Cerro Pinacate P2K DPS
Carnegie Peak

Feb 16, 2009

With: Tom Becht

Story Photos / Slideshow


Tom and I were awake by 6a, shortly after first light. Our camp location at a rest stop along Mexico's Highway 8 wasn't exactly legal we suspect, but no one bothered us during the night. The roadside chapel was the most unusual feature of our campsite, complete with burning votive candles maintained by the religious faithful. Sadly, with a large pile of the broken and empty glasses scattered about outside the back, the faithful didn't seem any more concerned about the environment than the rest of the poor citizens.

As we were packing up the car we had converging thoughts concerning the gated entry to our trailhead. The parque service had a closed the entrance to El Pinacate the previous night at 5p, not planning to reopen until 8a the next morning. This had kept us from reaching the trailhead to spend the night and would mean a late start for our hike. I was wondering if the gate might have been closed, but not locked, allowing us to sneak through regardless. Just as I was going to mention this to Tom, he commented, "You know, that gate wasn't locked when I went by it last night..."

As so we hussled over to the entrance gate a few miles away, noted nary a soul astir among the half dozen buildings just across the gate, unlatched it and drove through. After latching the gate again, of course. We drove into the park following the directions from the trip reports, but it would have been tough to get lost. One first drives north along a good dirt road for about four miles, then heads west for another ten miles on a poorer road (4WD recommended), following signs for Red Cone. The road ends at the head of a wash in front of a large lava field between the TH and Cerro Pinacate. There is an information kiosk and a picnic bench found here, but that's about it. Cerro Pinacate is not visible from the TH, blocked from view by its near neighbor Carnegie Peak.

At first glance on a map it seems strange to have a National Park located in the middle of the desert with what amounts to little more than a mountain bump as the centerpiece. But the area had geologically recent volcanic activity and has a surprising amount of desert life - much of this may be due to the richer volcanic soils that developed after the volcanism. In addition to Saguaro, there were a dozen other cactus varieties with plenty of other thorny and non-thorny plant types, giving it a somewhat lush look and feel - for a desert, anyway.

It was just after 8a when we started out from the trailhead, following the road as it made it's way through a lava field. Just like others before us, we found the road heading north away from the peak and decided to abandon it less than half a mile from the start. The walk across the lava field was slow due to the broken nature of the ground. The lava had sharp edges (good way to tear up a pair of boots after a few miles) in an uneven pattern of hills and valleys, and we had to pick our way through the thriving desert flora.

Spring was starting to come to the desert with budding plants and some of the first blooms in yellows and purple. A storm had been driven ashore from the Pacific, bringing rains to most of Southern California. Fortunately for us the intervening ranges had wrung most of the moisture from the clouds leaving us with decent weather. But some of the clouds made their way to El Pinacate, blown up from the south and the Sea of Cortez, and threatened to cover our peak before we could get there.

It was 9:15a when we stumbled back on the road heading towards the peak. We followed this up for half an hour until we reached a shallow saddle at the base of Carnegie's NW side. The wind had picked up and we paused here to put on some warmer clothes. Clouds were now skirting over the peak leaving it mostly covered, but breaking periodically. Hopefully we could catch such a break when we reached the top. The road ended a few minutes after our rest stop, to be followed by a trail that was initially marked with short, white stakes. The trail traversed upwards across the north slopes to reach the NW Ridge, which was then followed to the summit.

Now just past 10a, our stay at the summit was cold and mostly in the clouds. We didn't get the break we were hoping for. There was a commemorative sign honoring Eusebio Francisco Kino, the first European ascentionist in 1706. From other sources we learned that Father Kino was an avid explorer in the region (DPS Kino Peak in Arizona is named for him), and it seems he made many long journeys throughout the desert southwest. I would have liked to meet the guy - more a Clarence King type than a soul-saver.

There was also a delapidated tower installation and a very busy register at the summit. It was filled with cards and paper scraps in addition to a nearly full booklet with many names, almost all of them Mexican nationals. This was in marked contrast to the previous two Mexican summits that had only American signatures in them. I signed our names using my limited Spanish for the date - I didn't get it right though - using March instead of February.

