Soda Mountains HP
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Kelso Peak is the highpoint of the Kelso Mountains, a small range in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve south of Interstate 5. The peak sports just over 1,000ft of prominence and has been a popular destination for desert peakbaggers though it has never managed to make the exclusive DPS list. I had one last day of a five day desert road trip that so far had been spent further north in Death Valley NP. Today I planned to visit two prominence peaks along the interstate before heading home in the afternoon. I had spent the night parked at the turnout indicated in Zdon's book for the three mile hike to Kelso Peak. With little or no traffic the whole night on the isolated Kelbaker Rd, I had slept quite soundly.
I was not up particularly early - the day before had been a long one and the overnight temperatures had dropped to the 20s. I was happy to let the sun come up and warm things a little before venturing outside. And so it wasn't until 7:15a that I was on the move. The route described by Zdon is fairly simple - follow an old road south for several miles, then follow a drainage southwest and south to climb the northwest side of the peak. The road is not hard to find and follows in a remarkably straight line due south across the desert flats. It's no longer open to vehicle traffic, indicated by a sign at the start and some boulders to stop all but the most determined scofflaws. The desert scrub is thin and not all that high, making for open travel, even had this been a cross-country jaunt. Some joshua trees are found periodically on either side of the road to brighten the landscape. The peak is visible after the first few minutes almost in line with the road to the south.
The road doesn't appear to go to any particular destination, more or less petering out slowly until it was indistinguishable for the surrounding terrain. Zdon suggests turning southwest here to bypass some low forehills around the north and west sides, but I made a small deviation to pass through a gap between the first two of these hills that are really part of the long North Ridge extending from Kelso Peak. Tucked into the gap on the west side was a manmade setup to supply drinking water to game animals, a Big Game Guzzler as it was called. The setup taps underground water from the drainage above and to the south, using gravity to store it in tanks and some solar-powered electronics to control the output to the drinking bin. The bin was solid ice when I passed by, testament to the cold overnight temperatures. A plaque dedicated the installation to a John Doll, volunteer and conservationist, but no date was provided. A neat setup, but I have to question the morality of building things to improve the survival chances for animals in order that we may shoot at them.
From the guzzler, I followed the drainage up past the catchment dam and to the northwest side of Kelso Peak. Though steep, the footing is good and the climbing straightforward. Though it was no longer 22F and was warming nicely, it was still in low 40s when I topped out at the summit around 8:40a. I was happy that the wind was calm and I could take some moments to warm myself in the sun after climbing the NW Slope in the shade. There were several notebooks in the register I found at the summit, the older one dating to 1967, placed by Andy Smatko and party. This small pad of paper was a classic of summit literature, containing more than 30 years of familiar and unfamiliar names, with both poetic and bizarre observations, sometimes both together. I photographed all its pages for posterity and to give me some amusement back home when I had time to read it all. There is a fine view from the summit, taking in the snows on the Panamints to the northwest as well as on Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas to the northeast. Closer in the the Kelso Dunes were to the south and the DPS summit of Old Dad Mtn to the west.
My return route was very similar to the approach route with the exception of my overshooting the turn to the north to find the road after I had passed through the two forehills. I was back at the car my 10:30a, making the whole outing something less than three and half hours. I drove back north on Kelbaker Rd to Baker where I noted with disappointment that the worlds tallest thermometer is still not working, more than a year after I first noticed it out of whack. I learned later on the Internet that new ownership of the thermometer and cafe at the base have had something to do with it - priority is in getting the cafe up and running again, not so much on the thermometer which needs more money to make operational. After buying a bit more gas, just enough to get me to Barstow where it's much cheaper, I drove southwest on I-15, past the famous Zzyzx Rd exit to the next one, Rasor Rd, where I pulled over for a go at the Soda Mtns highpoint.
The Soda Mtns are a moderately-sized desert range about 15 miles in length, just north of the interstate. The unnamed highpoint has nearly 1,800ft of prominence which makes it of interest to highpointers. My directions came from Evan Rasmussen who had climbed it as one of California's range highpoints, an effort he pursued for a number of years to great success. Evan described some additional driving on dirt roads that I was not going to be able to do in my van, so I simply parked in the wide clearing off the freeway exit and started walking the additional two miles on road. The whole outing would be something over 12 miles, with more than 2,000ft of gain.
The initial hike along the dirt frontage road was not very wilderness-like at all, with cars zipping by at 80mph and trucks rumbling by at speeds somewhat slower. But after the first mile the route turns left away from the freeway and some semblence of solitude is obtained. The area is open and signed for OHV travel on the roads, but it does not appear to be terribly popular. Once I reached the road paralleling the power lines, I followed this for a short distance until leaving the road to turn left into the broad wash that I would follow for the next three miles. Aside from its sandy nature, it was easy to hike up the wash with not much in the way of vegetation. The highpoint is well out of view until one is nearly upon it, thanks to the twisting nature of the wash. My route mirrored Evan's for much of the way until I reached the base of the mountain, about an hour and half after starting out.
Now just past 1p, I decided not to follow Evan's more direct route up the SE Ridge, choosing instead to follow a side gully to the left where it appeared to have an interesting bit of rock to scramble. The lower part had colorful orange and red rock, the upper part narrowing as it passed through a yellow and white section of chossy sedimentary rock, the sort that crumbles in your hands and under your feet. The route had looked better from a distance than it turned out to be. Once at a saddle, I had a steep 500ft of climbing up to meet Evan's SE Ridge route, then a stretch along the N-S summit ridge. It was nearly 2:15p before I finally reached the summit. Along with some fine desert views (Avawatz to the north, Cave Mtn to the southwest, Clark Mtn to the northeast), there were some register scraps in a yellow coffee can missing its nesting other half. The pages were bug-eaten and burned by fire, very little actually readable. One page dated to 1983, another to 1996 and still another to 2007.
The Soda Mtns themselves are a confusing bunch of twisting canyons and washes, but with a careful look at the topo map I concluded that I could drop off the summit to the west and find my way down a different canyon that would eventually hook up with the main one I had hiked up. This proved a fun alternative, a bit longer, but enjoyable. There was only one signicant dry waterfall found to stop progress, but this was easily gotten around with a slight detour. I paused on my way back to take pictures of tiny flowers emerging in the spring, along with bright pink cactus blooms. As expected I eventually found myself back in the main wash and then back to the Rasor exit before 5p.
It had been an enjoyable five days, but was now time to head home. I rinsed off with a jug of warm water amidst all the trash at the freeway exit clearing, then drove on to Barstow for gas and food. I would get home before midnight and sleep late the next morning while the rest of the family got up and off to school and work without me. It's a rough life...
This page last updated: Thu Jan 21 14:46:10 2021
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