Desert Butte P300 DS / DPG
Castle Butte P500 DS / DPG
Peak 5,121ft P1K DS / DPG
Garlock BM P750
Searles Peak P500 ex-DPS / DS

Wed, Dec 5, 2012
Desert Butte
Castle Butte
Garlock BM
Searles Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2

California City is one of a number of desert towns that struggles to maintain its existence in the face of broader economic hardships. Incorporated in 1965, it lays claim to being the third largest city in California by geographical size but has never come close to fulfilling that potential. Most of the residents provide the workforce for nearby Edwards Air Force Base, with others employed by the nearby prison and vehicle proving grounds. Vast areas of the city are composed of dirt roads and crumbling pavement laid out in regular grids for a population that never quite materialized. Most of the 11,000 residents that aren't institutionalized (more than 2,000 official residents are prison inmates, mostly illegal immigrants) fit into a two-mile square area around the golf course and lake that was intended to be the centerpiece of a magnificent desert city that just can't seem to gain traction. It doesn't help that it is more than five miles from any of the three major highways that go through the area (SR14, SR58, US395) - you actually need a purpose to find your way to California City.

My purpose was to climb a couple of easy peaks found in Zdon's book, part of what he calls the Front Range summits which seems to be those closest to the highways. I rolled through the town center (a mile-long stretch of California City Blvd where most of the retail stores are found) in the middle of the night, looking for a place to spend the night before tackling Desert Butte in the morning. It was not hard to find a spot off the pavement at the foot of this small hill, one of several that dot the mostly flat desert landscape that forms the city. Located at the edge of the city limits, the area is sparsely populated and I was left to sleep the remaining hours of the night undisturbed.

Desert Butte is the higher of two buttes collectively named Twin Buttes. Neither is particularly hard to climb. It took all of 12 minutes to scale the northwest side of Desert Butte. Zdon suggests an approach from the south, but it appears that's rather arbitrary - the peaks looks to be class 2 from any side. It was about half an hour past sunrise when I started up around 7a, allowing Desert Butte to cast a long shadow to the west making it appear much more formidable than it really is. The citizens of California City were starting to rise, driving into town and to work. It was a pleasant, late fall morning with mostly clear skies and a forecasted high in the 60s - about as good as it gets in the Mojave. This would certainly be a good day to sell real estate if there were any takers. The summit has a commanding view of the desert flats around this part of the mojave where the Antelope Valley and Fremont Valley appear to be one and the same. Castle Butte pokes up above the floor to the northeast with the much higher mountains of the Tehachapis and Southern Sierra creating a wall to the west.

I next drove back through California City and east to Castle Buttes, passing by more than a few unoccupied homes, likely victims of the 2008 housing bust. There were no fences to keep squatters or riff-raff out, perhaps none were necessary. 140th Street, just another sandy desert road, reaches to a saddle northwest of Castle Butte's summit. I parked the van here and made the ascent of Castle Butte in only eight minutes this time. It was a more interesting climb with some rocky features that could almost be described as class 3 if it weren't for the use trail that makes it much tamer. The area seems popular for shooting and drinking and of course that most cherished pasttime of all - the combination of both activities. It seemed odd that Zdon thought it worthwhile to include either of these minor summits in his book while other, more worthy summits were omitted, but I suppose that is one of the perks of being the guidebook author - the freedom to make such subjective choices. Neither summit held a register and I would have been surprised to find one - they are simply too accessible and too frequently visited.

With the two easy peaks of the day dispensed with, I drove yet again back to California City then north to the El Paso Mtns, just east of Red Rocks Canyon State Park. I had been to the El Paso Mtns on several previous occasions. The highpoint is the HPS-listed Black Mtn which I had visited eight years ago. More recently, I had tagged a few of the eastern peaks that included the P1K, El Paso Peaks. Today I was interested in the second and third highest summits in the range, one with 800ft of prominence, the other a P1K. The two peaks lie on either side of Mesquite Canyon, featuring a sandy dirt road that provides access to the interior of the range and Black Mtn. It seems probable that I could have driven up the road to the saddle to make this a much easier adventure, but I didn't know this at the time. When I pulled off the Redrock-Randsburg Rd there were two trucks with far better clearance than mine parked at the entrance. They had brought trailers with OHVs to explore the area so I thought I'd better set out on foot rather than risk getting stuck in the sand or worse.

I hiked up EP100 for about a mile and a half, leaving the road when I reached the base of the SE Ridge of Peak 5,121ft. A pair of ATV riders, perhaps surprised to see someone on foot, asked if everything was Ok. I assured them it was, giving them a friendly wave and thanking them for asking. The cross-country travel was easy enough with good footing and sparse vegetation, though it was steep. In all it was nearly 3,000ft of scrambling over a bit more than three miles, and made for an enjoyable late-morning climb. It was 11a by the time I reached the obvious summit. As on many of these desert peaks, there were the remains of an old survey tower and a register left by MacLeod and Lilley, the first of many I would see on this nine day trip. This one, left in 2005, had only two other visitors since then - John Vitz and Bob Sumner, both well-known names from desert summit registers. The views take in most all of the El Paso Mtns in addition to Fremont Valley to the southeast and the sprawling town of Ridgecrest (far more successful than California City) to the north. To the southwest was the lower Garlock BM to which I next turned my attention.

