
Maybe, as the impacts of climate change grow increasingly evident, places like Panamint City provide us with a historical metaphor for the hazards of a careless attitude toward our stewardship of the planet.
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We decide to try to dayhike 9,636-foot Sentinel Peak via a steep, overgrown two-track called the Wyoming Mine Road, which climbs from Panamint City up to Sentinel’s southwest ridge. The views expand as we ascend through switchbacks past eruptions of blooming lupine, passing old mines and machinery and peering into the long, dark tunnels into the earth.
Where the overgrown and scree-carpeted road ends abruptly, we pick up a narrow, unmaintained footpath angling uphill, wrapping around the shoulder of a ridge, climbing steadily higher. Telescope Peak, highest in the park at 11,049 feet, comes into view just a few miles to the north. Then our goat path ends and we start scrambling and hiking up onto the southwest ridge of Sentinel Peak. Thumbs of broken rock jut upward 20 feet and taller from the ridge crest; spines of rock hang down its flanks.
We gaze out over an almost monochromatic landscape of sagebrush and desert scrub interrupted by cliffs and crumbling outcroppings of paler rock. The shades of cream, brown, and gray painting the landscape look about as earthen as earth tones get.
Desert mountains aren’t easy to love. There’s a lot of sagebrush, busted up rocks, and just plain brown. The scenery can feel about as inspiring as the side of a UPS truck.
But look long enough and this landscape can grow on you. The flat pan of salt-bottomed and sandy desert several thousand feet below us strikes a sharp contrast with the dark rock of the mountains across the valley, the electrically blue sky, and the snow-capped High Sierra far off to the west—including the highest peak in the contiguous United States, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, 85 miles from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.
Beauty in the desert also tends to be fleeting. Earlier this spring, the park experienced a “super bloom” of wildflowers, which occurs sporadically, perhaps once a decade, when sufficient rains fall in winter and early spring. For several weeks, expansive fields of desert dandelion, Fremont pincushion, desert five spot, prince’s plume, golden evening primrose, and Mojave fishhook cactus transformed the desert into a French Impressionist scene.
Ephemeral beauty flourishing in a stark and colorless land that challenges one’s ability to appreciate it—in Death Valley, the contradictions sprout up as prolifically as the flowers.
From high on Sentinel Peak’s southwest ridge, the enormity of Death Valley comes into clearer focus. Declared a national monument in 1933, in 1994 it was named a national park and expanded to nearly 3.4 million acres—the largest national park in the Lower 48—and 95 percent of it designated wilderness.
We’re overlooking a mind-boggling, Alaska-scale chunk of lonely just a half-day’s drive from L.A. and Las Vegas. It’s a view that very few people ever see.
Death Valley National Park sees just over a million visitors a year. But perhaps even more so than in flagship national parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, an infinitesimal fraction of visitors here venture beyond the skillet-hot pavement and their air-conditioned cars. Thanks to the combined effects of an extreme environment and extreme vertical relief, on any given day, there are very few people in the backcountry of this vast park.
As I’ve spent more time in the backcountry over the years, I’ve come to appreciate more the feelings inspired by deep solitude, by knowing there’s little chance of encountering anyone (besides your companions). It expands the wilderness, makes the place seem a lot bigger and me feel a lot smaller. It magnifies my sense of independence and self-reliance.
That’s hard to find, and when I do find it, there’s a magic that can supersede the impact of a visually dramatic landscape. Solitude lends its own drama to any landscape.
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Descending Surprise Canyon in Daylight
On our final day, we take our time packing up camp, setting out by late morning to descend Surprise Canyon. It’s windy and cool hiking down through Panamint City and the wide-open stretch of upper Surprise Canyon; I’m actually wearing a long-sleeve wool top over a wool T-shirt.
