Sugarloaf Mountain P500
Mastodon Peak LPC / DS
Chuckwalla Mountain P1K DPS / DS

Sun, Dec 21, 2008

With: Ryan Burd

Sugarloaf Mountain
Chuckwalla Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile
Mastodon Peak later climbed Sat, Dec 6, 2014

Ryan and I were up at 5:30a at Grandma's house in San Diego. Leaving the rest of the family with her, we planned to head east for four days into the eastern CA and western AZ deserts for some peakbagging. We took Interstate 15 north to Temecula, then headed east on a variety of state highways towards the Desert Divide. Our first stop was slated to be the HPS peak Lookout Mtn just off SR74, but much to our surprise there was more than a foot of snow on the ground at an elevation under 5,000ft for which we were totally unprepared - no snowshoes, no winter boots, not even waterproof spray on our regular boots. There was snow everywhere we looked, courtesy of a recent cold storm that came through Southern California. The whole area was completely dry when I had visited only 2.5 weeks earlier, but it was a winter wonderland now. I quickly nixed the initial plan and we continued east on SR74.

Second on our list was an easy hike of Asbestos Mtn near Pinyon Pines where SR74 goes over the Desert Divide, but the dirt access road was half covered in snow, the other half in mud. Not much chance of doing this one either. With two strikes we continued east. Just before the highway starts its steady drop into Palm Desert, a small peak just off the north side of the road caught my attention. Sugarloaf Mtn was the name given on our map, and we pulled off the highway to give it a visual once-over. There was a good deal of snow on the south side that was facing us, but there were plenty of dry patches as well and we decided to give it a try.

It turned out to be just about as much snow as we could handle. The route up was steep and trailless, dancing around cacti (Ryan got a quick primer on desert hiking - "Don't touch them, even with your boots!") and patchy snow, scrambling up rocks, and carefully treading the snow where it was unavoidable. I had Ryan follow my footsteps in the snow to keep his own boots from getting wet, but even mine only got a bit damp. The snow was fresh and powdery, but thankfully not too deep. It took us over an hour to go less than half a mile, but we did manage to find our way to the top. It was flat with even more snow cover on the flatish summit. We didn't try to hit all the possible highpoints, satisfied with finding the SUGAR benchmark as depicted on the map.

We found a large, dry rock to take a break on. From our perch we had a fine view of the Santa Rosas (Martinez Mtn, Toro Peak, and Santa Rosa Mtn all prominent) as well as the Desert Divide stretching to San Jacinto. San Gorgonio was just visible behind Asbestos Mtn to the north, with the Little San Bernardinos and Joshua Tree snow-capped ranges to the northeast. On the return we found less snow by heading down the south side of the mountain rather than the SE side we had ascended, and it took only 30 minutes to reach the van.

We continued down SR74 into Palm Desert, then on to Interstate 10 heading east. Our next destination was Joshua Tree National Park and the Cottonwood Spring visitor Center. To my continuing surprise there was snow at the 3,000-foot level of the center, though much of it was melting away. The road to Cottonwood Spring and the TH for Mastodon Peak was nicely plowed and we had no trouble driving to the start of our second hike. Mastodon Peak is on the LPC peak list, though it didn't look like much of a peak either from the visitor center or from the map.

The hike is advertised as a 3.5 mile loop, but it seemed shorter than that. A number of visitors over the previous few days had trampled most of the snow off the trail, leaving a well-defined path where it wasn't. We wandered past the palm-choked spring (there were some cottonwoods in there as well as you might expect, given the name), though there was no running water at the time. From there we wandered along the trail through typical Joshua Tree rock gardens, enjoying the warm sun and tossing snowballs at each other when the other wasn't looking. There were two trail junctions, both well-signed, and a final use trail leading to the rocky summit. It had taken us but 30 minutes to cover the short distance and 400ft of gain. Another party had just left the summit with another one showing up as we started down, suggesting it is a very popular outing indeed. We did the full loop, passing by the remains of the old Mastodon Mine, still active into the 1970's, then back to the car shortly after noon (the west half of the loop that we did on the return is longer than the east half).

Back in the van, we left Joshua Tree, heading back to the interstate and continuing east towards the Arizona border. Ryan could have been done hiking by this time, but I wanted to do one more peak, the DPS peak Chuckwalla that I had skipped on my last visit to the area. Unfortunately I had saved the toughest for last. It would require some diplomacy. We exited I-10 at the Corn Springs exit, following the Chuckwalla Valley Rd southeast for a number of miles to the junction with the Graham Pass Rd. Heading south, the road was well-graded to start and I could drive up to 40mph without undue shaking in the van. But this degraded after about 10 miles and grew progressively worse. The last few miles going through Graham Pass were the worst, barely passable by our vehicle, and only by going slow and getting out to remove the occasional rock too big to clear the undercarraige. Another vehicle coming the other way paused for a brief chat with us. It was the Border Patrol, a friendly pair asking where we were headed and such. They seemed a bit incredulous that we would drive a passenger car out here. I was a bit incredulous myself, truth be told.

