About twenty miles east of Lee Vining and Yosemite National Park there is a small high desert mountain range known as the Granite Mountain Wilderness. There are hundreds – thousands – of these small desert ranges across the western states, and frequently they are driven by at highways speeds, from a distance appearing brown and grey and desolate and boring. But during my years of exploring the backcountry of California I’ve learned that these ranges are full of life, history, and exciting adventures.
After a night at the great campsite we found between the two Cowhole Mountain ranges (and just off the Mojave Road), we backtracked to the paved Kelbaker Road and headed south to large pullout on the right side of the road. Our destination? Kelso Peak.
Why Kelso? For that matter, why the Cowhole ranges the day before? Here’s the thing: there are tons of peaks and ranges in the desert. Browsing around a topo map reveals all kinds of remote places and appealing peaks. But you have to start somewhere, and when it comes to the desert that somewhere (for me), was Andy Zdon’s Desert Summits book. I’ve gotten completely hooked on climbing desert peaks thanks to this book, and although I’ve also climbed plenty of summits not named in the book, I turn to it for inspiration and feel weirdly compelled to climb everything in it.
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.
Checking off the bucket list
The optional extension to the Columbia Sportswear event last month was a three day trip to Havasu Falls, home of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, towering red cliffs, and deep turquoise waters. It is a destination that has been on my backpacking bucket list for several years so I absolutely jumped at this opportunity, especially with someone else taking care of all of the planning and bureaucracy. Because I didn’t have to deal with the permitting and payment myself I’m not going to go into the details of how to visit, you can find that out for yourself.
Our original Memorial Day Weekend plans of hiking the high points of the Silver Range in western Nevada did not work out. In our effort to find warmer and drier climes, we decided to head south, but then what would we hike? It turns out we were heading south via the route I expected to originally be leaving by at the end of the weekend, so I had prepared some maps and info about some short hikes and stops we might want to make before leaving. One of these hikes was Chocolate Peak (also known as Piper Mountain), an easily accessible desert summit just outside the northern border of Death Valley.
To get to the trailhead, take highway 168 to the pullout at Gilbert Pass and look for a dirt road angling to the west. Follow this (it’s a bit rocky but nothing bad) until you see the Piper Mountain BLM Wilderness sign at 0.4 miles. Leave your vehicle here – there is room for a few cars. Chocolate Peak is the high point of the peak directly in front of you to the southwest, not visible from this angle.
Hike the old blocked off road about 200 feet until it forks. There is a small sign indicating that ‘trail’ follows the right fork, but the straight/left fork is a more direct route and no more difficult than the roundabout way. We didn’t really think about it at the time and followed the sign. On this approach, after about a mile it will start climbing up a small canyon until it eventually reaches the ridge. There is a point where the road switchbacks, so we decided to cut south and straight up a gully to to the ridge instead. The terrain is very straightforward, and once we got to the top of the ridge via our shortcut we reconnected with the road. From the ridge there is a great view towards Mt Sill and the Palisades region of the Sierra.
Turn east and stay on the road. The summit is now visible in front of you, and you have plenty of options for getting to the top. Stay on the road until you’re on the north side of the peak and start looking for the excellent use trail that switchbacks up the side of the final climb. The road continues past the peak, don’t stay on it. I did not know about the use trail and cut cross-country on my ascent. About halfway up I intersected this well-defined trail and followed it the rest of the way. I followed it all the way down to the road when I descended the peak.
The rocky summit has some incredible views into Eureka Valley and across Owens Valley to the Sierra. After enjoying yourself up here, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. When you come out of the canyon look to your right and you will see the other fork of the road – it is an easy short cross-country stretch to go back that way. If I ever hike this again I’ll take that route both up and down.
With round trip stats of approximately five miles with 1800ft of elevation gain, this is a great quick desert peak. Additionally, it doesn’t require any 4×4 or long dirt road driving. Based on the summit register, it seems to get visited fairly regularly but it was just us on this post-storm afternoon.
I’m not going to give away many specifics about how to get up Salsberry Peak. There is some basic info in Zdon’s Desert Summits, but the fun of this one is finding the way on your own. After a cross-desert trek towards the base of the peak you’ll find many washes and ridges, but if you find the right one you’ll be treated to some awesome narrows, steep dry falls to scramble, and many signs of desert bighorn including bones, tracks, and bedding spots. The final ridge to the summit is really fun with lots of small obstacles, and the summit itself is big enough to fit a group of friends out on a day of desert peak bagging. Rather than ramble on about it, I’d rather just show. Here are pictures of one of my new favorite desert climbs (and even more here).
On our way out of the park on our last day in Death Valley we stopped by Sidewinder Canyon. This is a great canyon just south of Badwater. At first glance, it’s a relatively boring and steep open rocky wash-like canyon, but if you start to peek down the side slots you’ll find some really cool stuff. Some of the slots are so narrow and have such high walls that you need a headlamp to see. I highly recommend this less-visited hike along the main park road. Some pics here.