Descending it in daylight, we get to see much of the canyon that we hiked up in the dark. We stroll through a tunnel of overhanging tree limbs, bending over where it hangs low, walking right in the two-inch-deep creek. At the canyon’s narrows, where the rock suddenly changes from the black and brown, broken cliffs of the upper canyon to the white, very solid marble of the narrows, the four of us pick our way down over greasy slabs, frequently stepping over cascades, and scramble carefully down steeper steps. The wind blows hard through the canyon, keeping us cool.
Greenery erupts incongruously from an otherwise stark moonscape. Barrel cactus populates the ledges overhead like puffins on a sea cliff—yet another stark contradiction of Death Valley.
I remark to Katie about how different the narrows are from the upper canyon, and she looks around us and agrees, “Yea, it’s just beautiful in here with this rock and this water.”
And we’re among a very small population of backpackers who can tell stories about exploring it.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, experienced backpackers, not beginners. Challenges include dangerously hot temperatures (although that’s very seasonal); terrain that’s rugged, steep, and exhausting; a few fairly easy, short, but exposed sections of scrambling; limited water sources; and the lack of a trail, requiring the ability to navigate off-trail.
Make It Happen
Season The prime seasons for the hike up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City are April to May and September often into November. Even at high elevations in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park, summers can be unbearably hot. Winter hiking is possible, but sometimes requires gear for hiking on snow and ice. Higher trails and summits become snow-free usually by May or June.
The Itinerary From the Surprise Canyon Trailhead at Chris Wicht camp, hike about five miles, mostly off-trail, up Surprise Canyon to Panamint City; you’ll gain nearly 3,700 feet in elevation, and the terrain is rugged, so many parties will take about five hours to get there. There’s an easy trail for about a mile at the bottom of Surprise Canyon; beyond that, as in most of Death Valley National Park, there’s no trail, just traces of footpaths and old roadbeds, and you’ll often walk in the creek bed and cross-country.
Although you can camp anywhere, much of the ground in and around Panamint City is rocky, not flat, and covered in sagebrush. The best tent sites we found—and the only ones with water nearby—were near the small creek at the mouth of Water Canyon, about a 15-minute walk beyond Panamint City.
You can hike around to explore the Panamint City area, including Water Canyon and Sourdough Canyon. Also, a trail continues past Panamint City up to Panamint Pass, where you can scramble up 9,636-foot Sentinel Peak. We hiked up the two-track Wyoming Mine Road (which passes by old mines), followed a rough footpath beyond the road’s end onto the southwest ridge of Sentinel Peak, and hiked and scrambled partway up that ridge before turning back.
Getting There From the Trona-Wildrose Road in Panamint Valley, southeast of Panamint Springs, turn east onto the good dirt road to the ghost town of Ballarat, then turn north. About a mile north of Ballarat, turn right onto the road to Surprise Canyon and Chris Wicht camp (a camping area without any amenities); the road gets rocky, bumpy, and slow driving for the last couple miles, but not deeply rutted and with no large rocks. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but four-wheel drive isn’t needed.
Permit A free backcountry permit can be picked up at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or Stovepipe Well ranger station. The park doesn’t accept permit reservations.
Map Trails Illustrated Death Valley National Park no. 221, $11.95, rei.com.
Guidebook/Website Hiking Western Death Valley National Park, by Michel Digonnet, $19.95, available for purchase at the park’s Furnace Creek visitor center. I also recommend the excellent website panamintcity.com, run by Steve Hall (who suggested the Panamint City backpacking trip to me), which describes and has photos of dozens of hikes and backpacking trips in Death Valley National Park.
• Temperatures get dangerously hot from late spring until fall, although that varies greatly with elevation.
• The terrain in Surprise Canyon and around Panamint City is rugged, steep, and exhausting, and the hike up Surprise Canyon involves a few short but exposed sections of scrambling, the highest and most exposed of which is the first one you encounter, about a mile up the canyon.
• There are limited water sources. We got water in the narrows of Surprise Canyon at the mouth of Water Canyon.
Contact Death Valley National Park, (760) 786-3200, nps.gov/deva.