Rare Panamint Alligator Lizard

An unusual and secretive lizard crawls about the talus piles and through wild grape vines in the canyon: an endemic alligator lizard only found in a few arid ranges from the Panamint Mountains, Argus Range to the Inyo and White Mountains.

Beautifully banded in reddish-brown and cream, the Panamint alligator lizard (Elgaria panamintina) was first disovered in Surprise Canyon. Herpetologist Robert Stebbins found one twenty feet from the stream at 4,500 feet in October of 1954.

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Bird List

Surprise Canyon holds some interesting novelties, such as a small population of Indigo buntings west of their normal range (are they trying to breed?), as well as abundant Lazuli buntings. May and June are the best time to see both. The moist canyon is a magnet for migrants.

Red-tailed hawk

Cooper's hawk

Golden eagle

Prairie falcon

American kestrel


Mourning dove

White-throated swift

Costa's hummingbird

Black-chinned hummingbird

Broad-tailed hummingbird

Northern (Red-shafted) flicker

Red-breatsed sapsucker

Black phoebe

Say's phoebe

Western wood-pewee

Pacific-slope flycatcher

Dusky flycatcher

Ash-throated flycatcher

Plumbeous vireo

Warbling vireo

Bells' vireo

Loggerhead shrike

Violet-green swallow

Common raven

Western scrub jay

Pinyon jay

Canyon wren

Rock wren

Bewick's wren

Red-breasted nuthatch

Brown creeper


Ruby-crowned kinglet

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Northern mockingbird

American dipper

Varied thrush

Hermit thrush

Cedar waxwing

Yellow-rumped warbler

Townsend's warbler

Black-throated gray warbler

Wilson's warbler

Yellow warbler

Orange-crowned warbler

Common yellowthroat

Yellow-breasted chat

Western tanager

Bullock's oriole

Black-heaed grosbeak

Blue grosbeak

Lazuli bunting

Indigo bunting

Spotted towhee

Inyo towhee

Dark-eyed junco (Oregon and Pink-sided races)

Chipping sparrow

White-crowned sparrow

Song sparrow

Brewer's sparrow

Black-chinned sparrow

House finch

Purple finch

Lesser goldfinch

American goldfinch

Pine siskin

Brown-headed cowbird

House sparrow

Ferns and Waterfalls in the Desert

A ribbon of lush green running down the western side of the Panamint Mountains, with Death Valley just to the east, this canyon is a surprise.

A narrow "goblet valley" formed earlier in the history of the range, and later raised high above the present Panamint Valley floor below, the Surprise Canyon hike covers a huge range of elevations and habitats.

Warm Sulphur Springs on the bottom valley salt flat is at 1,021 feet in altitude, while Chris Wicht Camp at the trailhead is at 2,640 feet in Mojave Desert scrub. Panamint City, a ghost town of mining activity, sits at 6,320 feet in Pinyon-Juniper and sagebrush. Panamint Pass above is 8,070 feet, while Sentinel Peak stands at 9,636 feet and Telescope Peak nearby looms over all at 11,048 feet.

All this granite, limestone, and metamorphic rock holds a lot of water, trickling down through the mountain from rains through cracks and crevices, and gushing out from several permanent springs throughout the canyon to form a lively creek. In places the stream is fairly wide and gentle, yet in other places where the canyon narrows into famous marble gorges of bedrock, it cascades down in splashing waterfalls, an amazing experience in the arid desert.

All this abundant water creates highly diverse and overflowing plant growth, from maidenhair ferns and green moss-covered rocks, to forests of tall willows and cottonwoods. Many species are otherwise rare in the region, relictual, or of isolated occurrence.

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Extreme 4x4 Jeep Trail

Since the late 1800s, Surprise Canyon had a rather easily-driven dirt road, probably formed in part by the abundant vegetation building up soils over the bedrock, allowing silver miners to get up to Panamint City, as well as picnickers in the 1950s. Gravel fill was also placed at times by a later mining operation.

But change is the name of the game in Surprise Canyon. Periodic major flash floods have scoured the canyon, washing out the road, since the old mining days, making maintenance unprofitable. All vehicle traffic stopped after the big 1984 flood, but then a new sport developed.

Extreme 4x4 enthusiasts around 1990 began winching their Jeeps and 4-Runners up the bedrock waterfalls and cutting through the dense willow and grape riparian thickets.

Take a hike up Surprise Canyon in 2000...


Access: The canyon is about 30 miles northeast of Trona as the Raven flies. Drive along Highway 178 until you see Indian Ranch Road, a graded dirt road heading east. This is just south of the junction with Wildrose Canyon Road. Head south along the dirt road until you get to the turnoff for Surprise Canyon at 5.2 miles. This road runs up the fan into the canyon mouth, and is recommended high-clearance. Park at the trailhead at historic Chris Wicht Camp, 4.5 miles in.

The Bureau of Land Management owns much of the lower canyon to about 4,800 feet, as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The upper canyon, including Panamint City, is within Death Valley National Park.

Looking up the canyon toward the marble gorge.

Flowering Clematis next to a cliff.

Fall colors among the willows in the marble gorge.