Arizona Prominences December 2011 Trip Report
© December 2011 Adam Helman

Note 1: All coordinates use the WGS84 datum.
Note 2: Photographs are courtesy of John Klein (J), Scott
              Surgent (S), Scott Peavy (P), and Scott Kelley (K).
Note 3: Mouse-click any image for detail.
Dynamic Route Map with all Peaks


Scott Surgent proposed a weekend for Mohawk Mountain and Sheep Mountain in southwest Arizona. At low elevation, they are perfect targets for the colder months. Eventually interest spreads, John Klein joining me for two additional prominences beforehand - Castle Dome Peak and Pinta benchmark, highpoint of the Sierra Pinta.

All but Castle Dome are in the juxtaposed Barry Goldwater Bombing Range or Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, so requiring a free permit, acknowledgement of risks, and a four-wheel drive vehicle. Risks are many, particularly in the summer when soaring temperatures make venturing there foolhardy.

The trip's personal allure is filling gaps in my Arizona 2,000+ foot prominence completion map. Indeed, the journey is worth my effort and expense because all four mountains are on that list - and, of course, this is not coincidence.

Mohawk vista
View east from the 2,570 foot saddle on Mohawk Mountain. (P)

Trip Details

Wednesday, December 7 - to Arizona

Descending into the desert on Interstate 8 there are numerous helicopters effecting improvements and/or repairs to transmission line towers. It's impressive to see a multiton hunk of metal hanging from a rope underneath a giant 'whirlibird', and wish a camera were available.

The trailhead for Castle Dome Peak is now slightly moved from that posted in John Hamann's web page at To get there proceed as follows, noting that one ATM ("Adam Truck Mile") is 1.01 normal, statute miles.

Take Exit-12 on Interstate 8 on the eastern side of Yuma, Arizona and drive north 2 miles along Fortuna Road to a Y-junction with US Route 95. Turn right (east) onto Route 95 and drive 20.8 ATM to the turnoff for Castle Dome Road, making a shallow angle with the highway.

Zero odometer. As of December 2011 the first 1.8 miles is paved, leading to a restricted facility via a right turn at pavement's end. Continue straight, passing buildings at 9.0 ATM before the road worsens, you drive slower and bend north.

At 13.5 ATM park here in the obvious cleared area at a counterclockwise road bend from temporarily east to north, coordinates (33.09852° N, 114.17536° W) and (GPS-measured) elevation 1,681 feet. Signage indicates no vehicles beyond this point.

My supper features butternut squash pasta with a gouda cheese sauce, and is enjoyed just around sunset with a nearly full moon peaking above the range.

I read National Geographic until just before 9 p.m., and turn-in mere minutes prior to John Klein's arrival from Tucson. We've agreed to a 7 a.m. start.

Thursday, December 8 - Castle Dome Peak

Thinking it would be freezing (Yuma was forecast 38° F at lower elevation) I am surprised at the mild temperatures. Still, I had planned on hot milk with granola cereal - and, even though it must be no less than 45 degrees, it feels nice indeed to have warm food now.

Follow Scott Surgent's directions for the hike/climb.

Adam at arch
Adam under an arch somewhere
on the Castle Dome ascent. (J)

Beyond the critical 3,070 foot saddle our goal is immediate and obvious southwest, 700 feet above. Note the imposing gendarme (vertically-oriented rock pinnacle) about 300 feet upslope. Reaching its base is not tricky - simply ascend (Class 2) and trend right (north). Bypass an 8 foot rock wall by traversing to the right along its base.

To get around the gendarme follow Scott's route. The Class 4 section he notes is quite doable, and does not merit that rating - especially as the rock is solid throughout.

Shortly thereafter encounter the grotto / overhang he notes. Traverse left here, and "break out" into more open terrain leading directly uphill. Note your position here for the descent.

Ascend Class 2 terrain for 100 or 150 feet and turn right, traversing through a small notch with a cairn on the other side. Now head upslope to the summit ridge, turning right when you arrive there bound for the true top along nearly level terrain.

