Sugarloaf Mountain P750 DPG
Peak 5,379ft P300
Cactus Peak P300 DPG
Peak 5,310ft P300
Peak 5,130ft P300
Red Ridge DPG

Feb 9, 2015
Sugarloaf Mountain
Red Ridge
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPXs: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3

When Walt Wheelock published Vol I of his Desert Peaks Guide in 1962, the China Lake Naval Weapons Center went by another name, the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS). Back then, long before the advent of 9/11, permission was sometimes granted to allow civilians access to peaks within the base boundaries, though it was often capricious, varying with the mood of the Cold War and the base commander. Walt and others, notably of the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, managed to climb a number of these that found there way into Walt's guidebook. Access nowadays is routinely denied though for years the DPS kept Maturango and Argus on their peak list - these peaks just inside the base boundary, were usually approached from the east outside the base with little chance of being noticed by military personnel. These have now been officially "suspended" though they have yet to be delisted. In his follow-on to Wheelock's guidebooks, Zdon left out all the peaks that fell inside the base boundaries and where Wheelock had a total of 26 peaks between the Coso and Argus Ranges, Zdon now includes only half that many with most of them falling in the northern and western parts of the Coso Range. Aside from Maturango and Argus, I'd already made a small handful of excursions inside the base to tag a number of summits with more than 900ft of prominence that also happen to be in Wheelock's old guide. This three-day desert trip would focus on other Wheelock summits found inside the base at the periphery.


Not to be confused with the similarly named Sugar Loaf that Karl and I had just done in the northern part of the Coso Range, this summit lies in the mid-part of the range on the western boundary of the China Lake base. The shortest route is from the north via Gill Station Coso Rd, the western entrance to the base that provides access to the geothermal power installations found inside this part of the base. Unfortunately that way appears to be the most open to observation and I deemed it ill-advised. An alternate route, about five miles one-way can be found from Cinder Rd, the exit off US395 for Fossil Falls, south of Coso Junction. I drove out on this decent dirt/sand road to the gated fence at the China Lake boundary and parked, starting off around 6:30a.

A dirt road, the continuation of Cinder Rd, goes straight for 3.5mi over mostly flat ground to the base of Sugarloaf before skirting around the south side to the geothermal sites. There was at least one set of tire tracks since it had last rained here perhaps two weeks earlier, suggesting the road is not as abandoned as I had expected (or rather, hoped). This would have me nervous to some degree the whole time I walked the road though in my head I knew the odds of a vehicle coming by were remote. Because the road heads straight for Sugarloaf, there is little doubt from the start just where the peak is, making route-finding trivial. A few worn road signs found about 3mi inside the gate suggest the base size has grown over the years. Where the road makes a bend to the right I simply followed up a steep draw on a fairly direct route towards the summit. I could have followed various forks in the road to reach the summit from the south, but that might have left me more open to detection and would have taken longer, too. Off to the south I spied what looked like the dust cloud of an approaching vehicle. I was high enough up the slope of Sugarloaf to not be too concerned, but I thought I should stay put until it passes. The cloud didn't dissipate nor did it seem to move, and it was only then that I realized this area had some active geothermal plants. The dust cloud was just steam rising from one of the sites. Higher up I found some surprisingly green areas with tufts of grass that would have kept a burro happy for a long time. It was a welcome change to the more drab browns of the desert and I was happy to see the season progressing nicely. A bit more rain and we might have a good year for wildflowers.

Around 8:15a I had reached the summit, home to a some solar-powered gear housed in a shipping container. The summit has been bulldozed flat to about an acre in size with views looking off all sides. All was pretty quiet about the base - I saw no vehicles nor any other activity aside from the geothermal plants. My route back was nearly identical with only a minor deviation in descending from Sugarloaf. I noted the area immediately west of Sugarloaf has a large amount of obsidian, some in larger chunks but most in smaller sizes. One could make a lot of arrowheads out of all this stuff and undoubtedly a lot of Indians have, in days gone by. As I hiked back on the road I would periodically look over my shoulder to make sure no one was coming up on my heels. I'm pretty sure if I'd spotted a vehicle I'd have resigned myself to getting caught - there really isn't much room to hide behind a creosote bush. The return to the fence ended without incidence and I was happy to find myself once again on BLM land outside the gate. It wasn't yet 10a, plenty of time yet left in the day.

Cactus Peak

Only three miles north of Sugarloaf, the two could easily be combined in a single outing if it weren't for that pesky Gill Station Rd running between them. I drove back out to US395 and then north to Coso Junction where I took the Gill Station Rd to the end of the pavement at the China Lake boundary. An unmanned guard station here requires a magnetic badge or a talk with someone on the phone to gain entrance. Because there were no turnouts near the end of the road before this gate, I simply parked in the very large dirt lot located just outside the fence and hoped it wouldn't be a problem. There were no signs indicating restrictions, so I felt pretty good leaving it there. My route would be several miles across BLM land away from the gate before entering base for the last couple miles. Because most of this route is cross-country, I was less concerned about being caught.

