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Volcano Peak is located within the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, in the southern part of the Coso Range, just east of US395. It also happens to be a P1K which was what got my attention some time ago. As a bonus, nearby unnamed Peak 4,876ft is a near-P1K, and together they can be done in half a day. I had spent the night parked on BLM land just outside the fence marking the boundary of the Navy base. I started at the locked gate found here just after 6:30a, under variable skies. The air was cool and unstable and rain would threaten throughout the morning, but as luck would have it, none would fall during the outing.
After sliding under the fence, I followed the old road for several miles until Volcano Peak came into view to the southeast from around an intervening group of hills. Sunrise came shortly before 7a, lighting up Olancha Peak and the Sierra Crest behind me. Though blue skies dominated to the west, overhead the clouds began to gather. As the name suggests, the peak and surrounding area is volcanic in nature. Much of the area is overrun with a relatively recent, slow-moving lava flow that has left dark basaltic rock covering much of the terrain. This rock is not particularly easy to scramble over, so the route I chose to reach the peak was chosen to involve as little of this lava rock as possible. Both satellite views and the 7.5' map were helpful in this regard. I left the old road in search of another one heading east towards Volcano Peak as depicted on the topo map, but this road never really materialized. The desert seems to have reclaimed most of it, with a short section of the old roadbed still discernable where rock walls had been built to support it along a hillside. Beyond this point I entered a higher, shallow but narrow valley leading to the base of the peak. On the right side there was a wall of broken lava rock that sharply delineated the extent of the flow. From pictures of similar flows in Hawaii, it was easy to imagine the steaming wall of lava inching forward and eventually coming to rest and cool as the pressure behind the flow gave out.
Just before reaching the base of the peak it was necessary to cross a stretch of this lava flow, which worked out to be as tedious as it had appeared (I had walked all over this stuff in Hawaii, too, and knew it to be slow-going). Across the flow, I picked up a narrow strip running up the southwest side of the peak that had avoided the lava outflow. The footing on this wasn't particularly great either, composed of redish pumice ejected in an earlier eruption, but it was better than the black stuff on either side. The slope is steep and relentless, the gradient never seeming to roll off as one might expect, until the very top. As I got higher the views opened up behind me to the vast stretch of the Southern Sierra in the background. In the foreground, the huge extent of the lava flow to the southwest becomes evident. Finally, around 8:40a and more than two hours after starting out, I reached the summit.
There used to be some sort of communications installation up here at one point, but all that remains are the old battery casings that litter the ground and piled into the cairn that was erected. The wooden survey tower that goes with the 1934 benchmark is almost intact, but fallen over. The unstable air resulted in unusually clear air, providing outstanding views - north into the Owens Valley, southeast into the naval base, southwest to the Mojave Desert, west and northwest to the Southern Sierra. In the foreground to the west, across the lava flow, rose the lower unnamed bonus peak, and it was to this that I next turned my attention.
I dropped back down the southwest side of Volcano Peak to its base along the same route I had taken up, then a tedious mile-long march over the lava flow to reach the toe of the NE Ridge running up to Peak 4,876ft. Once off the lava and onto the start of the second climb, the going became easier and consequently more enjoyable. The gradient here was much easier and the next mile of the hike up to the crest was good fun. Upon reaching the crest I was confronted with a double summit, neither appearing obviously higher. I went first to the nearby north summit where I could eyeball the south summit half a mile to the south, only to find that I couldn't easily determine which was higher. I took a GPS reading before continuing on to the second highpoint, dropping about 100ft enroute. I was happy I wasn't pressed for time and didn't really mind the extra workout. The net result was that the GPS readings were too close to pick a winner (the topo shows them with the same number of contours), and there was no register to shed any additional light on it. So it goes. Nice views of the Mojave to the south and Volcano Peak to the east, though.
I returned once again to the north summit before starting down towards the north. I had intended to follow the ridgline stretching more than a mile in that direction, but missed a turn and ended up dropping steeply off the wrong ridge into a rocky canyon which eventually brought me out to a sandy wash and around the tip of the ridge I had intended to descend. I soon picked up the road I had started in on, and began to follow it back. Scattered periodically along the road were small chips of obsidian that I would pick up to examine. I had not noticed these on the way in, perhaps because it was too dark then, or I was too focused on where I was going, but now they began to absorb my attention. I found more flakes and wondered if these were manmade or naturally occuring. I had not seen any chunks of obsidian while crossing the lava flows, but evidently there must be some around here. When I found the first few pieces I thought they might be broken weapon points, but soon found more, and none looked like they were once weapons. In several places I found large caches of these chips and my working hypothesis became that this area was probably used for the manufacture of arrowheads and spearpoints, and the pieces I was finding were probably the castoffs from those efforts. I could have spent hours collecting pounds of this stuff, but in the end I left all the pieces more or less where I found them. It was a fun way to spend much of that last hour.
I returned to the locked gate and the van shortly after noon. I showered, dressed in some fresh clothes, and then began the long 6-7hr drive back to San Jose. It had been a fun four days and I was already looking eagerly to a return visit to the area in December...
This page last updated: Sun Dec 15 12:22:09 2013
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