I enjoy a chopped liver sandwich on rye bread, together with ketchup and onion slices. It's a classic combination you'd generally expect in a New York delicatessen.

Our round trip takes 5 1/4 hours, returning in the noon hour.

Pinta Range
The Pinta Range at sunset. (J)

We completely fill tanks in Tacna at Exit-42 and head into No Man's Land for our next goal by taking the unmarked dirt road at logical mile marker 48.1, accessible only from the eastbound lanes.

Zeroing my odometer here, we pass through the Goldwater Bombing Range and enter the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness at 23.7 ATM. Here the road becomes quite sandy, and it lasts about 4 miles until improvement for the final 4 or 5 miles leading to our trailhead for Pinta benchmark.

I note 32.3 ATM at our carpark alongside the emergency help station, complete with an (estimated) 50 foot tower with blinking light and bilingual signage that truly speaks to the remoteness of this location. From the interstate it took 75 minutes - but plan on 1 1/2 hours.

I have a "buffalo chicken" rice dish flavored with cheddar cheese and spices. I add 5 pieces of marinated chicken wings prepared in the same style ... and the combination is superbly flavorful - especially with some added parmesan cheese. John likes to have a submarine sandwich, eating it in the driver seat. Feeling sorry that he has no hot food I give him a sampling of the rice / chicken combo.

We agree to a 6 a.m. start, fully 1 1/2 hours before sunrise because it will be a long day.

aviso! warning!
Summer heat can be fatal given the
remoteness and absence of any water. (J)
Friday, December 9 - Pinta Benchmark

Such a shame not allowing ourselves to drive a perfectly good track ending at the very base of our climbing route. It's illegal here, of course, as the area is designated 'Wilderness'. Remarkably, that means even bicycles are not allowed! I think that's going too far...

Anyhow, it's cold this morning, and the hot milk for my cereal is now greatly appreciated. John even warms his fingers, using the stove flame as "free heat". I estimate the low 30s.

With the setting moon at our backs we set out on our 8 mile trek to benchmark "Guzzler" along the road. At 4.02 air miles from our cars the road bends south, temporarily going in the wrong direction given our immediate goal. So here we head cross-country, saving perhaps one mile of walking in either direction.

To reach the desired canyon entrance head on a bearing of 97° true from this point, passing just right (south) of the ridge forming the canyon's north side. From this entrance we walk the obvious road about 1/4 mile to a small weather station just left (north) of the road and rest. I cache 1 1/2 quarts of water. This station is perhaps 300 feet west of the topographic chart's "Guzzler".

We follow the page for Sierra Pinta. Looking up from the desert floor while just east of Guzzler, you want to ascend the rightmost gully, specifically, the one containing this 1,400 foot contour at (32.26585° N, 113.55181° W). This gully lies to the right of that gully containing "Heart Tank" on the topo chart.

You ascend this gully east-southeast clear to the summit ridge. About 300 feet below the ridge is an obvious rock rib dividing the gully. Going to the right (south) of this rib brings one to the summit ridge immediately (less than 100 yards) right of the highest ground - whence hike left and "up" the final 75 vertical feet. Going to the left (north) of this rib leads to the summit ridge directly under your goal.

Should you elect to climb left of the above rock rib, reach the ridge immediately at the rib's base - not even 100 yards to its left.

This is a rock and boulder-filled route, and how efficiently it's traveled determines whether the overall effort consumes 9 hours - or 13 hours. Do not expect to trail-run it - the terrain features limit your rate of travel.

Once on-top the sense of remoteness is staggering. The stark beauty and vastness of the desert is impossible to comprehend with pictures. You absolutely must BE THERE to understand.

We enjoy pastrami sandwiches on rye bread with mustard.

The descent is tedious yet uneventful. Back at the weather station around 1:10 p.m., I retrieve the cache and we embark on the thankless horizontal hike after a quarter hour, aiming for the cited road bend in what the GPS unit indicates as 2.95 air miles distant.

