Lookout Mountain P500 DPG
Round Mountain DPG
Banner Ridge P750 DPG
Chocolate Mountain P1K DS / DPG

Fri, Jun 12, 2015
Round Mountain
Banner Ridge
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 GPXs: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3

On my previous visit to the Mono Peaks area a few weeks earlier I had neglected a trio of minor summits from Wheelock's original Desert Peaks Guide that were subsequently omitted from Zdon's updated and expanded Desert Summits. The first two were rather minor but the third had more than 800ft of prominence and is considered the highpoint of the Benton Range. I did far more driving than hiking on this one but had a fun day exploring. At the end of the day I drove out to the Nevada border near SR168 to get an actual hike in to Chocolate Mtn, probably the most interesting part of the day.

Lookout Mountain

This summit is located just east of US395 about halfway between June Lake and Mammoth Lakes. A decent dirt road that any car can drive goes to the top. Views are marginal thanks to trees at the perimeter, but there are decent views of the Sierra Crest available for little effort. Nothing remains of a fire lookout if one ever existed here. It's easy to see why Zdon dropped this one.

Round Mountain

Located about 4.5mi east of Lake Crowley and just south of Benton Crossing Rd, it's hard to see how this qualifies as summit. It has barely an prominence and doesn't look mountain-like from pretty much any direction. It doesn't even look like a hill. On the plus side, it's easy to get to thanks to a bunch of USFS roads that crisscross the area. I found my way to within half a mile of the summit on the Casa Diablo Mine Cuttoff Rd which passes the summit to the northeast. The only trouble was finding a turnaround point in the road once I had gone past its closest approach. I got sand and gravel in the grille and tailpipe for the effort, but managed a near-perfect 13-point U-turn. The hike went over open, easy rolling terrain, including an old road no longer driven on. The biggest (and only) surprise was finding a large granite summit block - class 3. Views mostly stretch over miles of desert scrub, but Casa Diablo can be seen to the southeast and portions of the Sierra Crest to the south and west. Glass Mtn is seen in the distance to the north. Another summit wisely culled by Zdon.

Banner Ridge

About 7mi NE of Round Mtn and just over half a mile east of Benton Crossing Rd is Banner Ridge, the highpoint of the Benton Range. The hike is a very short distance from the pavement off which I parked, but steep, rising almost 1,000ft in that distance. The low angle desert scrub at the start quickly gives rise to steep, pinyon and juniper forest. The footing is decent though much of the slopes is covered in disintegrating granite. I took about half an hour to find my way to the top quite directly. Afternoon thunderstorms were beginning to threaten, covering much of the sky in all directions. The rocky summit is open to views east to the White Mtns, west to Glass Mtn and southwest to the Sierra. A register comprising some 31 pages dated back almost 50yrs to 1967, one of the oldest I've seen on the desert summits. After photographing the pages for posterity, it took but 15min to descend back to the car thanks to deep-plunging steps in the soft, gravelly soil. Though a short outing, a worthy summit.

Chocolate Mountain

I was to meet Tom Becht sometime in the evening in the White Mtns so I drove south through Bishop (requisite stop at Starbucks for the $5 caffeine/sugar combo) to Big Pine, then east on SR168, crossing over Westgard Pass, through Deep Springs Valley and then to Gilbert Pass. I had never been east of Westgard Pass on SR168 and had no idea that this huge valley existed, more than 15mi in length and no outlet. As I was driving across it I kept trying to figure out which way the valley drained and through which canyon, but in vain. Turns out that Deep Springs Lake at the west end (which I only discovered later) is the resting place for all water flowing into the valley. In geologic times past there was a lake 500ft deep that flowed out through Soldier Pass into Eureka Valley (part of Death Valley NP). Now there is little more than a puddle at one end as the climate eventually grew dry. Chocolate Mountain rises above the NE end of Deep Springs Valley, a P1K and in both Wheelock's and Zdon's guidebooks. It is the most prominent summit in the Piper Mtn Wilderness, but not the highest. A high clearance vehicle can get you within almost a mile of the summit but I was unable to drive the half mile on the somewhat brushy road (easy for high clearance) and parked just off the pavement.

Using Zdon's route description, I followed the road south to a sign for the Piper Mtn Wilderness, then west and south following a series of old Jeep roads that reach to the north side of the mountain. These roads are also depicted on the 7.5' topo. While the road doesn't actually reach to the top, at least two foot trails do, and I took one of these from the track to the top. With a total distance of little over three miles, the hiking is easy with very open terrain on this dry, desert mountain. Along with a benchmark that reads "PIPER" (seems it was once called Piper Mountain, or perhaps still is, according to the BLM), is a register dating to the 1990s. The faded pages are hard to read, but they appear to show a flurry of visits in the late 1990s and then slowly fading into relative obscurity with few entries in the last decade. It was getting close to 7p when I was at the summit and the shadows of the late afternoon were cast over a pleasant landscape. Fish Lake Valley in Nevada can be seen to the north with its green crop circles, dry Eureka Valley to the south and Deep Springs Valley to the west (though the sun washed out much of this latter view).

I decided on a much more direct descent route that cut my mileage in half. Though it was mostly cross-country, I thought it the better of the two routes and would recommend it for the ascent as well over the circuitous Jeep route. It's steeper, or course, but the footing is good. I showered at Gilbert Summit where I'd parked before heading back to Westgard Pass and then up White Mtn Rd to meet Tom. He was already at the Grandview Campground when I arrived sometime after 8p. A large stargazing party had occupied most of the campground so we decided to drive back down the road a few miles to find a quieter place off the road. It was not hard to find...


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