April surprises
(Sentinel Peak, 9634 feet)

10-12 Apr 2004 - by Debbie Bulger

Sentinel Peak stands watch over aptly-named Surprise Canyon. The gurgling sound of water here in Death Valley National Park is the first tip off that Surprise Canyon is special. Richard Stover and I are backpacking to Panamint City, a ghost town that once housed 1500 people, most of whom were engaged in wresting silver out of the surrounding hills.

It all started back in 1873 when three bank robbers hightailed it up the canyon. Their surprise was the silver they discovered. Their dilemma was that they couldn't file a claim, being wanted and all. To the rescue came the two U.S. Senators from Nevada who negotiated immunity for the robbers for their unauthorized "loan" from Wells Fargo-in exchange for an interest in the mine.

Three years later much of the town was swept away by a flash flood. The towering brick smokestack survived, and we get our first glimpse of it about a mile away as we approach the town site. But first, we had many other surprises to view as we backpacked the five miles and 4000 feet up canyon to Panamint City.

For the first mile we climb up a series of small, picturesque waterfalls splashing between what appear to be white marble walls. The unexpected song and then the sight of a Pacific tree frog here in the desert is a delight. There are tadpoles too in quiet pools.

The wildflowers show off their April finery: brilliant brittlebush, several kinds of blue phacelia, two types of yellow primrose. Even the creosote bushes are clad in yellow blooms. Further up there are chia, blue lupine, Indian paintbrush, and the huge white trumpets of the jimson weed.

This waterfall scramble used to be a road but was washed out in 1984. Dramatic twisted hulks of motor vehicles offer testimony to the power of rushing water. Beyond the tangled truck bodies the canyon widens out, and the trail becomes less difficult, although the steep grade (about 16%) offers no respite. As we climb, the water flow disappears underground until we get to Panamint City. But first, we must navigate through a tunnel of willows arching over our heads like a rehearsal for the mine tunnels above the town.

About a mile from Panamint City we see the remains of an unfortunate feral burro that caught its hoof in a discarded bedspring. It is mostly scattered bones and leather-like legs that tell the sad tale of lost mobility and subsequent death no doubt to a pack of hungry coyotes.

There are several wooden cabins in Panamint City, some quite elaborate, but the most interesting are the roofless remains of the old stone structures from the 1870s. And there are blooming deep purple irises carefully planted long ago.

Human settlement revisited Panamint City briefly in the 1970s when the price of silver made mining worthwhile, but today it is a place of quiet history. Abandoned mining equipment litters the newer structures. The most bizarre piece of trash is an electric clothes dryer here in this very dry desert.

Richard and I set up our tent smack dab in the middle of the road leading up to the 1970s ore crusher, perched above the town. From the ore works, one can see the tons of quartz tailings dumped by the company on the hillside.

There is much to explore. But we have a mountain to climb the next day. And I can't tell you about all the fabulous sights hidden in this secluded corner of Death Valley National Park-you'll want to have a few surprises of your own if you ever go there.

By seven the next day we are on our way. We ascend the overgrown road to the Wyoming Mine and from there follow a series of abandoned trails up the ridge to the summit of Sentinel Peak. We encounter snow at about 8000 feet.

From the summit, the view is terrific. To the north Telescope Peak towers over us. About 125 miles to the east we can see snow-capped Charleston Peak north of Las Vegas. And 100 miles to the west the snow-covered Sierra Nevada makes a dramatic show. The summit register reveals that Doug Mantle and Tina Bowman have separately summited in March and April before us. Of course.

Returning, we decide to make a loop and head down Magazine Canyon. A little way below the summit we leave the ridge and start plunge-stepping through the snow. It's too soft, and we sink in up to our knees and occasionally higher. So we take out our short foam "sit pads" and glissade 1000 feet down the bowl lickety split.

Below the snow we pick up traces of old trails and thread our way back to Panamint City. Descendents of the miner's burros now roam wild and do a tolerable job of maintaining the trails, but they don't cut the brush. As a result, short hikers have an advantage.

Hiking out the next day is a breeze, after all, it's all downhill.

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