We overshot our side road for Chuckwalla, reaching the east-west Bradshaw Trail (a decently maintained dirt road on the south side of the range) a quarter mile later. We retraced our route to the turnoff, but had to park off the main road since I couldn't get the van over the berm left by the last grading effort. It was not a big hindrance, as it only added another mile or two to the total. The hike itself was short, but it had 1700ft of gain, most of it cross-country. Now for the diplomacy. I gave Ryan the option of hanging out by the van for the few hours it would take me to do the hike alone, or he could join me. If he chose the latter, I would deem the day "Frap-worthy," which meant he could join me for a Frappuccino treat at the Starbucks in Blythe afterwards. This was a rare treat that he'd been given only twice before - once after our return from Half Dome, and once for running the mile in under seven minutes. He'd have preferred to be done with the hiking, but took the bait and joined me. I think in the end we were both glad he did because it turned out quite nicely.

Expecting to get back after dark, I had several headlamps along with some extra warm clothes in the pack with the usual Gatorade and other items. We hiked up the side road heading northwest for about 3/4 of a mile before heading cross-country across the adjacent wash to skirt around the base of Pt. 2,150ft. This turned out to be a small mistake, as it would have been better to continue on the road another mile to avoid some minor ups and downs (the return went smoother as a result). Once around the point we turned north into a wash which we followed a short distance before crossing to the opposite side. The wash itself was slower going because of the uneven, rocky nature, whereas the sides were more level and compact, making for easier walking. We landed ourselves on a faint road (which we later followed back for an easier route) which led to the beginning of a ridgeline dropping down from Chuckwalla. Where the road ended we intially found a few ducks leading up the ridgeline, but they were sparse and for the most part unnecessary.

We followed the steep ridgeline up, first heading north, then curving to the northeast. There were no serious obstacles to our travels, and in fact almost any route to the summit could be made up any of the adjoining washes or the other ridgelines that I could observe. We scrambled up and over some minor bumps along our ridgeline on the way to the summit, Ryan doing quite well on the cross-country terrain. There were plenty of cacti to trip him up, but he seemed to avoid these adroitly.

It took us about an hour and forty minutes to reach the summit, some twenty minutes better than I had expected. Perhaps we might not need the headlamps afterall. It was chilly, but not overly cold at the summit, though I still put my jacket on as the weaker of the two. We found a summit benchmark and a well-used register which we added our names to. Unlike earlier in the day, we had encountered no snow anywhere on the mountain and could see none in any direction on the surrounding ranges. Perhaps the storm had not reached this far inland, or it may be that the elevations were just too low.

Our descent off the mountain was via the same route as I did not want to tempt fate by selecting an alternative route with sunset so near. Sunset came before we were able to get off the ridge, but there was still plenty of light to get us back to the road. The temperature did not drop as dramatically as I had expected, and we had a pleasant time of the easy stroll back down the road. We watched the stars begin to appear, noted silhouettes of the terrain and cacti, and the last light on the scattered clouds. We made it back to the van around 5:30p, perhaps 15 minutes before we'd have needed the headlamps - good timing.

The drive back out to I-10 took some time, most of that in negotiating our way back through Graham Pass. I was too slow in going up one particularly steep rise and the wheels began digging into the roadbed, spewing sand and rock and making all manner of noise that had Ryan somewhat frightened. I calmly told him I had failed to get enough speed going up, and would have to back down the hill and try again. He was nervous the whole time, but with an extra bit of gas going up we managed to get over without stalling, and things steadily improved after that. Once back on the good, flat portion of the road I asked Ryan if he wanted to drive. "Really?" Really. I stopped the van and we switched places. After adjusting the seat and explaining the gas and brake, we started off again. I told him to keep his speed under 20mph, which he had no trouble doing - in fact he was more likely to go too slow than too fast. He eventually got up his nerve, increasing to 20mph and did a decent job of keeping in the middle of the road. Sometimes he would pay too much attention to the speedometer and start to drift, but it was easy to correct him with a touch of the wheel or a quick word. He drove the last three miles or four miles out to the paved Chuckwalla Valley Rd where we stopped and once again switched places.

We drove on to Blythe, less than an hour away, where we took a room at the Motel 6, got our treats at Starbucks and dinner at Jack-in-the-Box, in that order. It had been a good day overall, and the driving experience was not least among his memorable moments. Tomorrow we would make our incursion into Arizona in quest of the La Paz County highpoint.


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