West Mojave Peaks Part 1: Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains
For New Years weekend we headed down to Mojave National Preserve for some peak bagging. Over three days we climbed four peaks and I’ll be profiling them over the next few days. This first post details the climbs of Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains (hee), the most and least challenging of the four peaks.
Little Cowhole and Cowhole mountains are small ranges that stand by themselves on the northwestern boundary of Mojave National Preserve, bordering the east side of the mostly dry Soda Lake. On the map they look pretty puny but together these two peaks make a full day of desert peak bagging.
Little Cowhole Mountain
Lets start with the easy one, Little Cowhole. The hardest part is the drive, and as long as you can read a topo map and use a GPS it’s pretty straightforward. There are some quite sandy spots on this drive and we were fine in our 4×4 Toyota Tundra but it made our friend in a 2WD Ranger nervous (though she did make it). I would only do it in my Outback if I were with someone who could tow me out of a tough spot. To get there, follow this map out of the Kelbaker Road exit in Baker, CA. You can download the .gpx file with waypoints by clicking on the Input and Output tab. It’s approximately eight miles to the point where you leave vehicles and hoof-it cross-country to the summit of Little Cowhole.
Once you’ve parked, hopefully avoiding getting stuck in the sand, head south up the gradual slope towards the summit of Little Cowhole. It’s like walking up a dune without the loose sand – scattered bushes, occasional animal dens, and a sparse landscape. Two high points ahead both beckon as the summit, but aim for the rounded hill on the right. That’s the true summit.
It’s an easy walk up to the summit, from which the views into the nooks and crannies of the Little Cowhole range invite more exploration. A wide view of Soda Lake as well as the other ranges of eastern Mojave make this a worthwhile side-excursion when in the area. Our round trip hike to the summit took an hour.
To continue on to Cowhole Mountain, backtrack from the Little Cowhole parking to the last junction. Continue south, across the edge of the (hopefully) dry Soda Lake, until a clearing at some old ruins where there are several campsites available. Continue south to the Mojave Road and a boundary marker at the Wilderness Boundary as shown in this map.
The hike to Cowhole starts off easy, crossing the desert for approximately two miles before reaching the foot of the mountain. The biggest danger are the scattered critter dens, often clustered together in what we began to call ‘Villages’. These hidden holes and tunnels can put a quick end to your desert peak aspirations via twisted and broken ankles, so be careful.
As you cross the desert, aim for the northeast end of the smaller ridge in the foreground. Head around the tip of this range until you’re in a cove on the north side of the main mountain staring at several steep gullys. From here, follow rocky washes up to the base of a basalt dike. Ultimately, you’re aiming for a notch just to the east of the summit, and there is a class 2 chute that leads behind these rocks up to the notch. There are alternate routes ducked around a few dry falls on the way. The final couple hundred feet to the notch are steep and loose, and were the most uncomfortable part of the climb for us.
From the notch, the summit is still out of view. It looks a bit steep and rocky to get up there, but after only a few steps you’ll find some use trails that should lead you to the open summit plateau.
On our way down we decided that the chute we ascended to the notch was too loose for a comfortable descent, and would instead investigate another potential descent. From the notch, we descended into a chute on the south side and crossed to the east ridge.
From where the above picture was taken, we scrambled down a steep but manageable slope to the obvious wide saddle, and then followed an enjoyable canyon for the final ~1000 ft descent to the canyon floor.