Charleston Peak via South Loop

Charleston Peak (3,632m / 11,916 feet) is the highest point around Las Vegas and offers great views over southern Nevada. The South Loop is one of a number of routes to the summit.

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.

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Reaching the Mt Charleston 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.

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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!

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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.

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From the end of The Meadows there are views down Kyle Canyon and Kyle Canyon Road (Route 157) and Mount Charleston village.

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Now the fun starts…! Charleston Peak is directly ahead, and there’s no shade for 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.)

Mt Charleston in the distance...

Directly to the west,  you can make out the white salt flats of Death Valley, and behind them the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak.

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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.

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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!

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It’s taken about four hours up 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.

POSTSCRIPT

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.

Location Start / finish at Cathedral Rocks Picnic Area near the end of Kyle Canyon Road (Route 157)
Distance 28km return
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total ascent is 1,300m.
Season/s May-November (trailhead closed in winter)
Map/s Interactive topographical map [AllTrails]
Interactive topographical map [CalTopo]
Download topographical map (A4, 1:30K) [PDF]
Spring Mountains map showing location of all hikes
Resources

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