March 06, 2009
How many times have you been on a long drive, just a flat out burn such as the Vegas run? These obnoxiously boring drives can sometimes provide the view of something interesting along the way. In this case it's a mountain just off the side of the road. Up ahead, you will know a good one as soon as it breaks the horizon. Tall, looming, steep, craggily with massively odd shaped boulders throughout its stance. As if it had been created by an angry god. They are intimidating and will request your attention as you sail on by.
These obscure mountains, standing sentinel along the highway, bring out the imagination in everybody. Most can only think of what it's like to just be on top looking down. Others, like me, only crave the sensational climb they offer. Being on the peak is good, but the effort to get there is even better. These mountains are remote, they are rarely visited, have no trash, no graffiti and best of all no trail.
Don't get me wrong, trails are good and they serve a purpose: Get hikers from point "A" to point "B" safely and in an organized manor that provides the least amount of damage to the surrounding environment. Cool, I'm with all that, safety and minimize the nasty impact of humans. But after a while on a super highway trail, like Mt Baden Powell, you begin to feel kind of like the Mono Rail at Disney Land. Fun but yet mind numbing.
This particular forlorn sentinel, named Cave Mountain, is on the east side of the north bound 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. One would have to agree that Cave Mountain is a really cool name and a mountain of this stature deserves a great name. However I did not find any caves and I don’t know if it has any. On top near the peak is a survey marker dated 1929 with the Spanish wording El Frio stamped into it. Normally, what ever name is stamped into the survey marker would coincide with the current name of the mountain. Very strange indeed. From our experience I would have to say the name El Frio is a better fitting one. The day of the hike the temps were in the low 40’s with steady winds averaging 15 mph and gusting up to 28 mph. It was cold.
Ken, my hiking buddy, picked me up at my house around 0515hrs. I loaded up my gear and within a few minutes we were burning rubber on the 15 north bound. After a drive of just under 90 miles we were at our off ramp with the remaining few miles on a dirt road. Covering the last section on the 15, and the entire stretch of the dirt road, Cave Mountain was always in view looking as animus and dreadful as we had expected. We could tell that it has very few save passages to the top and all the others looked downright lethal.
The parking / trail head is on a dirt road used primarily by off road ATV’s. A normal 4x4 vehicle can not go any further due to very soft sand. It would be unwise to continue as it would be a very lengthy and expensive recovery.
Suiting up for the hike was cold, and windy. As I stated earlier the temps remained in the low 40’s and winds were just above 10 mph at the truck. As we progressed to the peak the winds would increase exponentially with gust measured above 28 mph.
I had expected these temps and winds after checking the forecast the day before so I was dressed adequately.
At 0800hrs the truck was secured and we were on the trail, or uh, crappy sand dune kinda thing. This stuff is just like walking on the beach loaded down with hiking boots and about a thirty pound pack. By line of site we could tell that Beach Sand Trail continued on for about a mile. It parallels Cave Mountain and ends at the base of a ridge that looked like a good approach up. Both Ken and I had about enough of this and began scanning north for something better, anything has to be better than grinding out our energy on Beach Sand Trail.
Scanning up towards the north we spotted a ridge that runs a general north west to south east direction. We altered course with a heading to the north for the intersection of the ridge. This route was also beneficial as we began gaining altitude pretty fast. The soil still consisted of loose sand but it was far better than Beach Sand Trail. Taking the ridge, as it turned out, was a very good choice. It continues in a wide lazy arch to the east eventually turning north and bringing is right to the base of Cave Mountain.
Terrain on the ridge changed from the loose soil to solid with good footing and at times we had giant piles of boulders to climb around. Oh, god bless those boulders! Along the ridge turning to the north we began to encounter strong winds and temporally ducking to the east of the boulders was a nice comfy zone of no winds.
This first ridge ended at the base of Cave Mtn and there was a flat plane area to hike across, about the size of a football field. Entering the plane we plotted or next route. Wasn’t too hard to decide as a diversion continuing along the east face of the mountain did not look promising. That route was very steep straight up to the peak with boulders that seemed like only dust was holding them in place. Another scan ahead, to the west, showed a ridge dropping down the south face. Scanning that ridge as it goes higher, there were boulders the size of houses. It looked better than the east face though as the slope of elevation gain was doable if need be.
