Surprise Canyon Wilderness PP
Surprise Canyon Wilderness HP
Peak 8,460ft

Feb 13, 2017
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

There is nothing happy about Happy Canyon

Day 2 of my desert roadtrip saw me in the Panamint Range for a second day. Today's goal was the Surprise Canyon Wilderness HP as well as the prominence point (PP). From where I had spent the night off the Surprise Canyon road, the hike would be about six miles, one-way, with 7,000ft of gain. The stats came out as 17mi with more than 8,000ft of gain because I added a bonus peak and decided to descend Happy Canyon which I expected to be straightforward. It turned out to be anything but, thanks to an unbelievable amount of brush that choked the canyon for several miles and took quite a toll on me. If you glean nothing else from this trip report, do not ever ascend or descend Happy Canyon.

Starting at 6:30a, shortly before sunrise, I took a fairly direct route up the face of the range between Surprise and Happy Canyons. The initial part was steep with some loose rock, but it was better than it had looked from the start. After having gained about 500ft, the route became straightforward with good footing and fine views, although the slopes were routinely steep. Sunrise took over the Argus Range behind me before I would see the sun more than an hour later. The wind had died down to almost nothing overnight and the temperature was expected to reach the low 70s, so the shade was most welcome in the early morning. I spent almost 2.5hrs climbing to the rounded Wilderness PP, situated at just over 6,000ft at the three mile mark. Having only 200ft of prominence, it is odd that there is nothing more prominent in this large Wilderness area. Because it abuts Death Valley about halfway to the crest of the range, most of the terrain that falls within the Wilderness boundary is canyons and ridgelines running up from Panamint Valley with the higher elevations falling within Death Valley. There was no register here, much as I expected, as no one other than myself seems to have taken an interest in such points.

Continuing east along the ridgeline, I followed a good mule trail 200ft down to the saddle before starting the next uphill section. A pair of unhappy mules brayed loudly as I approached and seeing that I was undeterred, they took off to another side of the mountain. Snow began to make an appearance above 7,000ft, but it was confined to the north-facing slopes that I didn't need to travel over, at least until I had reached the Wilderness HP at 7,700ft an hour and a half later. The last section between the lower south point and the northern highpoint was made easier with the appearance of an old mining road. This was one of the spurs from an old mine works at a saddle to the east that I hoped to use for the descent later. I found a recent register left by James Barlow and Keith Christensen the previous April. At this point it was barely 10:30a so I decided to add unnamed bonus Peak 8,460ft, just under a mile further east.

I dropped a short distance to another saddle where I left the old mining road to continue up the ridge, finding more snow as I climbed higher past 8,000ft. Pinyons and Junipers made my route meander as I ducked under or around one after another. Crossing the snow was unavoidable, but for the most part it was well-consolidated and I didn't sink in all that much, particularly on the northern aspects that I tended to favor. I found the highpoint at the northern end of a small N-S ridge when I reached it an hour later. I took a few photographs looking north to Telescope Peak and east to Sentinel and Porter, covered in snow on all sides, before starting back.

I returned to the old mine road and followed it down a side canyon that would merge with Happy Canyon in about two miles. I was dismayed to find that the mining road disappeared after half a mile just below an old trailer, the victim of torrential washouts that obliterated most of the remaining portions of road in the bottom 3/4 of the side canyon. Oh well, I figured I could tough it out until I reached Happy Canyon where I expected to pick up the old road shown on the 7.5' topo map. Had I done any research ahead of time, I might have saved myself considerable trouble as there is almost no sign of the road left in the canyon, save for the first quarter mile coming up from the mouth of the canyon. I had five miles to descend before reaching the mouth and expected it to be slow going. There was no sandy wash as I might have hoped in lieu of a road, just a river of rock and gravel. This might not have been too bad, but things only got worse. The topo maps shows several springs in the canyon and these spelled doom. Both springs are perennial and combined with the ample shade provided by the high canyon walls, the canyon was awash in brush and trees of the most horrific types. Various flood events had ripped out sections of brush and piled them high downstream in awful piles of nearly impenetrable stuff that would often collapse under my weight as I tried to climb over it. I found myself tunneling underneath, crawling at times, trying one side or the other to little avail. Thorns tore at my clothing and skin. I stepped into the creek more times than I could count and found my boots getting soaked. Bits of twigs, leaves, thorns and other detritus filled my pockets, my boots and even places that would normally stay protected. There was so much dead stuff that I wanted to start a fire to burn it all out. I imagined the smoke filling the canyon, killing me with smoke inhalation, and thought better of it. A few breaks in the brush would give me false sense of hope, only to see yet another wall of brush with no end in sight. This went on for mile after mile. I found myself periodically scrambing on loose class 3-4 terrain at the edges of the canyon in order to avoid more abuse from the brush. In between all this I would find more mine ruins. Clearly there was a road going up this canyon at one time but it had long vanished. There was even a 20-foot waterfall at one point about a mile from the canyon's mouth - how had the road gone up this section? Such a mystery. I grew despondent as the hours ticked away. I had planned to get back hours before sunset but now wondered if it was possible to get benighted here. I wondered when the last fool had come up or down this canyon. Did they have better luck? Before I was done my pants were fairly shredded and I had lost a water bottle, a pair of sunglasses and some blood. I considered myself lucky, given the amount of thrashing that I'd done over those two hours. The canyon widened in the last half mile and the going got easier. The stream had disappeared altogether by the time I reached the Wilderness gate near the mouth of the canyon and so had most of the brush. The last mile from the mouth of the canyon back to the van was across the descending desert flats, a glorious highway by comparison. It was well after 5p and the sun had set before I got back, more than two hours longer than it should have taken. Ugh ugh.

I would shower before leaving Ballarat and the Panamint Range, then enjoyed a beer while I licked my wounds and drove off. My plan tomorrow was to climb Thimble Peak out of Titus Canyon. I had originally planned to take a cross-country route up Titanothere Canyon, but after today's fun, decided on the longer route via Titus Canyon Rd. I need something more straightforward to recharge my batteries...


Chris Schmandt comments on 02/18/23:
It is interesting that the road got trashed out so quickly. I was up Happy a couple of times in the mid 90s and it was pretty clear well up past the big canyon fork, though hard to keep feet dry in the wet area that is now totally choked. It was a nice backpack route up to the Sentinel / Porter ridge, which is quite scenic. There was a couple living in a really nice cabin at that junction, fruit trees, lawn, quite a sight. They accessed the place by a foot trail from the gate on the road to the Porter Mine, and kept motorcycles there. They were nice folks, though probably started the fire that burned upper Happy some years later.

Martinovsky, Charles comments on 04/06/24:
I couldn't stop laughing when I read this story. I've been there many times. So funny, and so true.

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