Straw Peak P2K
The Pinnacles
Point of Rocks

Tue, Nov 19, 2013
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 GPXs: 1 2 3 Profile


Straw Peak

Straw Peak is located on the periphery of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, on the SE side of Searles Lake near Trona. I had spent the night at Trona Pinnacles and was up early to start the day. It was more than 11 miles one way to the summit and would make for a long hike. Much of this, the first seven miles, was across the flats on the south side of Searles Lake. At one time the lake was far bigger - in fact the Trona Pinnacles are tufa spires like those at Mono Lake, left high and dry when the waters receded after the last three ice ages ended. I spent more than two hours crossing the old lakebed, following a series of wooden stakes that were laid out across the desert in a straight line, west to east. Near one of them I came across a survey marker from 1918 - evidently they were part of a survey effort laying out the survey townships. The marker showed the junction of four sections which neatly matched to those depicted on the 7.5' topo.

The sky changed colors from a dark orange when I started out, to light blue and purple, and then to a warmer yellow as the sun rose some 45 minutes later. The terrain was not as flat as depicted on the maps, with various washes and hillocks showing the processes of erosion ever at work. The vegetation was light, made difficult by the lack of rain and alkaline soils. All around was quiet and solitude and I enjoyed this easy trekking very much. After the first hour I came across a very fine dirt road that I had not known about. It runs NW-SE across the flats, eventually leading into the naval base around the west side of the Slate Range. I saw a number of trucks on it in the morning and then later on my return. It appears I could have used this road as a starting point, saving three miles each way. For anyone interested, it is accessed by taking the left fork on the way to Trona Pinnacles, just before crossing the railroad tracks. This road crosses a few hundred yards to the north before then starting its diagonal tack across the flats. I didn't see any turnouts, but the road is wide enough for even the largest trucks to pass a vehicle parked along the edge.

After the second hour I reached the fence delineating the boundary of the naval base. It was put up many years ago and has fallen into disrepair in places, from flash floods by the look of it. Other than to let folks know where the boundary is, the fence doesn't seem to serve much purpose - there just isn't much way for a terrorist vehicle to get anywhere of importance inside the base, at least along this stretch against the Slate Range. Shortly after crossing the fence I spied two mules watching me. They sauntered off ahead of me, periodically looking back to see if I was still following them, eventually disappearing out of sight. I would run across other mules as well. The area is peppered with them and there is much evidence left of their presence, both the scattered poop and the decent trails that they've created.

I spent the next two hours climbing one of the NW ridges running more or less directly to the summit of Straw. I had picked this out ahead of time specifically to avoid the road on the SW Ridge and the radio facility about 2.5 miles from the summit. The satellite view shows service trucks and other vehicles at the facility, suggesting a high probability of finding people there. The summit facilities are small and autonomous and probably see people irregularly. Though somewhat exposed to detection if someone should happen to be driving the road, the ridge I ascended was a very pleasant route. The ground was firm and thanks to the mules, often had a trail to follow. There were joshua trees above around 4,000ft and a few surprises - a few small flowers in bloom and a tarantula probably out of his hole looking for a mate. There were also a few shell casings (who hunts on the base?) and plenty of mule poop, of course.

Near 10a I spotted the manned communications facility on the Southwest Ridge about two miles away. Though I was much too far away to be spotted from there, I began to worry a little about the road leading up to the summit. To lessen my chances of being spotted before reaching the summit (a determined peakbagger cares less about being spotted after reaching the top), I dropped into a shallow draw and followed this to the summit ten minutes later. Once again, I found two summits although this time I had been expecting it. The topo map shows two points 1/5 mile apart with the same number of contours. To be sure, I visited both. The NE summit has a USGS instrument and miscellaneous discarded crap around the bulldozed summit. The SW summit, also bulldozed, contains some solar panel-powered instruments sequestered inside a camoflaged steel box with a locked door, along with a few smaller instruments at the other end of the flat area. A patch of concrete poured in 1973 gave the summit the name Pott's Peak, though that name hasn't appeared to stick. Sadly, because of excessive haze, the views from the top were poor despite the 2,000ft of prominence.