Pressing on to that ridge we aimed for a saddle just at its base to make our next decision. From the saddle it all became crystal clear what to do next. Standing there, looking to the west, the mountain just literally fell from the face of the earth. Choosing any route west of the saddle would bring one to there maker within two steps, no, make that one.
From the visual perspective standing at the saddle looking up, the view of the terrain was simply breath taking. The climb from here required staying to the left as much as possible hugging the line of boulders protruding from the ridge. Anything to the right would be a little hairy with the angle of the slope in addition to no foot hold and nothing to grasp with your hands.
What was I getting at? Oh ya, the scenery. Remember back when Hollywood filmed movies in a Western setting that had gigantic rock boulders going ever higher. In those things would be cowboys or even an outlaw hiding. That’s pretty much what this was. This was my favorite section of the entire mountain but it was also the windiest. This is the location we measured the wind gusting above 28 mph. I remember yelling to Ken what the wind speed was. He was standing about four feet from me and I couldn’t hear him but I could tell he was yelling “WHAT?”. It didn’t take but a second to realize this isn’t the safest place to be yelling what the wind speed is. Maintaining normal balance was tough enough, but with the wind now pushing us and at times dictating our next foot placement, it was time to press on.
Just finishing up the climb through my favorite section a very large rock cairn comes into view above us. The cairn is on top of the mountain and it was just above us with about ten more minutes of hiking. It’s an amazing pile of rocks that stand about five feet high with a big stick right up the middle of it. Not that I pondered over it too much, but one glance at this thing and you can tell somebody spent a lot of time moving a lot of rocks. There efforts paid off as the cairn is visible from the desert floor over 1,700 feet above you and almost two and a half miles away!
Finally getting to the cairn was a good feeling. We dropped our gear, took a few pictures and enjoyed the views. The first thing that got my attention were the winds. Climbing up the last ridge they were really bad and normally on a peak with no obstruction it would be worse. However, it wasn’t. It was still blowing about ten to fifteen miles per hour and pretty chilly, but that was much better than winds around 28mph.
The forecast that I had checked 24 hours before the hike was pretty much dead on with the current temp’s, wind direction and speed. Luckily the only part of the forecast that was not correct happened to be the cloud cover that was predicted to be around 70 percent. We didn’t have a cloud to speak of during the entire hike until we were back to the truck. Even then it was only a rouge cloud floating by, nothing bad at all.
From the top of Cave Mtn the views were all the way to the horizon with excellent visibility due to the winds and no clouds. Standing by the rock cairn looking to the south I could make out Mt Baldy and other peaks along the North Back Bone. This is amazing because they are about 100 miles away!
Ken was the first to bring it to my attention that from our perspective we could begin to see the curvature of the earth. We grabbed our gear and walked over to the actual location of the peak. Now, Cave Mtn is a strange thing as there really isn’t a “peak” to speak of since it is pretty flat across the top for approximately 150 feet. There are some large piles of rock to scramble on and explore, but no distinguishable peak. Locating the survey marker was pretty easy since it is exposed in the open. As I mentioned earlier it has the name El Frio stamped into it and not Cave Mountain. Maybe in 1929 that was the name given but with most mountains they end up going through name changes. Sometimes this is due to a map maker’s error or somebody nick named it Cave and it just stuck. I did find this tidbit of info that states:
“...Cave Mountain looms over Interstate 15 in the heart of the Mojave Desert, not far from the town of Baker. It does have caves, but they are more like rock shelters than true caverns, which form by dissolving limestone deep underground at the water table…”.
OK, if these things are deep underground at the water table then I’m surely not going to see any caves climbing to the peak, bummer.
With all the hikes I have done throughout various mountain ranges I normally find survey markers in low laying areas as well as mountain peaks. An interesting note is that almost all of them are dated 1929. Imagination takes off from there as all of this area was vast and wild with no impact of man. Most of the roads and highways didn’t even exist back then. What a huge undertaking these people took on surveying the western United States. Brave and hardy people did all of this by packing in the surveying equipment, survey markers, tooling to dig into rock and soil and the cement that still holds them solid.