We were hoping for a view south to the Sea of Cortez, but the clouds flying in from that direction would not allow it. Down we went after about 15 minutes. We returned to the saddle near Carnegie Peak at which time I put the press to Tom to climb Carnegie Peak as well. He had shown no interest when I had asked him earlier, but now reluctantly agreed to climb the short distance up to the summit (it took us all of 15 minutes). I had practiced in my head the persuasive arguments I might use to lure or guilt him into the effort, but in the end said something like, "Look, here's where I would normally give you all the fine reasons for climbing Carnegie, but really we should just do it since we're already here." And so we did.

The hillside going up was little more than unconsolidated lava pellets and not fun at all. Pinacate was composed of the same material, but the mostly packed trail had made the climb more tolerable. Tom was nice enough not to give me a hard time about it, both of us silently struggling through the crud to the top. Mercifully, it was short. We were rewarded at the top with actual views, unlike those we got from Pinacate. Clouds still streamed in above us, but they were no longer enveloping and we could see the desert below in all directions. There was a cairn at the summit with another summit register tucked inside, this one with far fewer entries.

We chose to head east off the summit, making a more direct bid to reach the trailhead along a route suggested from the DPS guide. This turned out to be a fine descent route. Like our ascent line, the east side of the mountain was the same pellet-sized lava pieces and we were able to bomb down the slope in swift fashion. I had to stop at several points to empty the debris from my shoes, while Tom's gaiters kept him from having to do likewise. Near the base of the peak we picked up a fine use trail that led us by an interesting lava fissure and through the uneven terrain below. We lost the trail after half a mile, but for another mile the cross-country travel was quite easy. Eventually we ran out of easy terrain, inevitably boxed in by the rough lava fields we were trying to avoid. There was about a quarter mile of the harshest lava rock before we were on easier terrain again. It was amazing to see thriving plants and small trees growing in the rocks - there seemed to be no soil whatsoever, yet the plants could not only grow there but in the harshness of the desert environment as well. We shortly thereafter regained the road and five minutes later were back to the trailhead. The whole descent from Carnegie had taken one and a quarter hours to the two hours for the ascent to Pinacate.

The Sunshower we had left out in the morning had warmed nicely, and hanging it from the nearby kiosk made for a fine outdoor shower. Our time in Mexico was drawing to a close and we needed to get back across the border into Arizona for the next day's adventure. We were only thirty miles from the border and it wasn't even 1p. It seemed we would have plenty of time this afternoon. The holiday weekend and Homeland Security conspired to keep things from being too easy. We were soon enough in Sonoyta, the Mexican town just south of the border, but things went a little slower after that. It took us 4 hours to travel 2mi as all the Arizonians crowded the border station, trying to get back from the long weekend. On foot, local residents plied up and down the double row of cars idling in a straight line through their town, selling soda and ceramic lawn ornaments and more tortillas than could possibly be consumed in Phoenix over the course of a month. I left Tom at the wheel while I walked up to the border to scope things out. I watched "clever" folks driving side streets and attempting to cut in to the front of the line, angering those around them. A few Mexican police officers did their best to halt traffic in places to allow the local residents to drive to and from their homes, but it all seemed somewhat chaotic. But the town looks like it has adapted to this weekly scene, as have the cripples and children with their hands out (the kids looked like they were doing it to fill the boredom of an afternoon, collecting sodas and change and a can of Pringles). There were at least a dozen canines along the stretch, all of them unchained, underfed, and passively hoping for handouts from the motorists.

When it came time for our turn at the border crossing, night had fallen more than an hour earlier and we were quite tired of Sonoyta. We handed our passports to the officer and he waved us on less than 30 seconds later, not asking a single question. We felt a little unimportant, but were glad to get through so easily - the officer was distracted by the conversation from another officer discussing the fresh discovery of a "shiny object" under an adjacent vehicle, picked out by the undercarraige scanners they employ. No doubt either a major drug bust or the foiling of a terrorist plot was about to unfold.

We drove into the immediately adjacent Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and found the campground soon enough. Some of the six hours we'd spent in the car had been devoted to eating apples, salty snacks, and other junk food, so we weren't exactly hungry when we pulled in. More tired than anything, I rolled out my ground cloth, sleeping pad and bag, and was soon tucked snuggly in bed and watching the stars above me. Looking for satellites, shooting stars, and trying to remember various constellations, I laid awake for a long while before drifting off...


Scott Surgent comments on 04/10/09:
Hi Bob: Nice story and photos on Pinacate! The tower structure on the summit seems to have been knocked over recently - it was up when we were there, although not firmly anchored. Might have naturally fallen over...
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