Most of the area around Sugarloaf and Cactus shows evidence of extensive volcanism, in fact both peaks are large, remnant cinder cones among a host of smaller, nearby ones. I planned my route to and from Cactus to pass over a small handful of these bonus peaks as they were not much out of the way. I headed north from the gate station then northeast as I made my way generally towards Cactus but first passing over Peak 5,379ft. I wasn't exactly sure where this was as I didn't have it identified on the GPS, but after climbing to Pt. 5,002ft I realized it must be the next higher summit about 3/4mi further to the NE. I went up and over Peak 5,379ft, dropping down the NE side to an old road between it and Peak 5,310ft. This old, sandy road led east directly towards cactus, blocked by the base boundary fenceline that I soon encountered. From the summit of Peak 5,379ft I had seen a silver trailer parked just west of Cactus Peak at a saddle with what looked like some base activity further to the north of Cactus. All of this turned out to be old, abandoned equipment but at the time I didn't realize this and skirted south to avoid the silver trailer.

The highpoint of Cactus is not so obvious as it is on Sugarloaf, with four points having a closed 5,400-foot contour. I headed first to the southernmost one where I knew there were the remnants of a building. Little remained other than the foundation, some pipes and a benchmark. Lower was the rusting hull of a trailer with a small observatory-like structure on an adjacent, lower point. The extent of the geothermal development to the south was more evident from Cactus than it had been from Sugarloaf. It must be an interesting arrangement that allows commercial development on military property. How does the government determine the value to US taxpayers of such an enterprise? Somehow I doubt the taxpayers get much out of it. Turning north, I made my way down and through the rock jumble that defines the summit crater area, a tedious mess that is mercifully short, taking about 15min. The two closely-spaced north summits proved to be about equal in height and 10-15ft higher than the south summit. No register was found at any of the locations.

From the north summits I could see that what I had been concerned about to the north was just an old storage site where decades-old equipment has been parked away and forgotten. Not seeing any vehicle near the shiny silver trailer to the west, I guessed it was abandoned, too, or at least not currently occupied. I dropped directly down the west side of Cactus in order to pay it a visit. The finding was pretty mundane. The trailer appears to have been used as a two-man office back in the 1960s or 70s. The most interesting find was a stash of old Ray-O-Vac batteries left in one of the drawers. I was kinda hoping for something a little more exciting, like a Cold War relic, live rounds, or something. Not today.

I continued west from the trailer, climbing to the summit of the second bonus, Peak 5,310ft. There was nothing of much interest found at the top but upon descending its west side I found a fun bit of class 3 scrambling down a collection of large granite boulders that featured a neat little tunnel crawl (entirely unnecessary, btw). Somewhere down the west side of this bonus peak I should have encountered the base boundary again, but there was no such fenceline in sight. This was the first time I'd found a gap in what I thought was a continuous fence on the west side of the base. Evidently there are some gaps where they least expected to find vehicles or people. The last bonus, Peak 5,130ft is located about a mile WSW of Peak 5,310ft. I went up its east side and down the south side which was more or less in line with where I'd left the van. I was back by 2:30p, taking a little over four hours to cover about 7.5mi.

Red Ridge

The last DPG summit for the day was located at the far north end of the Coso Range, about three miles south of Owens Lake, this one on BLM lands. I drove back out to US395 (with a stop at the Coso Junction store for some refreshment) and then to SR190 where I parked alongside the highway about 4mi northeast of Olancha. Although the hike out to Red Ridge looks pretty mundane, I found it more interesting that it first appeared. There are sand dunes just south of the highway that are part of an OHV playground (in fact with a high clearance vehicle one could drive much closer to Red Ridge if desired). The late hour of the afternoon made for some nice shadow effects as I crossed the dunes. I hiked up a sandy wash that led fairly directly to the base of Red Ridge. There are some white-colored badlands found at the base that add some additional interest. The climb to the summit was a short scramble with more solid rock than one might expect. A summit register had been placed by Thomas Gossett in 2008, with a few other visits since then, mostly by local OPG (Occasional Peaks Gang) folks like Bob Joy, Dennis Burge and friends. It was a pretty clear day looking north up the Owens Valley with recent snows in evidence around the high peaks surrounding Mt. Whitney. The best part of the hike was the descent route I chose down an alternate wash drainage that couldn't have been more different from the tame one I had ascended. This canyon was narrower and steeper with some fun class 3 scrambling down a series of dry waterfalls. The sun set over Olancha Peak while I was descending, and once I got down to the easier part of the wash I still had another 45min to return to the highway and the van. It was nearly 6p and growing dark by the time I returned, making for a pretty full day.

After showering, I still had some driving to do, taking me east on SR190 to Darwin and then south through town onto the dirt/sand Ophir Rd. I had some trouble locating the road leaving Darwin, trying various streets before hitting upon the correct exit point. I was a little worried that my back and forth driving with headlamps ablaze would draw the attention of the Darwin residents, but no one came out to greet me with shotgun in hand or otherwise. I found Ophir Rd to be in excellent condition and was able to drive east of the Darwin East Gate where I planned to start hiking the next day. I was pretty darn far from civilization at this point with only a single light evident some 10mi to the south and a shockingly bright array of stars overhead. I would sleep well tonight...


Anonymous comments on 02/17/15:
Bob, if security had approached, and there was no creosote bush big enough for you.....what would you say? I'd like to hike these too but have always stayed off base property since these are pretty visible summits and I didn't want to get busted.
Bob's Alter Ego comments on 02/17/15:
I would of told them to get out of my way as I walked by.
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