We return at 4 p.m. ten hours after leaving. We estimate 8 miles one-way from the trailhead to the gulley's base, so making for an 18 mile day.

Finishing the day's fourth big red apple, I drive north to park near a key junction at (32.69399° N, 113.84988° W) 1.0 mile south of Interstate-8 where we've agreed to meet Scott Surgent and his friend Scott Peavy in the morning.

For supper I have fettuccini noodles with a can of tuna fish and added mushrooms from a pint can.

bombing range entrance WARNING!
We enter the Goldwater Bombing Range
for our Mohawk Mountain ascent. (P)
Unexploded ordnance is present. (P)

Saturday, December 10 - Mohawk Mountain Scott Surgent's Mohawk Mountain report

The Mohawk Mountain ascent canyon
is largely shaded by afternoon. (S)

Scott Surgent has returned for revenge, having turned-back at a location described below. Thereby he knows the approach drive and leads our three vehicle convoy wonderfully close to the desired canyon entrance at (32.59748° N, 113.66610° W). Our carpark is fully 1.5 miles beyond the trailhead cited by Dennis Poulin, and is 16.3 ATM from the interstate.

Sadly, Dennis P. and friends ascended the wrong canyon, having been mislead by an ill-recommendation at to ascend this canyon. Learning from their errors, Dennis et al... at least descended the correct canyon, namely, the southern of two options.

(After this journey, Scott Surgent assumed control of the Mohawk Mountain page, and corrected the errors, in particular by recommending the southern of two gulleys be employed.)
Adam and Peavy
Adam (facing camera) and Scott Peavy
below the upper saddle on Mohawk. (S)

I have gone without breakfast, being uncertain if folks wish to eat at the trailhead. Normally that's OK at home - but it certainly helps after hiking and climbing ten hours the previous day. I hurriedly have scrumptious cappuccino babka, a chocolate loaf cake with an east European Jewish tradition. Others sample it, and are 'hooked' as well.

About 900 feet above the canyon mouth one chooses between a series of dry waterfalls on the left (north); or a steep and very loose scree slope on the right (south). Here is where Scott Surgent turned around - but not this time! - and I am determined nearly as much as he to see him push through this mental barrier. We ascend the scree and continue on less 'iffy' terrain clear to a most important saddle at (32.59173° N, 113.65056° W) and 2,250 feet elevation. The final 200 vertical feet prior to this saddle is again steep and loose.

Cholla is a serious threat
along the Mohawk Mountain route. (P)

We examine the terrain, noting our goal as the highest of several bumps on the skyline ridge. It makes no sense at all heading upslope from this saddle, left (north), with the intention of climbing up and over every bump in clockwise fashion.

Note the rock rib 100 yards directly ahead. We sidehill-contour, descending at a shallow angle to just under its base. Then we descend no more than 50 additional feet to the base of several gulleys leading to their respective ridgeline saddles.

We then ascend for roughly 400 vertical feet that gully leading to the 2,570 foot saddle at (32.59087° N, 113.64737° W) immediately left (north) of Mohawk Mountain. Here we take another break, especially as Scott Surgent's pack main compartment zipper has suddenly broken. So I carry his cord, harness, rock protection, water and snack food to the top, having by far the largest capacity daypack.

summit ridge
Mohawk Mountain summit ridge
from the 2,570 foot saddle. (P)

We stay either on the ridge or to its right (west), picking the route wisely. There is some Class 3. For the final 20 or 30 vertical feet transfer to the left (east) side, and squeeze-by a palo verde bush in an ascending traverse to the flat summit area. Walk a few dozen yards to the highest rocks with summit register and nearby communications gear which most surely must have been airlifted.

The fontina cheese is very creamy, more suited as a dessert with fruit instead of rye bread.

Mohawk Mountain benchmark (P)

After a leisurely summit siesta we carefully retrace our route clear to our vehicles after leaving them 6 1/2 hours earlier.

