Orocopia Mountain P2K DPS / DS
Black Butte P2K DPS / DS

Thu, Feb 21, 2008

With: Evan Rasmussen

Black Butte
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


If anyone had asked us what we were doing out here in the desert, we'd have been quick to respond that we were climbing peaks, or peakbagging in the vernacular. But if they had asked more carefully why we were climbing here, we'd have had to more sheepishly admit that we were slavishly chasing silly lists. Orocopia is one of the DPS peaks that falls quite low on the list of "interesting," but because it was on the list I had been happy to drive hundreds of miles to climb it. Evan was climbing a less subjective list, but a dubious one nonetheless - the highpoints of the California ranges. With almost a hundred ranges in the desert regions alone, this one had questionable merit, not reaching even 4,000ft in height. The Orocopia Range is not high, not spectacular (except for maybe a fine view of the Salton Sea), not rugged - in short, sporting almost none of the qualities that make it appealing to climbers. In fact, until it came under the influence of the 1994 CA Desert Protection Act and became the Orocopia Wilderness, it was mainly of interest to the off-road folks. With those folks shut out, the range now has a feeling of remoteness and isolation - a land few visit. Perhaps this is its greatest asset.

Leaving my van at the last of the paved road, Evan and I started out before sunrise on the dirt roads heading south, following the DPS guide. We were treated to a sublime setting of the full moon and a lazy sunrise, both within a few minutes of each other. Though the DPS guide was quite precise in its directions, we ignored its warning to take the left forks at several "Y"s encountered, thinking somehow the more traveled route to the right would be a better choice (which the guide specifically warns against). Having never been to the range before, and poo-pooing the guide with more than 50yrs of experience built in, we were cocky, confident and, as it turns out, clueless. Our right fork took us more than a mile off our intended course and away from the closer trailhead. No matter, we concluded. This was an easy peak and what was an extra mile or two? We were bold adventurers and would not let any preconceived notion of a "route" in such a wild land deter us.

We parked the camper when we were no longer sure we were getting closer to the mountain, locked it up and headed out shortly after 6:30a. It was a fine day, weather-wise, with scattered high clouds and cool temperatures. We looked at the rolling hills ahead of us and picked out half a dozen possible route, none of which would turn out practical as we came to find later. We figured we could make a shortcut across some hills in front of us to intersect the DPS route further up, hazily concluding the highpoint we were looking for was "somewhere around there" as we waved our hand in a 120 degree arc to make sure we covered all the possibilities. Our faulty driving route was soon surpassed by a far more faulty choice of hiking routes. The little hill in front of us revealed another behind it, and still more after that, and following more than an hour of such nonsense we had no more idea where the summit was than when we started. To the south, we pointed, waving in the same 120 degree arc.

The cross-country travel was easy enough without much vegatation covering the hillsides, in fact is was fairly sparse and wide open. But the ups and downs added up and we had to admit we were no smarter than the 8.5" x 11" piece of paper that we had chosen to ignore. It wasn't until we had climbed up the north side of Pt. 3,509ft that we could finally see the summit of Orocopia ahead of us to the south. It was still more than a mile away. Fortunately the going got easier after this. We followed the gentle slope down the south side where it joined up with the regular DPS route at a saddle. A use trail at this point helped us cover the remaining distance in short order, and by 8:30a we were atop Orocopia.

On the summit there was a good-sized cairn built around a stick, along with the usual DPS register. A benchmark had been placed by the Southern California Metropolitan Water District in 1931, though exactly what they might have been doing on this arid summit was anybody's guess. Surveying for the Colorado River Aqueduct, perhaps? Taking in the views, we found it hazy to the west towards the Salton Sea and the Anza-Borrego Desert, but clear to the east and north to the Eagle Mtns and Joshua Tree NP.

For the return, we followed the DPS route to a large degree, dropping north from the saddle where we had joined it earlier and following this wash down for a few miles. There was one cliff portion where we found ourselves at the top of a forty foot dry waterfall. We spooked a pair of owls from their nest as we scrambled to find a way around the waterfall to one side or another. At first we thought the owls quite stupid for flying 50 yards downstream in front of us, waiting in a tree, then repeating the effort. After doing this five or six times, the pair hightailed it out of the wash and probably back to their nest, using this ruse to get us predators away from their nest and probably their helpless nestlings.

