Ed. note: This summer we sent ambassador Elisabeth Brentano with Michael Lanza of The Big Outside to put Oboz and other gear to the test in Death Valley National Park. Here's Michael's second story about the adventure.
Cover image: Katie Hughes descending the narrows of Surprise Canyon in Death Valley National Park. All images: Michael Lanza
On an evening in mid-May, with the steaming air still over 90° F in one of the hottest and driest deserts on the planet, we stand at the base of a crystalline cascade tumbling 15 feet over tiered ledges of moss-covered stones. Beside a calf-deep pool at the bottom of the waterfall, a leafy tree—the only one for miles—stands about 20 feet tall. In fact, we’re backpacking up the narrows of a desert canyon where a surprisingly robust creek pours over several short waterfalls, between close, sheer walls of white rock vaulting to the sky.
This creek, canyon, and little oasis feel as out of place as seeing a fish sunning on a beach.
Backpacking up Surprise Canyon in Death Valley National Park.
Hottest Place on Earth
We’re hiking up aptly named Surprise Canyon, in California’s Death Valley National Park, most famous for the hottest temperature every recorded in America. On July 10, 1913, the weather station at Furnace Creek, at 190 feet below sea level in Death Valley, recorded a high of 134° F (56.7° C).
Fortunately, we won’t see temps anywhere near that. But over the course of four days here, exploring from top to bottom in a park with one of the biggest elevation gradients in the world—more than two vertical miles—we will see a temperature range of 80 degrees—not something you encounter every day.
Ascending through the canyon.
Oboz, Osprey, and Big Agnes
Surprise Canyon drains the west side of the Panamint Range in the park, desert mountains that rise to just over 11,000 feet. I’ve come here to test new gear from three outdoor manufacturers whose products I’ve used and liked for years, with three people from those companies: Rosie Mansfield, head of product development and design for Osprey Packs; Katie Hughes, the lead content strategist for Big Agnes; and Oboz and Big Agnes ambassador Elisabeth Brentano. We’re testing new packs from Osprey, tents and sleeping bags and pads from Big Agnes, and boots from Oboz.
Exploring the Unknown
And we’re exploring a park that I, like most hikers, have never hiked in before.
For our three-day, mostly off-trail backpacking trip up Surprise Canyon to the old mining ghost town of Panamint City, I’m wearing the new Oboz Scapegoat Mid boots. Elisabeth is testing out the women’s Oboz Phoenix Mid.
Oboz Scapegoat Mids
As I wrote in my review of those boots, I often prefer to hike in non-waterproof, low-cut shoes with mesh uppers, for maximum breathability in summer, when my feet are more likely to get wet from the “inside environment” (sweating) than from the “outside environment.” I’m backpacking in the Scapegoat Mids because they’re one of the few non-waterproof, mid-cut boots I’ve found with good support for light backpacking.
Soon after we start hiking up Surprise Canyon, the sun disappears behind the tall canyon walls, granting us the blessed relief of shade. Nonetheless, we’re all still sweating hard, making us realize how hot it would have been hiking up this canyon in direct sunshine. As we hike into the evening, the temperature slowly throttles down into the 80s.
Into the Great Unkown
Beyond the first mile, there’s no real trail.
The group dayhiking Sentinel Peak above Panamint City in Death Valley National Park.
We’re just hiking up the canyon, scrambling carefully over water-smoothed rock ledges and short cliffs to skirt waterfalls, including one beautiful, multi-tiered cascade where we have to make some climbing moves up a 15-foot cliff. At times, we hike straight up the creek bed itself, in water usually not more than ankle-deep. (Another benefit of non-waterproof footwear: When they get wet, they breathe so well that they dry fast.) Frequently, we find ourselves standing at the brink of a short cliff, or we run up against a wall of impenetrably dense brush, and have to backtrack to find our way around the obstacle.
Finally, hiking by headlamps long after dark, we find spots to pitch our three tents, in sagebrush flats on the very edge of the abandoned buildings of a mining ghost town named Panamint City.
The next morning, the four of us walk up into Panamint City and back in time.
Checking out a long-abandoned cabin in the ghost town of Panamint City, in Death Valley National Park.
Long-abandoned cabins in various states of dilapidation and stone foundations lie scattered around an area of perhaps several acres at the head of Surprise Canyon, along with the rusting shells of old pickup trucks and cars, a pair of motor homes, a variety of mining machinery artifacts, tires and barrels, and thousands of rusting, discarded cans littering the ground.
On the front porch of a mostly intact cabin in the center of town, metal wind chimes jangle softly in the light breeze. A pair of sneakers of recent vintage sits on the porch floor outside the cabin’s front door, as if left there overnight.
Walking through History
We decide to try to dayhike 9,636-foot Sentinel Peak via the Wyoming Mine Road, which begins in Panamint City. The views expand as we ascend switchbacks across a mountainside of blooming lupine, passing old mines and machinery, peering into the long, dark tunnels into the earth and trying to imagine what it must have been like to walk into these tunnels day after day, year after year, knowing this job regularly killed workers.
After a few hours of climbing—beyond where the overgrown, scree-carpeted road ends abruptly, and then beyond the end of a narrow footpath that picks up where the road leaves off—we stop on the southwest ridge of Sentinel Peak.
The summit will elude us today; it’s too far off for our slow pace in this rugged terrain. But we’ve earned a view that few people see, in a park where—even more so than in flagship national parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon—visitors rarely venture beyond the pavement and their air-conditioned cars.
An almost monochromatic landscape of sagebrush and desert scrub, interrupted by cliffs and craggy, crumbling outcroppings of pale rock, sprawls out before us. The shades of cream, brown, and gray painting the landscape looks about as earthen as earth tones get.
To the north, we can see Telescope Peak, highest in the park at 11,049 feet. The flat pan of salt-bottomed and sandy desert thousands of feet below us strikes a sharp contrast with the dark rock of the mountains across the valley, the snow-capped High Sierra farther off to the west, and an electrically blue sky.
A New Perspective
On our last morning, wind and somewhat cooler temps accompany us hiking down out of Panamint City; I’m actually wearing a long-sleeve wool top for the first hour. By the time the temperature begins its inexorable climb, we’ve entered the shade and creek-cooled environs of Surprise Canyon.
Hiking it in daylight, we get to see much of the canyon that we hiked in the dark on our first evening, including the stroll through the overhanging tree tunnel some locals call the “Tunnel of Love,” and similar spots where we walk right in the ankle-deep creek.
When we enter the narrows, the canyon’s character shifts abruptly from the black and brown, broken cliffs of the broader, upper canyon to the white, hard rock of the narrows. We shuffle cautiously down water-slicked rock, step over cascades, and scramble down steep ledges. Greenery erupts incongruously from the otherwise stark moonscape.
Out of the Rabbit Hole
After descending Surprise Canyon, reaching the trailhead in Death Valley’s blazing heat feels like climbing out of Alice’s rabbit hole—a bit surreal, as if we might wonder whether the heat played tricks on our minds and we imagined the oasis of the canyon’s narrows.
But it was real, of course. And we’re among a small population of backpackers who can tell stories about exploring it.
Michael Lanza reviews hiking and backpacking gear and blogs about his outdoor adventures, including many with his family, at The Big Outside. He’s the former Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, where for several years he was the magazine’s lead gear reviewer. His award-winning book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, chronicles his family’s wilderness adventures in national parks going through radical changes due to the warming climate.