Surprise Canyon, Telescope Peak
By: Jim Schoedler, Greg Pihos
In April I drove up to Mahogany Flat Campground in Death Valley NM, the trailhead for Telescope Peak, just to check out the area. There was still quite a bit of snow on the north slope of Rogers Peak and it was cold at 8133'; nevertheless my radiator boiled over when I turned off the engine after climbing up the rough road from Thorndike. By restarting the engine, I got it cooled down and drove back down Wildrose Canyon thinking that I would include in the write-up the need for 4WD vehicles to get to the trailhead.
By early October the snow was long gone and we had enough 4WD vehicles that with ridesharing, all nine in our group were able to start the hike from Mahogany Flat at about 9:15AM Saturday, having spent Friday night at Wildrose Campground. The only remaining concern was the temperature. Arriving after 11PM Friday evening, it was still in the 70s and we discussed the possibility that it might still be too early in the season for this hike, In the end, we were just on the cusp of a cooling trend and it never got above the low 80's the entire weekend.
We made short work of the hike to the peak, arriving around noon. The trail is excellent. There are no really difficult grades. We made two or three well timed rest stops along the way and maintained a good pace until just below the summit where the switchbacks start and the altitude is already above 10.000'. It was such a nice day that we spent an hour having lunch, photographing, and generally enjoying the view. It was a little too hazy to see much of the Sierra crest but all the nearer mountain ranges like the Argus, Inyos, White, Grapevine, and even the Springs in Nevada were plainly visible. We did a bit of speculating about possible routes up to Telescope Peak from the Death Valley floor via Hanaupah Canyon. The return trip was quicker - about 2-1/2 hours - even allowing for time to admire some of the rugged Bristlecone and Limber Pines that dot the upper elevations.
Back at the trailhead we discovered that the Pinyons which predominate on the lower slopes of the mountain were ripe for harvesting. Without much difficulty we collected several hatfuls of the pine nut favored by gourmet cooks and ancient Indians alike. On the way back to camp as Wildrose we stopped at the Charcoal Kilns for some exploring and a look back into the history of the Panamint range. Then, after an pleasant evening campfire, we made plans for our canyon visit Sunday morning. At 8:30AM, George Thomas and Rolf Mauermann decided to drive directly back to Los Angeles while the remainder of the group drove off to visit Surprise Canyon. Just south of where Trona-Wildrose Road meets Panamint Valley Road, we took Indian Ranch Road to the east, a graded dirt route that skirts the eastern shore of Panamint Dry Lake. From previous dry lake explorations, it was easy to spot some of the places where springs were reaching the lake shore after having run underground beneath an alluvial fan. We slowed down for a good look at the riparian plant life and also for a coyote spotted running toward the shoreline.
The rod to Surprise Canyon turns east from Indian Ranch Rod after 10 miles. It has been well marked by the BLM. The end of this road is reached where the canyon, dry and seemingly lifeless so far, suddenly narrows at the 4 mile point. Willows and cottonwoods give away the "surprise" of this canyon, a perennial stream. We had to cross this stream in several places as we hiked another mile or so up canyon. Despite the obvious evidence of past mining operations, the canyon was a delight to explore. The stream flows over a section of stunning waterfalls which can be hiked with a little scrambling over some slippery rock. On the return trip I got into a dense stand of willows that took some bushwacking to get through. The rugged country on both sides of the canyon lies in the Surprise Canyon Wilderness Study Area which will become a designated Wilderness when the desert bill passes. The canyon bottom is excluded from the Wilderness all the way up to Panamint City, another 5 miles upstream. A backpack up to this old mining town would make a good weekend trip for some future schedule.
Mark Webster and Chris Steelman left us after our canyon hike while the leaders plus Suzanne Seibentritt, Iver Lauermann, and Malt McBride made a final stop at Ballarat, the 1890's mining (now ghost) town best known for its adobe buildings. Some of these remain intact while others have melted into piles of footings; mere outlines of their original shape. From Ballarat it was only a few milts back to Trona and a reluctant return to civilization in its more modern forms.
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