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.
Mt St Helena towers above the northern end of the approximately 30 mile long Napa Valley. Its east peak is the high point of Napa County, though the high point of the actual peak is its north summit. The peak is within the boundary of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and the summit is accessible via a ten mile round trip hike on single track trail and fire road. From the summit, views into the surrounding wine country are spectacular (and a refreshing change from my local parks), and on a clear day one can easily see the Sierra and Mt Lassen to the north.
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.
In mid-August I was supposed to be out on a nine day backpacking trip in the Sierra. Unfortunately, my stress fracture hadn’t healed enough by the planned start date and I had to back out. By the next weekend I felt like I could start getting back on the trail with a small daypack, so I decided to head out for a couple of easy peaks. As a bonus, I would get to meet my friends coming off the trail from the trip I was supposed to be on.
I chose two peaks based on their relative simplicity, short distance, and basic terrain in case my foot acted up and I needed to bail. It occurred to me that both are great starter peaks for someone looking for an introduction to off-trail peak bagging in the Sierra. They are both relatively short, easy to navigate, straightforward terrain, and have great rewards in terms of views. So, if you’re thinking about getting into the addicting and rewarding activity of Sierra summiteering, here’s a good place to start.
Both peaks are accessed via Horseshoe Meadows Road out of Lone Pine.
Mount Baldwin is a striking peak. The area boasts the oldest rock in the Sierra, revealing picturesque patterns and colors that contrast strongly with the typical grey Sierra granite. From 395, Mount Baldwin stands out with its bold layers of white and red, and it is only accentuated in the fall when the aspens on its slope start to turn. I love to climb peaks that for some reason stand out to me, and due to its fascinating geology Mount Baldwin has been on my todo list for a long time.
After Sunday’s successful climb of Basin I was a bit worried about how sore I’d feel upon waking up Monday morning. Normally this wouldn’t be a concern but I was definitely feeling my lack of exercise. Fortunately I woke feeling fairly strong and acclimated, ready to take on Mt Tom, a long time bucket list peak.
Our plan was to follow the old mining road to the ruins of the Tungstar Mine, then follow the west chutes and ribs to the summit of Mt Tom. Round trip total distance from camp would be about 7.5 miles with about 3800 ft of elevation change. The first part of the hike, along the road to the mine, is straightforward and easy, but climbing from the mine to the summit involves scrambling up 2000 ft in 1/2 mile in awful terrain. Or so I had heard.