Clark County High Point Trip Report

Charleston Peak (circa 11,920 ft)

Date: November, 1999
Author: Scott Surgent

Charleston Peak is the highest point of the Spring Mountains, a range that runs north-south on the western edge of Las Vegas. After my parents moved to Henderson two years ago, I'd made it a point to hike to the summit, but various extenuating circumstances (weather, time, injuries) always kept me off the mountain during my previous visits. With Thanksgiving weekend coming up, I hoped the mild fall we'd been enjoying in the southwest would hold just long enough to allow me a shot at the top. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, and the day after Thanksgiving, with a tummy full of protein and carbs, I made my journey for Charleston.

From the east end of Henderson, it was about 60 miles up highways US-95 and NV-157 to the little town of Mount Charleston in Kyle Canyon, which sits in a cirque of 11,000+ ft peaks, crowned by Charleston Peak's bald top. I arrived around 7:00 am, only to discover the road to the parking area at the South Loop Trailhead was closed. I ended up parking at the Mazie Canyon Trailhead, a small pullout along the side of the road, which added about an extra quarter-mile each way for the hike. The weather was cold but not freezing, and the sun was low in the sky.

The hike up the South Loop trail begins with a relatively consistent grade upwards, but not terribly steep. A huge stone slab known as Echo Point looms directly above. After about a mile, the route works its way behind this slab and starts switchbacking up a steep gully that is known for its avalanches. About a half-mile into the switchbacks the route actually levels off at Echo Point, above the aforementioned stone slab, about 1,000 feet above the valley floor.

This point would make an excellent short but moderately strenuous day-hike. At this elevation the forest gets much more dense and large pines and aspens dominate the view. From this point, the route switchbacks a couple more times, crosses a small drainage, and then begins a long, steep series of switchbacks to the top of the ridge. These switchbacks are well-constructed, but after two-dozen or so (I lost count), I was happy to arrive at the ridge. It was now about 9 am, and I took a break and ate brunch: a turkey sandwich. At the ridge, a partially damaged sign delineates the routes. According to this sign it was 4 miles to the bottom where I had just come up, but it was seemed more like 3 since the sign may have been referring to the main part of Kyle Canyon. (The literature supplied to me by the ranger station indicates it's 8.3 miles one way to the summit via South Loop. My instincts just don't agree with that figure. Then again, the numerous switchbacks may justify that mileage.)

At this point, one can take a small side trip to Griffith Peak, which is just over 11,000 ft, to the south-east of the junction. According to my topo I was at about 3,200 meters at the ridge/junction, which equates to just under 11,000 feet. Charleston Peak was still 4 miles off to the north-west.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and it was even sort of warm (maybe in the low 50s)! At this junction I met up with a hiker (the second I'd seen and the first up this high) who was trying for the top as well. We talked briefly and hiked together for about another 2.5 miles toward a false summit. The trail in this region is easy to follow and crosses some nice meadows. The trail contoured across the south-west face of the ridge, and the little town of Pahrump laid out in the valley below.

As we hiked up toward this false summit, my fellow hiker, whose name I didn't get, seemed to be struggling. He admitted feeling nauseous and having a headache, classic altitude sickness symptoms. I suggested he might want to return and head for the bottom. He did, and reports from later hikers I met seemed to indicate he was making his way down okay.

I continued up and over a small saddle near this false summit, and could once again see Charleston Peak, now only a mile away. From the saddle, the trail contoured across steep scree slopes, losing about 200 feet in elevation before regaining it as it approached another small saddle, just immediately below the summit block. At this point, a small surprise: the wreckage of an old airplane lies scattered about on the steep slopes. I have no idea how long it's been there.

As I climbed the last few hundred feet to the summit, I met up with another hiker who was making good time, and we both reached the summit together right around noon. We took photos, signed the register, relaxed, and were greeted by yet another hiker a few minutes later! According to the register we were the first visitors in 6 days. The views are tremendous: Las Vegas and countless ranges to the east, Pahrump and the Amargosa and Panamint ranges to the west, as well as a number of other ranges. I suspect some of the peaks way off in the western horizon might have been in the Sierra Nevadas!

After about a half-hour I decided to start heading down, taking the same route back as I came up (it is possible to loop via the North Loop trail back to the canyon bottom). As I hiked down, I made steady progress. Unfortunately, I'm not a fast down-hill hiker and I turned my left ankle funny a couple of times, which meant I had to take each step very deliberately to avoid any real injuries. I wish I had my trekking poles at this point! The others passed me after a while, and I finally arrived back to my car just as the sun was setting around 5 pm. In all, it was about 14 miles (16.6 if I go with the forest service literature) of hiking with nearly 5,000 feet of overall gain, counting the elevation lost and regained as the trail dipped high on the ridge. I was pretty sore but felt great! The weather was fantastic and the views awesome. An excellent hike!

Comment about this hike: a year ago I called the ranger station to inquire about hiking the route during late Spring, when there was still snow up top. He was not to keen on anyone going up due to the exposure problems the snow and ice could create. After doing this hike, I could see his point. The trail is fantastic but in places it's steep and treeless, and a snowy/icy patch and a wrong step could send one falling for quite a ways!