Throughout the wash we found an abundance of cat claw and another variety of nasty thorn that would grab at our clothing and skin, shredding bits and pieces of either, without preference. Near the bottom of the wash Evan grew tired of the effort it took to avoid them, choosing to climb up to the edge of the wash and follow the high ground where there was less predatory flora. Eventually our paths diverged as we took different routes back towards the van. I found a series of old road that made the last mile a cinch (and helped highlight the silliness of our route choice earlier in the morning), and shortly after 10a I was back at the car. I took some time to enjoy the carpet of lupines around the area, Evan joining me some ten minutes or so later.

Our second peak of the day had none of the unnecessary route-finding challenges thrust upon it. The peak itself was almost trivial, the drive to get to it - not so. Though the peaks aren't located very far apart, less than 30 miles by air, it took us nearly three hours to make the drive between them. Getting back to Interstate 10 from Orocopia was easy enough, but the drive to the south side of Black Butte was bordering on torture. Not just for the occupants, but for Evan's poor truck as well. The "fair" dirt bordered on poor, the "excellent" portion more like fair, and with more than 20 miles of the stuff each way, it was a grind. The DPS guide advertised 8.0 miles of excellent dirt on what is known as the Bradshaw Trail, but this turned out to be badly washboarded, slow, and sorely in need of regrading. We made the mistake of leaving the camper shell on the truck, and as a result of all the pounding one of the strut brackets broke off and punched a hole in the steel bed of the truck (not discovered until the next day). It wasn't until 1p that we pulled into the trailhead for Route "A" as described in the DPS guide.

Evan needed a break after the drive and decided to have lunch. He planned to use his mountain bike to make at least half of the three mile distance to the peak over the road that follows up the relatively flat wash. I left him in the van microwaving lunch as I headed out on foot, starting on a dirt road heading due north from our parking spot. We had only made it to the 2WD parking spot since there was a dry creek crossing that was too much for the truck with camper. Still, the whole hike was only about six miles roundtrip. The road I followed ended at the edge of a wide, dry wash a few hundred yards from the camper. I scrambled down into the wash, following this up for another mile until I reached the mouth of the side canyon heading towards the summit. This is the route as described in the DPS guide, and overall I found it only marginal, probably not the best route to the summit. The canyon had a good deal of brush to avoid, and parts were annoyingly loose. There were a few interesting parts in the gully where clean rock followed up dry waterfalls, but overall these were few and hardly worth the effort. Evan's route took the main wash north to the obvious saddle visible from a distance, then followed the West Ridge up. He reported this to be a good and practical route to the summit. It took me an hour and half to reach the summit via the DPS route, where I arrived some 30 minutes or so ahead of Evan. The views were similar to those on Orocopia, minus the Salton Sea.

For the descent I chose to follow the South Ridge, not because it was exciting or anything close, mostly just because it offered another way down and possibly without so much brush. The route turned out to be fairly decent, but near the bottom, a few hundred feet below dropping into the main wash, the nice ridge I was following devolved into some blocky pinnacles and cactus-strewn slopes. I wandered through this small maze for a short distance, dropped into the wash, then found my way back to the camper before 4:30p, making for a short outing of just over three hours. I had been looking for Evan to come zooming by me on his bike for the last twenty minutes or so but never caught sight of him. He showed up at the camper only five minutes behind me - excellent timing, as it turned out.

The drive back out was every bit as annoying as the drive in. I think I would rather we had taken the Route "B" option, a much longer hike, but easier drive (only 6.3mi of dirt). Oh well, perhaps next time. Once back to Interstate 10 we picked up my van and drove in tandem further east towards the Arizona border. We drove out towards the eastern trailhead for the Palen Mtns, parking just off the paved road where the long dirt approach begins. We would leave that painful drive for the next day - we'd had enough of it for now.


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