Cottonwood Mountains HP P1K
Palo Verde Peak P1K DS

Sun, Apr 12, 2009
Cottonwood Mountains HP
Palo Verde Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


I was supposed to meet Matthew for Arizona's Mt. Tipton the following day, but it didn't work out that way. After finishing up with San Jacinto's Snow Creek in the late afternoon I headed east on I-10 towards AZ. I got off near Indio to call Matthew and see what his plan was. His situation was somewhat precarious, I knew. His girlfriend had flown in from Peru for the week and wasn't to leave the Bay Area until Sunday morning. To join me for Tipton, Matthew would somehow have to get permission to leave her the night before and let her get to the airport on her own. When I got ahold of him, he admitted that he'd been unable to broach the subject - he would have to join me on Monday in the Superstition Mtns. It was probably a very wise move on his part.

Alone for Sunday, I wasn't all that hot on Tipton anyway. It was quite a bit out of my way between Palm Springs and Phoenix and I wasn't looking forward to the long drive after doing Snow Creek. Luckily I had a backup plan, or rather a folder's worth of backup plans - a collection of desert peaks on the "todo" list. These weren't HPS or DPS peaks, but lesser known range highpoints that my friend Evan had been goading me to pursue. Almost any reason was good enough to climb something in my book. I had a map for the Cottonwood Mtns in Joshua Tree and planned to pay it a visit in the morning. I slept the night just outside the park's southern entrance, just off the pavement on a dirt side road. A couple of motorhomes were doing similarly nearby, and I found this a very good camp location for this area - easy access, and far enough from I-10 to not have the traffic noise bother me during the night.

I was up by 4a, dressed, ate some breakfast, and drove to the Cottonwood Visitor Center inside the park. Mine was the only car in the lot (not surprising), and it was quite dark when I started across the road, heading west towards the Cottonwood Mtns through the open desert. Clear skies and half a moon helped light the way, though I still needed my headlamp to keep from running into cacti. I could see what I thought was the highpoint sillouetted to the west, and I plotted a course by dead reckoning that I thought would roughly follow the path I had drawn on my map. This was easier imagined than actually done, as I found myself passing over the low hills south of my intended route, the same hills I had hoped to avoid. Fortunately they weren't that much extra work, certainly not enough to keep me from enjoying a very pleasant early morning hike. The weather was cool and delightful for such an outing, with the previous day's high winds having died down to a mere breeze.

It was shortly after 6:15a when the sun crested over the Eagle Mtns to the east. I had turned the headlamp off about 45 minutes earlier. The sun brought alive a myriad of desert flowers that nearly glowed with the day's first light. It was prime time for visiting the Mojave Desert. As the day had grown lighter I was able to correct my course and follow an easy ridgeline towards the summit. It was shortly before 7a when I topped out at the highpoint of the Cottonwood Mtns. The views were crisp and clear in the morning air, not yet affected by the more usual haze that develops as the desert warms up. A summit register dated back to 1978, though a detached piece of paper dated to 1963, chronicaling a massive Sierra Club effort involving more than 50 participants. The register notepad had only four pages of entries, including a visit in 1979 by Andy Smatko, the 1983 entry by MacLeod and Lilley, a 1995 visit by DPSers, and only three additional visits since that time, including my own.

As the day was quite young, I considered what to do next. The map I carried had only the Cottonwood Mtns and the route I roughly followed, but I knew from Evan that there was another range adjacent to this one that he had climbed at the same time. This other range was the Hexie Mtns to the north with the highpoint of Monument Peak standing out quite obviously. But for some reason I had it in my head that the second range and its highpoint lay to the south, in the opposite direction. And it was in this direction I went, planning to climb the highest point in this more modest range, across an intervening wash. Only later did I find that this whole region was part of the same Cottonwood Mtns.

I found an interesting gully to descend, following the dry creekbed over water-smoothed giant boulders and some interesting, if easy class 3 scrambling. I came across the skull of a bighorn sheep with only one horn intact, setting it up on a rock in the gully in a more worthy position. It was only when I had reached the wash below that I realized I had headed in the wrong direction, as I just then remembered there was a rough road that Evan had parked on between the two peaks. This wash had no such road. I would have to save the Hexie Mtns for another time.

I followed the wash east towards the highway, a very pleasant stroll down this shallow canyon with a wide, sandy bottom. No bushwhacking at all for the next hour and a half as I made a leisurely stoll out of it. Not far from the pavement I came across a short section of dirt road (Authorized Personal Only, according to a sign at the junction with the highway) that seemed to go nowhere in particular, probably the site of an old mining claim. I found a small wooden gravemarker just off the road, though it was unclear if it was marking the site of a person or a family pet, or someone's mule. The hike in the wash had been so pleasant that I decided to follow another wash north from the junction rather than follow the pavement back to the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This second wash, running north-south, crossed the pavement three or four times before leading me to the visitor center fairly directly by 9:45a. I could probably have set out from there again quite easily for the Hexie Mtns, but I enjoy this area so much (it was my second visit in the last six months), that I figured I'd save the Hexie's for yet another visit in the future. Instead I would head east and search out the highpoint of the Palo Verde Mtns in eastern California next to the Colorado River, aptly named Palo Verde Peak.

