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Surprise Canyon Wilderness

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A water spring cascades down a tiered rack face in Surprise Canyon, Panamint Range.
Library image #1945: Cascade in Surprise Canyon, Panamint Range


The United States Congress designated the Surprise Canyon Wilderness (map) in 1994 and it now has a total of 24,433 acres. All of this wilderness is located in California and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Surprise Canyon Wilderness is bordered by the Death Valley Wilderness to the east.


Surprise Canyon Wilderness shares its entire eastern border with Death Valley National Park. It contains small alluvial slopes that gradually rise from the west into the jagged ridges and steep sides of the Panamint Mountains. Canyons cut deeply into the mountains to form the interior of the Wilderness. Old four-wheel-drive tracks crawl through Jail, Hall, and Surprise Canyons and into the park; these non-Wilderness corridors carve the area into four sections. Elevations climb eagerly from about 1,000 feet in the west to more than 7,000 feet in the east, bestowing extraordinary vistas of the Panamint Valley from mountain summits. Creosote bush scrub and desert holly grow on alluvial fans. Cottonwoods and willows stand tall in the canyons, whose rocky walls sometimes support the rare and endangered Panamint daisy. Forests of piƱon and juniper anoint the higher elevations. In addition to the views from on high, the Wilderness is graced by the lush riparian habitats of Jail, Surprise, and Happy Canyons (Happy Canyon forms the southern boundary). If you're wondering what inspired the canyon's jaunty moniker, it stems from the "surprise" travelers experience when they stumble into the unexpected springs bubbling from the steep walls of Surprise Canyon; the springs feed a yearlong flow of water. Most of Surprise Canyon has been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in order to protect wildlife (including desert bighorn sheep and Panamint alligator lizards), vegetation, and historic and cultural resources.

Planning to Visit the Surprise Canyon Wilderness?

Leave No Trace

How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Surprise Canyon Wilderness.
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information on Leave No Trace, Visit the Leave No Trace, Inc. website.

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