Just think that it was all hiked in and nothing was airlifted, it couldn’t have been. Twenty six years earlier the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight and in 1929 Pan Am was flying the Ford Tri Motor in revenue service. The first fully controllable helicopter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61, wouldn’t even fly until 1936 in Germany.
A brand new Model T could still be purchased for about $300 even though Ford completed production of them two years earlier making room for the Model A. That price of the car may seem low, but in 1929 the average weekly income was a mere $25 dollars, and that was about to go down. I’m quite confident that the man pounding the letters El Frio into the survey marker had no idea that the stock market was going to crash in October followed by the Great Depression soon after.
Ok, we stayed on top for about an hour and a half enjoying our reward of solitude and views. Looking down to the west at the valley floor, more than 2,000 feet below us, was the Interstate 15. Quite allot of traffic was on this going both north and south. More than likely the north bound traffic was people going to Las Vegas for the weekend planning on spending more money than they really should. On the south bound was a stream of cars with people probably full of remorse about spending more money than they should have.
Me? I was perfectly content sitting up there eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich watching them.
Cleaning up any evidence of our presence, we packed up and began our trek back down the mountain. Route finding would not be an issue since we could just reverse the exact route we took on the way up.
The only areas of caution would be the first ridge as it is steep, so slow and steady was the key here. Winds on the way back down were still present and seemed to be a little stronger in some areas. It was nice to tuck behind some of the big boulders for temporary relief. Along the way we found evidence of what is most likely Big Horn Sheep but unfortunately we didn’t see any of the timid creatures. A couple of locations had obvious bedding areas and fresh droppings from the sheep.
Hiking along the bottom ridge we made it a goal to stay high on this as long as possible. Otherwise we would just end up descending straight down to the very unpleasant Beach Sand Trail. No thank you. This turned out to be rewarding as we were able to see a few things that we would have otherwise missed.
The first was a baby Horned Toad. I haven’t seen one of these in several years. The little guy noticed us and ran under a bush for cover to hide from us. As soon as he got under the bush he didn’t move a muscle and closed his eyes. It was funny since he probably thought as long as he couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see him.
Next was a desert tortoise shell. This was a sad thing to see as it was a young one that only had the shell remaining with the overall length about six inches.
The next really neat thing we noticed was a yellow poppy all alone surviving the conditions of the Mojave Desert.
Finally dropping down from the ridge placed us within a short walking distance from the truck on the Beach Sand Trail. Checking my watch, the time was just about 1400hrs.
On a round off, this hike was six hours and five miles with 1,700 feet of elevation gain and the same for loss. Overall it was one heck of a fun adventure!
We unpacked our gear and finished up with a little celebration before driving off.
We didn’t head home just yet as we had some more exploring to do. One of the things we wanted to check out was the campgrounds a few miles to the south in Afton Canyon.
These campgrounds provide a canopy for sun shade, and a fire pit, not much else. Although there is one outhouse and it is for everybody to share.
Most likely the majority of campers come here in the winter months as it would be unbearably hot during the summer. Nearby is a rail road with a nice looking trestle style bridge crossing the Mojave River.
It’s not really so much a wide open flowing river as is a sprawling stream. This, I’m sure, would change after a really good rain fall with some flash flooding.
It is this location that draws the majority of the people bringing the off road toys. I do admit this does look fun, driving through the canyon with a stream a couple inches deep lazily drifting from side to side.
Canyon walls towering along the south side appear to have been created about the dawn of time. Constructed from sand stone they have taken on a really eerie look from erosion caused by rain fall.
This, my friends, brings us to the end of our adventure. Finishing the 4x4 drive through the canyon we were back on the 15 heading south for home.
The line from parking to peak is the hike track as downloaded from my Garmin. Notice Afton Canyon and the campground near the lower left of the map.
Elevation profile of the hike. From parking to peak is 2.47 miles with 1,704 feet elevation gain.