Mount Charleston (officially called Charleston Peak) is the highest point in southern Nevada: it’s conveniently located just over an hour out of Las Vegas. And equally conveniently, I’m here in June for a conference with a few spare days for a hike… Located in the Mount Charleston Wilderness (which is within the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area), Charleston Peak is the most topographically prominent peak in Nevada and the eighth-most-prominent peak in the “Lower 48 states”. The photo below shows the snow-capped Mt Charleston, behind Red Rock Canyon.
Reaching the Charleston Peak summit via the South Loop is the “easiest” route, but it’s still a long and steep ascent to the summit (alternative routes being the longer North Loop, or a shorter but off-track route via Big Falls). I’m staying at the Mt Charleston Cabins after doing a couple of walks in Zion National Park on the previous day, so I can get an early start. The well-marked trailhead for the South Loop is at the Cathedral Rocks Picnic Area.
After a couple of kilometres, the trail starts climbing steeply up a ridge, with frequent switch-backs. There are views of Mummy Mountain in the distance – the second-highest peak in the area.
After 6.3km (3.9 miles) there’s a junction with a trail up to Griffith Peak (a side-trip which adds about 800m or 0.5 miles). The Charleston Peak track swings to the north-west and follows a long ridge-line. The good news is the next section is relatively flat! Charleston Peak is now visible in the distance – it’s the grey pointy summit devoid of trees!
Not long after the Griffith Peak trail is one of the nicest sections of the hike; The Meadows. The trail is flat for a while as it crosses this grassy area, apparently a popular spot for camping (but no water available).
There are view of Mummy Mountain again, before the trail enters a grove of bristlecone pines.
There are three species of bristlecone pine, all of which are long-lived and highly resilient to harsh weather and bad soils. The Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) which grows in Nevada (as well as Utah and eastern California) is the longest-lived species. The oldest living trees is over 4,800 years old. Due to the climate in which these trees exist (cold temperatures with dry soils and high winds) they grow very slowly, and as a result they are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
From the end of The Meadows there are views down Kyle Canyon and Kyle Canyon Road (Route 157) and Mount Charleston village.
Now the fun starts…! Charleston Peak is directly ahead, and there’s no shade the rest of the way. While it’s fairly cool even in June at this elevation, walking in full sun keeps you fairly warm. (The track splits not far from the peak – the track to the left is less steep.)
The last half a mile or so is a bit steeper again, with the track climbing though loose scree. Just below the summit (I don’t make the detour) is the wreckage of a C-54 military transport plane that crashed int the mountain on 17 November 1955m killing 14 men.
There’s a weather station on the large summit area, a logbook and a small pit that forms a rudimentary wind shelter. You wouldn’t want to try and camp on the summit.
As you’d expect being over 3,500m above sea level, there are sweeping views for a long way, in every direction. To the north east is Mummy Mountain, and to the right (directly east) is Kyle Canyon, the town of Mt Charleston and the end of Route 157. On a clear day you can see Mount Whitney and the Sierras and Death Valley’s Telescope Peak to the west.
It’s back the same way after a brief stop at the top, with the benefit I can enjoy the views a lot more going downhill!
It’s taken me about four hours up to Charleston Peak, but only 2.5 hours to get back down… although it’s a fairly long trail, it’s also relatively easy walking. Like most trails in the US, there seems to be a rule that trails must not exceed a certain grade, and the use of switch-backs means you can always maintain a fairly good pace. A few years later, I’m back to hike Mummy Mountain – a much harder walk that takes almost as long to hike, despite being about half the distance.
Charleston Peak via the North Loop
You could also return via the North Loop to form a circuit; it would be about the same length, but with a 1.4 mile walk along the road back to the car. I did attempt the hike to Charleston Peak the following year via the North Loop, but this time in March. Despite being prepared for colder conditions, I reached a steep snow-filled side gully that I had to cross, which I just didn’t feel comfortable traversing. A small slip would have meant tumbing a fair distance downhill, and I still had a few miles to go before I reached the summit.
When to hike Mount Charleston
The Cathedral Rock trailhead is closed over the winter months, with the hiking season for the South Loop being May to November. Due to the elevation, even in the middle of summer it will be warm, but not too hot for this hike. You can attempt to reach Charleston Peak via the North Loop, but from December to March you may find it impassable, due to snow.
Accommodation near Mount Charleston
While you can reach the Charleston Peak trailhead from Las Vegas in under an hour, I’ve always stayed at the Mt Charleston Lodge, which has private cabins and an on-site restaurant. It make it easy to get an early start – and feels like a world away from Las Vegas!
- Interactive CalTopo topographical map
- Go Mount Charleston – Mount Charleston National Recreation Area Trail / South Loop
- Branch Whitney, Hiking Las Vegas (p.304)
- Backpacker.com – Mount Charleston
- Joe Idoni blog – Charleston Peak C-54M 5/23/09 – details of plane crash site