Our next day's goal is west, yet, as noted only the eastbound lanes of I-8 access the dirt road. So we drive east - but only for two miles, making a turn (intended for official use?) near mile marker 50 to head in the correct direction. We aim for Wellton at Exit-30 and eventually meet again after separating because I refuse to drive faster than 70 m.p.h. regardless of the legal speed limit.

I get a "Yohoo" chocolate drink plus this nearly tasteless doughnut that's all dough apart from a minimal amount of raspberry jelly filling. Poor choice.

This time I lead the convoy to our next trailhead. The following instructions supercede those posted at as quite frankly superior.

View down-canyon
at Sheep Mountain. (S)

From the interstate drive north into Wellton, noting a Circle K gasoline station where you turn left (west) onto Old Los Angeles Highway after about one mile. Drive 4.0 miles and turn left (south) at Avenue 25E. Drive 0.7 mile to pass under the freeway, and then another 0.9 mile to pass over an east-west canal. Here the road (as of December 2011) bends east, then south, then west over 0.4 mile, thence 0.8 mile due south (1.2 miles from the canal-crossing) to this junction at (32.61986° N, 114.21116° W) with a 402 foot spot elevation.

Note the Barry Goldwater Range signage and turn west, driving 0.6 mile to locate a second junction at (32.62130° N, 114.22078° W) with a minor road to the left that heads slightly west of due south. Take this road, one signed with a wooden post labeled "4". From here it's 4.6 miles to our carpark near a junction with coordinates (32.55646° N, 114.23922° W) at 786 foot elevation about 1/4-mile north of the road's actual terminus. (Beyond this point the road gets seriously sketchy.) Allow 30-45 minutes from town to this spot 12.0 ATM from the cited Circle K.

We arrive after 5 p.m. with some useful remaining daylight. Scott Kelley and his wife Tanya are already there, and so tomorrow among six people there will be no less than three "Scott"s climbing Sheep Mountain. Confusing? You bet!

A big, beautiful full moon rises, orange from the atmosphere and then silvery-white as it gains elevation.

I enjoy gnocchi with a gouda cheese sauce for supper, plus a bit of that wonderful peppery pastrami inside; a big carrot (as with all other nights), and some babka with milk once inside my sleeping bag. We agree to a 7 a.m. start one half hour before sunrise.

water tanks rock slabs summit near!
Trio of water tanks along
the Sheep Mountain route. (P)
Rock slabs along the
northeast-trending ridge
at Sheep Mountain. (P)
Sheep Mountain summit
from northeast ridge. (P)

Saturday, December 11 - Sheep Mountain Scott Surgent's Sheep Mountain report

Large-scale navigation is facile for this one. After walking the road south 1/4 mile we ascend the obvious canyon from road's end at (32.55311° N, 114.23968° W) to a saddle at (32.53315° N, 114.24029° W). The GPS-measured saddle elevation is 2,307 feet, so comprising a 1,500 foot rise from road's end.

chute descent
Descending a 20 foot rock chute
at Sheep Mountain's subpeak. (P)

However there is a deep vertical pit at (32.55292° N, 114.23978° W) of elliptical cross-section, roughly 12 feet by 8 feet, and of unknown depth, only 100 feet south of the road's end. Accidentally walking into this mine shaft at night would be fatal.

There are three impressive water tanks along the canyon-ascent, about 600 feet under the cited saddle. I obtain GPS-measured (32.53715° N, 114.24184° W).

Beyond the saddle is a 700 foot elevation gain northeast on a steep ridge followed by a far less vertiginous slope southeast to the summit. The author provided no details of these sections.

(As with Mohawk Mountain, Scott Surgent assumed control of the Sheep Mountain page, providing ample route detail that was originally lacking.)

Go Girl!
Tanya Kelley ascending to
the subpeak after our summit. (K)

The route is a combination of Class 2 and Class 3, although by remaining on the exact ridge one can easily make this a Class 5 ascent. Navigation is not obvious, as one must weave left of, right of, or follow the ridgeline depending on one's skill and confidence level.