I dropped down the west side of Peak 5,121ft about 1,200ft to one of the many dirt roads that splinter off from the main route up Mesquite Canyon once the saddle is reached. I followed this road down to the saddle and then continued southwest up another road that largely follows the ridgeline around Mesquite Canyon, leading to the northwest side of Garlock BM and its summit. It took about an hour to cover the three mile distance between the two peaks. The benchmark takes its name from the old railroad station to the east that now lies mostly in ruin, which had gotten its name from one of the miners who had taken up residence in the area back in 1895. Several OHV roads go off in different directions from the summit. The register, dating back only a few years, was filled with the names of the many OHV enthusiasts that frequent the area. Unlike Peak 5,121ft which had a well-defined, rocky summit, Garlock BM is rounded and smooth and decidedly unsummit-like. I followed the road leaving southeast from the summit in order to visit a cabin I had seen from the earlier summit and during much of its ascent. Known as the Walsh Cabin, it lies next to an old mineshaft that drops deep into the mountain. There are few tailings found nearby to suggest much of anything ever came out of it. Possibly it was just something to pass the time and allow the building of the cabin on the hillside as part of a mining claim. The cabin was donated to the BLM and is now part of some sort of Adopt-a-Cabin program, though from the looks of the insides it has had very little looking after. Mouse droppings, empty beer cans and a few chairs around a stove are indications that it still receives visitors. After perusing the cabin, I continued down the road to its end at the edge of a hillside overlooking Mesquite Canyon. It took about ten minutes to drop down the steep hillside and back onto the road, then about half an hour more to return to the van. In all it was just under 4hrs for the mini adventure.

With about 4hrs of daylight remaining, I took the opportunity to drive north to Trona for a climb of Searles Peak. This unofficially named summit in the Slate Range east of Searles Valley is one of a handful of delisted DPS peaks. It was delisted in 1959 for unknown reasons, but like other lists I've finished, I've taken on the task of completing the delisted summits as well. For this one I started at the abandoned Ophir Mine, located a few miles northeast of the Trona airport at the foot of the Slate Range. There is a large mineshaft where I parked that could easily swallow a car that accidently backed into it. The hike is more than three miles one way with almost 3,000ft of gain. Starting around 2:20p, I knew there was no way I could get back before sunset only a few hours away, but that didn't deter me. I had nowhere in particular to be that night and finishing the day off my headlamp did not seem too troublesome - other than my shower would be a cold one this evening.

I followed a road leading from the mine to the mouth of Bundy Canyon. Though the old road veers off here (partially washed out), some tracks lead up the wide wash for several miles, proof that folks will drive just about anywhere if there is any possibility of doing so. It would certainly be unadvisable for all but the most determined 4WD enthusiast. Despite this, the canyon makes for a pleasant enough hike, easy traveling as one gains altitude and a view to Trona and the dry Searles Lake. After about an hour, where the main canyon turns to the southeast, I followed a smaller branch east where it narrowed as it began to climb steeply up towards the peak. Portions of this were interesting without so much brush that would otherwise make it simply annoying. I eventually moved right, out of the canyon to gain the SW Ridge only a few hundred feet below the summit. It was 4p when I reached the rocky top. Though the late afternoon haze marred the views to some degree, it was still a fine place to view the Panamint Range and Valley to the north and northeast as well as the Coso Range and Searles Valley to the west. A summit register had more entries than I might have guessed, filling 8 pages since it was placed in 2000. An older, weather-beaten register dated back to 1960, placed by a large OPG (Occasional Peaks Gang) party that included Carl Heller. Interestingly, Andy Smatko climbed it the following day. Bob Rockwell seems to have had the most ascents, totally at least six starting in 1978 and most recently in 2010.

The climb had gone faster than the expected two hours, so it seemed I might be able to return without needing the headlamp even if well after sunset. I followed the SW Ridge for more than half a mile before dropping once again into ascent canyon where it was easy to do so. I made good time without jogging (which would have been difficult in the rubbly wash), stopping only a few times to photograph the canyon walls awash in the last rays of the setting sun. The few clouds in the western sky went from orange to fading pink as the sun dropped lower behind the horizon, eventually bringing out the first stars of the evening. I got back to the van not long after 5p without headlamp, as hoped. My jug of water was tepid at best, but the breeze had died down to allow me to take a shower with only some discomfort. It was certainly worth the trouble - the day had been a very fine one indeed. It was good to be back in the desert.


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