March 01, 2015

Photo Essay: A Watery Surprise Near Death Valley

When I first stopped in the Death Valley-adjacent ghost town of Ballarat three years ago, I didn't know that it was the gateway to a surprise.

If you drive past the town of Ballarat, past its cemetery, and turn off on Surprise Canyon Road, you reach what's left of Novak's Camp...

...some lower-canyon remains of the mining history of the Panamint Valley...

...and much more accessible than the better-known mining ghost town of Panamint City, a seven-mile hike uphill from Surprise Canyon.

Panamint City, once a lawless town with a red light district, washed away in floods in 1876.

But because it was the site of a successful silver mining operation and trade, wagon roads had been built up the canyon to reach it...

...many of which were still navigable by motorized vehicle until the early 1980s.

Although the Surprise Canyon Wilderness is definitely in the desert...

...directly adjacent to Death Valley...

...there has been a surprising amount of water there... evidenced by the abandoned stone-walled pool...

...and its output pipe.

Novak's Camp (back then known as "Chris Wicht Camp") used to be quite an operation, and because of that, Rocky Novak and his father George resisted their camp being absorbed into the designated wilderness area, to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

When Novak's Camp burned down in 2006, the Novaks blamed the BLM, accusing it of arson...

...though wildfires are common in this area.

The BLM obviously denied any nefarious plot to drive the Novaks out, but once their camp was gone, they decided not to rebuild.

They left Surprise Canyon, and moved to Ballarat. When George died in 2011 at the age of 90, his son Rocky (also known as "Rock" and "Roc") became its only official resident, and unofficial "mayor" – the sole caretaker of this dwindling town that once prospered.

After the fire, Surprise Canyon is prospering in an unexpected way:

...industry has given way to nature...

...and the wagon road that passes the stamp mill and the rest of the remains of the lower mining camp...

...has been overtaken by nature, thanks to being closed to off-roading vehicles that once disrupted the soil and scarred the bedrock.

It's hard to imagine that this was ever a road of any sort.

It is way overgrown – requiring quite a bit of bushwhacking, which slows down the climb...

...though the elevation gain as you approach the gorge in the first mile or two is not so severe.

The other thing is, in this desert landscape, this is a very wet canyon, year-round. There is no way to stay dry.

Most of the old wagon road has been overtaken by a creek, and the easiest way to climb the steepest part of the lower canyon is just by sloshing up a waterfall, using its tiers as stairs, being mindful of the slimy green stuff that can cause a slip and fall.

There's a pleasant relief you feel the first time you get your feet wet. It's better to do it early on, because then you don't have to spend your time trying to stay dry. You can just embrace the water flooding in through the top of your boots, the mud squishing under your tread and seeping into cracks and between laces.

But it's an exhausting slog, making the trip all the way up to Panamint City a full day affair, and probably requiring an overnight stay amidst the ruins before taking another day to head back down.

But when you're soggy and exhausted, you know you've really done something.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Ghost Towns of Death Valley
Today's Moment of Clarity: Get Out of the Car

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