Now for details. The first roughly 150 vertical feet pose no navigational questions. Thereafter the first of several pinnacles blocks progress on the ridge proper. I recommend veering right (south) here, thence regaining the ridge until the next serious pinnacle some 500 feet above the saddle. To avoid it veer left (north) of the ridge, and ascend Class 2 rock with some moderately-angled slabs, until one regains the ridge above the pinnacle boulders.

Scott Surgent
Scott Surgent at the
summit area. Note the
benchmark inset. (S)

Remain on the ridge for the remaining 100 vertical feet until reaching an obvious subpeak which defines an apex in the ridge system from which travel is downhill in three directions: to the saddle (don't give up!); northeast (do not get lost!); and south to the summit (a logical choice).

To continue you must descend either one of two steep rock chutes, each about 20 feet tall (see photograph). Choose your poison and make progress, possibly by facing inwards and downclimbing. From the small saddle you now stand upon, continue south on the ridgeline, weaving in-and-out of the boulders as needed. Generally when the ridge must be temporarily abandoned you will go right (west) rather than left (east). Regardless, this tedious section is over soon enough, you ascend the final 50 or 100 feet (easy), and the summit is yours to enjoy.

Tanya and Scott K.
Tanya and Scott Kelley
at the summit area. (K)

John Klein has superlative rock skills and gets there 30 minutes before myself and an hour before the others. I suspect that Scott Kelley would have taken much less time yet was compelled to assist Tanya with advice and encouragement. What matters is that everybody reached the top.

John descends after I arrive, citing work obligations, giving me a liter of red Gatorade because I suspect that my own 3 liter supply may not suffice - in turn because we had all underestimated the level of effort - in turn because of inadequate route information.

Sheep Mountain benchmark (P)

It's 11 a.m. by the time everybody summits. Shortly after I enjoy another pastrami sandwich on rye bread, this time with creamy "Caesar" salad dressing instead of French's mustard. We all sign the summit register, myself with "441 P2Ks worldwide (212)".

Descent is slow and methodical. Scott Surgent is elated on returning to the saddle - the remaining effort being a merely an exercise in rock-hopping without bashing a knee; or, heaven forbid, getting seriously stuck by a cholla cactus or similarly devilish succulent.

We return around 3:10 p.m. eight hours after leaving camp. Scott Kelley has his second beer of the day, it being his habit to enjoy one post-climb and on the top! He does not, however, enjoy one beforehand at breakfast. Thank goodness.

We caravan back to Wellton. I get a smoky sausage with hot dog bun and a chile verde pork taquito. Then Scott Surgent treats me to a Starbuck's mocha drink which I have while driving home with a Whatcha-ma-callit candy bar - reward for remaining right behind him the entire time on Mohawk. He and the other two "Scott"s plan to eat in Gila Bend in the Space Age Café before returning to their respective homes.

I drive west, of course, and arrive home at 6:56 p.m. Pacific Time some 3 1/2 hours after leaving Wellton.

traverse vista aftermath
Adam (red pack) and Scott Surgent
negotiate the level summit ridge. (P)
An interesting perspective (K)
These trousers are now retired! (S)


There was a large measure of monotony in these four climbs. To wit, The weather cooperates perfectly - and our trip was fortuitously timed: the very next day, Monday, it rains in San Diego - and the storm system will doubtless head east soon enough.

I am disturbed by the lack of detail in certain descriptions. In one case the route's level of effort was underestimated (Sheep Mountain) as a result; in another case the suggested route is simply not the preferred path (Mohawk Mountain); and in a final case the route described will risk one's summit chances by getting cliffed-out (Pinta benchmark). In all cases I have attempted here to correct these errors.

I thank everybody for their attendance - each person made a valuable contribution to the overall experience. Still, the star attraction remains the desert and its mountain chains.

My pickup truck's odometer read "144,919" on trip commencement; and "145,575" on conclusion - a total of 656 "Adam truck miles" which, as noted, appear to be roughly one-hundredth larger than normal, statute miles. The coincidence with my 6:56 p.m. arrival is hereby noted.

Sheep vista
Desert vista from high on Sheep Mountain. (S)