This was another little visited highpoint ignored by the popular Sierra Club peak lists. Evan had visited it the previous year by a very short but steep route from the west. This involved a good deal of driving on questionable dirt roads, so I planned a longer route from the east via SR78.

It took me little more than an hour and a half to cover the distance between Joshua Tree and the turnout for Palo Verde Peak, mostly on Interstate 10, but with an additional 20-30 miles south on SR78, passing through the (very) small towns of Ripley and Palo Verde. These towns are about as poor as one gets in California, unused storefronts falling down, boarded up windows, mean-looking homes scattered among the parched landscape. Farming along the Colorado River in the fertile Palo Verde Valley is the only industry of note along here, but whatever money there is to be made in the venture, very little of it seems to trickle back to these towns.

At the mouth of a wash I'd marked on my map I found a road of sorts heading west into the wash. I drove the van off the highway as far as I could safely manage, partly hiding it from the pavement behind a desert tree (the same variety of tree with green bark for which the Palo Verde Range was named). It was 11:30a when I left the van and followed the wash west.

The crude road ended in a short distance where the wash necked down to only a few feets' width among some rocks. It opened up again almost immediately, but there was no way for vehicles to follow any further. The route I had picked out from the map worked out quite nicely, following this same wash upstream for about three miles right to the base of Palo Verde Peak. The wash meandered some, but it was easy to follow with no bushwhacking or difficult dry waterfalls to surmount. There was only one major fork where I turned left, elsewhere just following the widest path available. I startled a half dozen deer that were grazing in a group in the wash, but otherwise little wildlife aside from the standard fare of lizards.

Palo Verde Peak came into view regularly as I turned one bend or another in the wash, the aspects presented facing east looking formidable indeed. Usually the impenetrable cliffs viewed from afar start looking more manageable as one nears, but in this case I was becoming concerned that I might not be able to climb the peak at all from this side. By 12:30p I passed between two large pillars on either side of the wash and got a close-up view of the East Face. Though not as cliff-like as it had first appeared, I didn't think I could find a way up without getting stuck. My safest choice seemed to be to continue following the wash around to the south side of the peak and hope something as yet unseen would allow access to the summit - not the most reassuring means of climbing a peak. The wash gave way to a boulder gully with enough brush scattered about the center lane that I had to go back and forth across the gully to find a clear route up. The gully continued to gain elevation as it swung in a large arc around to the southwest side of the summit. All the while it gained in elevation and things started to look more promising.

The gully ended at a narrow notch high on the SW side. I could peer down the other side and see the dirt Palo Verde Rd that Evan had used to access the west side. It was a long way down in a very short distance, and I marveled that a route could be found from that side. Looking up towards the summit, I was only a few hundred feet below the top and it looked like I could follow the ill-defined ridge to the summit. It was straightforward scrambling up the class 2 rock to the slightly lower south summit, then a short knife-edge section, easy class 3, led to the top where I arrived around 1:20p.

The views were expansive in all directions, though somewhat hazy in the afternoon sun. As possibly the driest part of the entire state, there was more rock to be seen in all direction than anything else - not unlike the stark talus-strewn summits in the highest parts of the Sierra. There was no register to be found, but tucked among some rocks were a couple of medallions bolted to the rocky foundation of the summit. These were about three inches in diameter, placed by the Garrett family to commemorate several visits of theirs to the summit, one in 2000, the second in 2006. Embedded in this second one was a Colorado State quarter - it's meaning could only be guessed at.

I made only a slight deviation on my return, using a terribly loose scree and dirt chute that descended from between the two summits directly down to the ascent gully on the south side. I had seen this possible route from below and decided to use it for a shortcut, but due to its looseness I can't recommend it at all. An ascent of this messy chute would have changed the character of the climb from an interesting scramble to a miserable pile of rubbish, so I was glad I had not ascended that way.

It was just shy of 3p when I returned to the van. A hot shower from my portable solar shower was just ticket to wash the sweat and salt off and refresh me for the long drive into Phoenix. It was dark by the time I had reached the Superstition Mtns on the east end of the Phoenix metropolis. Along the way I had the pleasure of battling it out in rush hour traffic, garnering several photo speeding tickets along the Interstates that I didn't know about until I had returned from the trip a week later. At $181 each, the two tickets would comprise the largest expense for the entire trip, far more than all the money I spent in AZ over four days. As an exercise in civil disobedience I decided not to respond to the tickets, each mailed in a standard 42 cent envelope. I had read that serving of violations by mail is not binding in AZ courts and must be followed up by serving in person if the notice by mail is ignored. I'll be hiding out from visitors to my doorstep for the next 120 days until the expiration date has passed...


Submit online comments or corrections about the story.

More of Bob's Trip Reports

This page last updated: Tue May 5 11:18:30 2009
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: