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Trip Report: Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park

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Cover image: Lupine in Suprise Canyon. All images: Elisabeth Brentano

I can’t seem to get enough of Death Valley, so I jumped at the chance to join several outdoor industry veterans for an adventure in the park’s backcountry this May. The plan was to trek six miles in to Surprise Canyon and camp there for two nights, with day hikes in the surrounding area. On the third day we would hike to the top of Telescope Peak, which is the highest mountain in the park at 11,043 feet. Though I was the least experienced backpacker in our group, I’m generally comfortable doing 10-12 miles a day and I can handle several thousand feet of gradual elevation gain, so this sounded like a piece of cake.

Surprise Canyon is tucked deep in the Panamint mountain range in the California desert, and it leads to the abandoned mining town of Panamint City. The hike starts by wrapping around streams and waterfalls flowing down from the mountains, but after a few miles you’re completely surrounded by dirt and rocks.

surprise canyon waterfall

You won’t see another soul out here, and for good reason: Most of the “trails” are merely suggestions of where to place your feet, and you’ll need to do some major bushwhacking through dense vegetation. And when I say dense, I mean it will tear the skin right off your legs if you’re not careful.

On top off that, there are several spots where you need to do a bit of scrambling up slippery rocks. If you’re day hiking, it makes you feel like you’re a kid again, but with a heavy overnight pack on your back? Not so much.

elisabeth scratched legs

Scratched legs make for long hikes.

Once we made our way out of the nasty bushes and slick rocks, we plodded uphill on gravel for what felt like an eternity. Nothing slows me down faster than elevation, and the 4,000-foot gain was starting to take its toll on me.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. It’s a cool sound at first, but after two hours, I was sick of hearing my footsteps on the rocky terrain. One of the other gals on the trip was just as exhausted as I was, and in an effort to stay awake and positive, we took it upon ourselves to rework the lyrics of Guns ’N Roses “Paradise City” as we ambled up the canyon. “Take me down to the Panamint City where the earth is brown and the trails are sh*tty,” we sang.

We weren’t hiking for pure enjoyment or for scenery — we were hiking as fast as we could to find a spot to pitch our tent and pass out. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s never a good reason to go on a hike. Due to the heat and our travel schedule, we didn’t start our journey into Surprise Canyon until the early evening, and by the time we set up camp at midnight, we definitely weren’t at our intended site. I was miserable. And I hate to admit that, because I pride myself on being a lover of the outdoors, but I seriously wanted to punch this hike in the face. 

The following day we hiked about 8 miles, and the company was great, but I felt like something was missing. Ah yes, breathtaking scenery. Snow-capped mountains and a sea of trees would have made the hike worth it, but all I could see was dirt and scrub on the mountains. Yet again, all I could hear was the crunch, crunch, crunch of my feet, and my knees were starting to throb to the point where I wanted to cry. And then I began to question everything. What if I didn’t actually enjoy hiking? Was I complaining too much? Was I only interested in being outside so I get the shot? Was I a complete fraud for telling people that I love nature? 

surprise canyon ladybug

Even when the trail is long, there is beauty to be found.

When I curled up in my sleeping bag that night, I was already dreading the hike to our car the following day. I cringed at the thought of how much my pack weighed, and I realized I hadn’t even taken a single photo. Sigh. The fifteen pounds of camera gear I brought with me was a total waste.

The next morning we retraced our steps, and rather than tiptoeing over wet rocks, I stomped through the stream crossings. I went knee-deep into the pool next to the waterfall when I set up my tripod, and at that point taking off my Phoenix mids would have required energy I didn’t have, so I kept them on. 

After pulling a stunt like this I thought my feet would feel like they had lead weights attached to them, but a quick sock change made me feel like a new woman. (It should also be noted that after about 5 minutes of hairdryer action in the hotel later that night, the boots were as good as new the next morning.) Once we got to the car, I don’t know what felt more orgasmic: removing my pack or slipping into a pair of flip flops.

The following day we hiked 14 miles roundtrip to Telescope Peak, which I found far more enjoyable than anything we had done over the previous two days.

elisabeth telescope peak

Victory. A summit. Views.

The elevation gain was more gradual, the scenery was better, and we weren’t rushed. Our group even split up after the first mile, so I ended up doing most of the hike alone. This was honestly just what I needed. I took breaks whenever I felt like it, and I wasn’t trying to catch up with anything else. It was just me, the mountain and my hiking poles. I initially told myself it was fine if I wanted to turn around by mile five, but as soon as I had the peak in sight, I knew I wanted it. I knew how good I would feel when I finished, and by the time I was a few hundred feet from the top, I couldn’t stop smiling. 

While I was stoked to have gear that kept me warm and comfortable and I enjoyed myself on Telescope Peak, I have no problem admitting that Surprise Canyon was the worst backpacking trip of my life. 

I can’t recall another trail or campsite I hated more than this one, but I’m actually grateful for the experience. Pushing past your comfort zone is the only thing that helps you figure out what kinds of hikes and adventures are right for you. No online quiz or personality test can identify your limitations and interests; only you can. There are an infinite amount of ways to love nature and experience the outdoors, and you don’t have to prove this to anyone. 

What have I learned since my Death Valley adventure? I’m willing to bust my butt up a mountain and hike 14 miles for epic views, but I’ll pass on tricky trails and scrambling up rocks. Maybe I’ll change and crave more daring routes as the years go on, but for now, that’s how things are. I primarily hike to explore new landscapes, not for the satisfaction in saying I’ve conquered something. As far as camping, I’m only interested in setting up somewhere relaxing, scenic and with obvious tent sites. In that regard, I’m kind of an outdoor snob — and I’m totally fine with that.

Elisabeth Brentano is a blogger/photographer based in California, but her travels take her all over the world to produce content for brands and tourism bureaus. You can follow her adventures on Instagram (@elisabethontheroad) and on the web (www.elisabethbrentano.com).

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