Rather than take the same route, I decided to follow the canyon to the west of the ascent ridge which turned out to be a nice change of pace. Sometimes these long desert canyons can be frustrating with dry waterfalls that must be circumvented, but this one turned out to have no serious difficulties, just a few short sections of easy class 3. The geology in the canyon was more interesting than that on the ridge and there were more flowers as well. The upper and lower portions of the canyons had ample mule droppings and trails even, but a long middle stretch was devoid of mule signs, presumably because it was too difficult for them to enter that section. By 12:15p I had returned to the fenceline marking my return to public lands and the last two hour trek back across the flats to Trona Pinnacles.

Trona Pinnacles

The highpoint of the tufa spires is simply labeled "The Pinnacles" on the topo map. Of the three groups of pinnacles, it is found in the middle group not far from where I had parked. I repositioned the van, driving it to an overlook just southwest of the highpoint and climbed it from there in a few minutes. It has been climbed often and though the calcium carbonate rock is typically hard and sharp, it shows the wear and tear one would expect from regular visits. The summit provides a bird's eye view of the surrounding landscape which is pretty cool - one can see why the movie industry has used this site repeatedly to film alien landscapes. The BLM has kept the place in a minimal state of development which is one of the things that distinguishes it from the NPS and I find most endearing. There is a restroom facility, a few roadside placards to read and a single trail loop to explore on foot.

Point of Rocks

I drove out to Trona, looking for something extra to climb. The topo map lists Point of Rocks as a placename for what amounts to a small pile of rocks just off the highway on the south side of the residential area. It is an easy scramble that takes all of about two minutes. It has a nice view overlooking the town to the north and the industrial complex to the south. Afterwards I had lunch at the Trails Drive-in on the north side of town. While it's nothing special by usual standards, Trona options for food are limited and this one was pretty decent, considering. Satiated, and with about 45 minutes of sunlight left, I started off for a place to spend the night.

The following is an involved description of trouble I ran into shortly. If you're just looking for beta you can safely ignore it.

BLM route P140 runs around the north and east side of Searles Lake, along the base of the Slate Range. It initially passes by the Trona airport and several informal target shooting sites that look like scenes following the violent looting of a Fry's Superstore. The route isn't really designed for your standard low-clearance vehicle, but is in pretty good shape. The problem here isn't rocks so much as sand, and there's a lot of it. Winds blowing over the lake scour the sand and dust across miles of the flat Searles Lake and deposit in on the eastern side up against the range of mountains, precisely where the road runs. For the most part the sand is not deep enough to cause problems and my van rolled over it like a champ, saving me many miles of additional walking like I had done to reach Straw Peak today. After six miles on the road I had already cut the length to Layton BM in half and I was quite happy with my good fortune. The GPS showed I had another mile to go before I reached the cross-country starting point due west from Sand Canyon and Layton BM. The sand began to grow more ominous, covering the road in the same fashion as 3-4" of fresh snow, rounding the few tracks that I could still make out. They were two or three motorcycle tracks that had been partially covered in freshly blown sand, without the usual ruts from 4-wheeled vehicles that I had been following earlier. The steering grew sloppy and I could tell this was not a place to stop at - momentum was crucial to get across the deeper drifts. And then - I'd like to say without warning but the signs had been there the last few miles and it would be disingenuous of me to say so - the van ground to a halt as the front wheels dug into the deeper sand and could only helplessly spin. I had pushed things too far and was now about to learn a lesson in consequences.

I got out to inspect my new world. I was no longer on my way to a nice parking spot in the desert to eat dinner and watch a movie, but rather to work out how to extract myself from a troublesome situation. Going forward was not an option - the sand looked to grow deeper as this was not just a short section of heavy sand drift. I put on gloves and started shoveling the sand out from behind the two front tires, making a ramp of sort back into the tracks I had made and hopefully a way out. Back in the car, I started backing up, slowly, as the wheels struggled to gain traction in the soft sand. I managed perhaps 10 yards before grinding again to a stop, wheels spinning. Repeating the process several more times, I got out, cleared sand out from behind the tires and backed out a bit more. Each time I made less progress and went more slowly. It was not looking good.

