Noels Knoll P300
Springer Mountain P300
Mollhausen Mountains HP P900

Thu, Feb 13, 2014

With: Evan Rasmussen

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


For the past two days Evan would periodically mention that he'd like to visit Zzyzx if we got a chance. It hadn't been on my radar at all and I didn't know much about it. But since we found a day's worth of summits unreachable with my low clearance van, we were somewhat ahead of schedule and threatening to run out of prepared routes. So we found our way to the south end of Zzyzx Road off Interstate 15, a few miles southwest of Baker. Evan's interest in the place came about because of his complimentary hobby, birdwatching. There are some pools and springs in the area that sometimes attract unusual avians and he wanted a chance to photograph them. It turns out the place is really quite interesting. In a nutshell, a radio preacher named Curtis Springer built and operated a health spa here from 1944 to 1974. He built pools and spas, a dining hall and main building with satellite rooms that could be rented. He sold questionable holistic cures and preached his own brand of evangelism. He named it "Zzyzx" as the "last word in medicine". He had originally filed a mining claim for the land but did everything but mine there, and by 1974 the government had caught up with him and evicted him from the property. The land and buildings were given to the California State University system which repackaged it as the Desert Study Center, a low-budget place for university students to do desert research.

I had identified a few summits on the ridge immediately above and west of Zzyzx. Though neither shows up on the topo maps, Springer Mtn was identified on the road atlas we were using and Noels Knoll was listed as a summit on my GPS. They were located at the north and south ends of the ridge respectively, so it seemed a nice loop of about six miles could be made with a few thousand feet of gain. Evan was going to let me go off and do this hike by myself while he did the birdwatching thing, but given that he was somewhat interested in the hike as well, I happily agreed to follow him around Zzyzx for his birding foray. We were up not long after 6a, watching the sunrise on Noels Knoll. Following breakfast, Evan grabbed his rather expensive camera gear and we walked the short distance through the entrance gate to the historic site. There was only a lonely caretaker besides ourselves on a Thursday morning. We saw him driving a white truck around, but he didn't bother to stop to talk with us, just a half-hearted wave in reply to our own wave. Palm trees line the gravel streets of what looks like a ghost town for the most part. The main building with office and dining areas is still used today as are a few of the outlying buildings, but much is in a slow state of decay. A swing set lies still in the main courtyard. One wonders if the wooden seats would hold one's weight. The pool/spa area is dry, the windows without glass and the frames rusting slowly, desert weeds invading the concrete. There are two large outdoor pools of water, once the centerpieces of the resort. Coots swim in the more picturesque pool, but these are common birds in California and of little interest to Evan. A few other birds flitter among the treetops, but they do not seem to be unique. Evan took a few pictures with his impressive zoom capability, enough to show the most incredible detail of a bird's feathers at a distance of more than 100ft. We wandered out to the edge of Soda Lake on use trails, but again found no birds of interest. Circling around the perimeter of the complex, we found more palm trees, a string of old telephone poles leading to the Old Mojave Rd, more decrepid structures and a line of old cars, decades-old, abandoned, stripped and left to the desert sun. In all we spent about an hour, taking in the sights and finding no birds of interest to Evan.

It was 8a by the time we had put the camera gear away and switched to hiking mode. Climbing the eastern escarpment of the Soda Mountains gave us a bird's eye view of Zzyzx and the surrounding Soda Lake area. Across Soda Lake rose the isolates summits of Little Cowhole and Cowhole Mtn where we had climbed the previous day. The scrambling today was not difficult, just steep - these mountains can be climbed from pretty much any side. It took us about an hour to reach the summit of Noels Knoll where we found a small array of instruments, likely set up by students out of the Desert Research Center. The summit itself was boulder-strewn and not particularly noteworthy other than the fine views to be had. Aside from the vast Soda Lake to the east and south, the final resting spot of the Mojave River, the Soda Mountains spread out west and north. It was in this latter direction that we next turned, following a delightful ridgeline for the next two miles.

