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Coming off a hard day to Mt. Carl Heller, I wanted to beg Mike for an easy day to give me a chance to rest. I knew Mike was well rested and itching to break a sweat, so we had some trouble deciding on a plan the night before. We ended up picking two relatively easy DPS peaks in the Inyo Mountains, adding a third peak because it was nearby, and making for what turned out to be a pretty full day.
We didn't get started until fairly late, heading south through Lone Pine, along SR136, and then up the Cerro Gordo Rd to the crest of the Inyos. The road is well-graded and passible by almost any vehicle, but it does have its steep places. Mike's Jeep of course had no trouble with what seems like an infinite choice of low gear options (one of them even has a top speed rating of 3mph). The historic town at the top of the grade looked deserted, but there was a truck parked near one of the buildings that still appears to be maintained. It was 9:15a before we had left the Jeep at the saddle and started north towards Pleasant Point.
As expected, the hike wasn't hard. We followed a gated road around the west side of the crest, past a few graves and an old cabin. Pleasant Point came into view as we rounded a bend in the road, and we both had to admit that it looked pretty decent. We had wondered how it had qualified for the DPS list, but were assuaged upon finally viewing it. We left the road where it turned to head up to the radio facility, following an intermittent use trail along the the crest of the range. On a clear day the views must be quite fine - west to the Sierra and east into Death Valley, but today they were quite hazy and we would have to use our imagination to construct a clear picture through the haze. We passed by some old grizzled trees and a collapsed cabin on our way to the false summit. Michael chose to ascend the false summit in order to avoid a 70-foot drop on the trail, but this proved a fruitless exercise aside from a bit of fun on the class 3 rock he found there. I easily got ahead of him taking the preferred route (Evan Rasmussen came up with a saying, "You're never smarter than the trail" which proved quite true in this instance).
I reached the summit at 10:45a, Mike about 5 minutes behind after getting trapped atop the false summit. There was an ammo box with several registers, the earliest dating to 1974. Looking north, one could see New York Butte and Keynot, two higher DPS peaks along the crest some miles in the distance. Returning via the same route, we discussed the merits of climbing Cerro Gordo Peak, a short distance south of the saddle we'd parked at. A road, good enough to get the Jeep up, ran from the town to the saddle between the two summits of Cerro Gordo, but we doubted we'd be allowed to drive up it and the hike from the saddle looked like a bit of a talus slog. But since it had a name and we weren't too particular about its qualifications beyond that, we decided to head up Cerro Gordo Peak when we got back to the Jeep. We discovered a second truck had pulled up next to the original one, and this second truck was blocking the road up towards the peak. There would be no sneaking past and pretending we didn't see the No Trespassing signs. We figured it couldn't hurt to ask if we could drive up. We pulled into a small parking area across the road from the house, and were immediately met with the yapping, snarling sounds of a dog who didn't appreciate our presence. We hoped the fence would hold him back. Before I could walk up to the porch and knock on the door, a grizzled gentleman sporting worn, dusty cowboy gear came out to see what the noise was about. We stated our case and our desire to drive up the mountain, though I had prefaced the request with "The anwer is probably 'No,' but..." His response was a simple, "I'd prefer if you didn't drive up there." Now I don't know if that meant we legally could but he wouldn't like it, or just a more polite way of saying, 'No, you can't,' but I took it as the latter. He did say we were welcome to hike up the road, so after thanking him for his time that's exactly what we did.
Hiking through the small settlement, we found there wasn't just one dog, but several, and they all looked lean, mean, and quite capable of tearing us to pieces should they really want to. I don't know exactly what kind of dogs they were, but they had the appearance of being trained to keep folks away. Mike and I joked, half seriously, that Cerro Gordo was probably the site of a meth lab, or several. The buildings were in the condition that it would make for almost no economic loss should they explode, and the distance from the nearest neighbor made it unlikely that anyone would hear such an explosion should one occur. For the rest of the day, every abandoned cabin we passed by in the Jeep or on foot was declared a likely meth lab, and because of our limited sensibilities in regards to humor, we never tired of the joke.
Using the road, it took us only 40 easy minutes to reach the summit. We found a benchmark and register on top. Almost half of the entries were from various surveying crews that used the summit for this purpose from time to time. We got a kick out of one entry from such a person who didn't know how to spell his own job title. This did not bode well for the quality of surveying that was to follow. After a short stay and a few more hazy pictures, we headed back down the road. More barking. Several more trucks had pulled up. None appear to be of the tourist variety like ourselves, and we are more convinced than ever that a huge meth factory is hidden among the dilapidated buildings. We did not stay around long enough to collect more damning evidence.
Our next goal was to get to the Nelson Range, just inside Death Valley National Park. By air it was less than eight miles away, but our planned driving route back to SR136 and then to SR190 would be more than 50 miles. Ouch. We began to consider whether we might drive down the back side of Cerro Gordo and find a connecting road to get us to the Nelson Range. Mike's GPS came in quite handy in this effort - it showed just such a road we wanted. Whether we could negotiate it, or whether it even still existed, was another matter. We decided the risk was worth it. The road heading down the east side of Cerro Gordo proved pretty decent. The upper half was graded well enough for most vehicles, but it deteriorated some as we dropped down to San Lucas Canyon. It was wild, desolate country back there, dominated by Joshua trees and a distinct lack of human influence save for the road we were driving on. We found our connecting road easily enough, and passing over a low ridge we dropped into Lee Flat on the west side of the Nelson Range. The final 4mi side road off Lee Flat to the trailhead was the only section of the drive that demanded 4WD and high clearance. The whole drive from Cerro Gordo took less than an hour.
It was now almost 3p and the afternoon was getting on. My feet weren't too happy by this time, wishing they could have had more time to rest up from the previous day. Fortunately this was the easiest of the peaks, less than a mile. Though the DPS guide describes it as 700ft of gain, it was in reality more like 1,200ft. We made a leisurely climb of it, taking our time up the surprisingly steep slopes. The area was rife with prospectors at one time, several cabins still standing around the trailhead. We passed by several small pits that had been excavated, and despite the colorful blue-green rock that was found scattered about in places, nothing seems to have come from any of the digs.
Though most of the terrain was typical desert scrub and cacti, near the summit we found a small forest of scraggily pines eking out a hard existence in this land of little rain. The only fauna about were numerous lizards running around as we walked by, disturbed from their sunbathing by our intrusion. We went over several false summits before finding the highpoint along with the DPS register. R.S. Fink of the Sierra Club had placed the register in 1968, the oldest one I had seen is some time. The views in all directions continued to be hazy, so those pictures we bothered to take were pretty lame. The Race Track in Death Valley to the northeast was one feature that was easily distinguished. Our return was via the same route, getting us back to the Jeep before 5p. The roundtrip took us only an hour and 45 minutes. We spent the next hour driving back out to SR190 and then west to Lone Pine where we had a room for the next few nights. I was as happy as my feet that our outing wasn't any longer, and I think Mike found it a sufficiently worthwhile day as well. It's nice to have a few easy days sprinkled in now and then with the more difficult ones...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cerro Gordo Peak - Nelson Range HP
This page last updated: Tue Mar 24 17:07:17 2009
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