The main problem was that the undercairrage was acting like a bulldozer or grader, scrapping sand off the middle berm and piling it up behind the frame and other components. The tires sinking into the sand were only part of the problem, the bigger issue was I was now resting much of the van on a pile of sand underneath. With this sand supporting most of the car's weight, the front wheels did not have enough weight on them to allow them to gain traction. It was almost 5p by this time and the sun was setting, and I had maybe 20 minutes of daylight. I was starting to feel pretty screwed. The car wasn't even level enough to sleep comfortably in. A feeling of panic was starting to set in as I became ever more aware of my predicament.

I had done something similar to this once before, only in snow, when I was with my young son heading to English Mtn. The solution then was to jack up the car to allow me to get rocks placed under the tires and the bulk of the van's weight off the snow and back on the wheels. With little daylight remaining, I rushed into action getting the jack out and getting to work. The sand gummed up the screw action of the jack to add some frustration and my exertions had me terribly thirsty. I chugged from a gallon jug of water and went back to work. One at a time, I got each side high enough to get a 2"-thick rocks under each front tire. This was enough to allow me to see some space between the undercarriage and the sand, but not much. If I tried to back up now, I was afraid the tires would lurch back into the sand and dig themselves a nearly identical pit. It really needed some additional rocks behind the tires to make a ramp leading out of the pit and get me some momentum going backwards. It also would require some skills in backwards driving as it would be all too easy to steer the back wheels out of the tracks and bring me to a sudden halt once again. I had used a headlamp in jacking up the second wheel and decided it was too dark to risk the reverse driving. It seemed best to wait until morning to give it a try.

Whether waiting was the right thing to do I may never know, but it left me on the edge of possible outcomes that made for a very fitful night. The sinking feeling in my stomach would not go away as I found I could not relax. I wasn't hungry even though I knew I should eat something. I ate some snacks but never bothered to make dinner. I half-heartedly watched a portion of a movie, but not knowing the outcome of my predicament was never out of my thoughts. By 7p I decided to give up and go to bed, but alas sleep would not come. A thousand thoughts floated through my head. These coalesced into three possibilities. The best possible was that I would get the car unstuck and continue with the hike to Layton BM as planned. A second possibility was that I might have to repeat this manuever many times before I got unstuck, possibly taking an entire day or more. A third possibility was that it would simply not work and I would have to get someone to tow me out. Hiking seven miles to Trona, getting someone with a beefy 4WD tow truck (probably from Ridgecrest) and getting the car rescued would probably take all day and $300-$400. This actually seemed more appealing than jacking the car up continuously for hours in what would surely be a most frustrating ordeal. I decided I would not spend all day jacking up the car, but choose the expensive option if I couldn't make it work in the first try or two. Of course I wasn't sure that someone would actually agree to tow me, or attempt to. And my AAA premium membership would do me little good since I wasn't on the pavement.

More thoughts flooded through my head, sleep ever elusive. If I got towed out, how would I get to Layton? Would I drive back in and stop at the six mile mark? How would I face a tow truck driver who came out two days in a row to rescue me? One possibility was that I could get up early, before dawn, and start the hike before even trying to free myself. That way, I could be back early enough to walk to Trona and still get the car towed that day. This seemed like a pretty hardcore solution to the problem, possibly a sign of mental illness on my part. In the end I rejected this because I knew I'd not enjoy the outing wondering all the time what the outcome would be regarding my predicament. I must have drifted off at some point because I had dreams about having a boat that got stranded on a sandbank. It was equally frustrating and just a mirror of my real problem. I recall waking up relieved, "Oh wait, I don't own a boat." But then I would remember that I was sleeping in my van which really was stuck. And I'd drift back into the dream about the stranded boat. I woke up multiple times to relieve my bladder. I'd open the door of the van to piss out into the sand, marveling at the stars overhead and then looking at the front tire, still as ever in the bright moonlight. At least the tire wasn't settling further into the sand. I awoke another time to the sound of tiny raindrops hitting the van's roof. There had been some chance of rain throughout the state, I knew, which is why I had chosen to come to the desert. Would wet sand make my predicament better or worse, I wondered. I couldn't find a way to convince myself this was a positive development. Luckily the rain was merely fleeting and stopped after a short while. And so the rest of the night passed on...


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