The ridgeline scramble did not involve much ups and down and made for a pleasant stroll, taking about an hour. There are two summits to Springer Mtn, the north appearing to be slightly higher than the southern one. The south summit is marked "SODA CAIRN" on the 7.5' topo map and is home to the SODA triangulation station. Barbara and Gordon had left a small register here in 1982 which had only one other entry in 2000 from Mark Adrian before we arrived. Fifteen minutes further north, we found a second register left at the north summit. John Vitz had visited in 1996 and mistakenly identified it as Soda BM. Mark Adrian corrected him, noting that it was not a benchmark, but a reference mark found at the north summit, pointing in the direction of the benchmark (or more properly, I've been informed, the triangulation station) at the south summit. There had been more visitors to the north summit, including three visits by Tim Traynor. We took a break here and found a nice place to sit and eat lunch overlooking the vast Soda Lake. We talked about descent route options while we sat there. I was good with simply heading down from where we sat, but Evan liked the looks of another descent ridge to the south and in the end we went with his plan. This involved climbing back over the south summit and then following its SE Ridge down to Zzyzx Road, about a mile north of where we started. This gave us a chance to investigate some of the soda deposits and the foul-looking waters seeping from one of the springs. Evan wandered around the edge of Soda Lake still looking for interesting birds, but found none.

We were back in Zzyzx and our cars before noon, giving us plenty of time for an afternoon adventure. Next up was a visit to the Mollhausen Mountains HP not far away. We drove back out to the interstate and then the next exit to the west at Beacon Station (Rasor Rd). The Mollhausen Mtns do no show up in the BGN database, but are shown on the same road atlas that brought us Springer Mtn. They appear to be a subrange of the Soda Mountains, located just west of Cave Mountain. Why the Soda Mountains extend south of I-15 is a bit of a mystery - this was added on the 7.5' topo, but lacking on the prior 15' map. In any event, I was interested in it because it had more than 900' of prominence. Our route starting from the south side of the exit would be a bit more than six miles roundtrip, but half the elevation of the morning climb.

With 4WD one could drive on an old sandy road SSW to a saddle only a mile from the summit. Unequipped as we were, we had to hoof it from the exit location. Some of the surrounding terrain is owned by the garage business found here, blocking easier road access, but most of the terrain is BLM. We found ourselves initially crossing old black gravelly asphalt, realizing it was an airstrip at one time in the past (the satellite view shows the crossing runways quite clearly). At the far end of the runway we picked up the old road which we followed easily enough across the desert floor, aiming for the saddle we could see in the near distance. Reaching it in about half an hour, we turned left off the road and headed up a sandy slope into the hills. The terrain is somewhat convoluted making route-finding nonobvious, but it was not really difficult and we enjoyed the stroll, reaching the summit around 2p, a little more than an hour after starting out.

Inside a small summit cairn we found a small blue pill bottle, dead giveaway for a Smatko register. Andy had left it originally in 1987. Every party since then had included Andy, the last time in 2002 where he labeled it 6X, but by his own writing it would have been his 7th visit. As he would have been 84 at the time, I can easily forgive him a small memory lapse. Ray Nelson had joined him on most of those visits towards the end of his illustrious career, recording six visits himself. We spent a short while resting at the summit after tucking the register back away, talking about the views that spread out around us. In discussing a return route, it was not hard to talk Evan into an alternate. We headed back northwest for a short distance along the route we'd taken before turning right and dropping into a dry wash. This proved interesting and easy enough, eventually leading to an OHV road at the mouth of the canyon and from there about half an hour back to the cars.

It was 3:45p and we were done hiking for the day. Evan decided to start for home in the San Diego area, stopping off at a birding location along the way the next morning. After saying our short goodbyes, I headed west on the highway to the Manix exit, following Zdon's approach for Alvord Mtn. I managed to drive the van on miles of sandy road to Alvord Well. I had the small place to myself (far as I could tell, there's just a lone tree and no well anywhere) in the late afternoon, watching the sun set on Alvord Mtn to the north and watching the moon rising to the east shortly thereafter. I spent the night there under an immense host of stars in the open desert, enjoying the solitude, the vastness of space and the chill in the air. Life was good...


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