This is not THAT Palen!

22-24 Jan 2010 - by Steve Eckert

Granite Mountain (south)

It had been stormy. It was going to be more stormy. I was here to pick off peaks between the storms, and I had just gotten Chuckwalla and Black Butte on my first day. But then I had a really long drive to the Granite Mtn trailhead near Palen Pass, and I didn't get there until just after dark. (See the trailhead page for driving maps and GPS waypoints.) It was now cloudy, with no distant glow of city lights, and no stars. The rain started around 8pm, with shifting gusty wind and intermittent rain all night.

Around 7am the next day I almost tried for the peak: Only light sprinkles, I thought, but I have a personal rule to not climb into clouds. Especially when I've never seen the peak! Around 11am it seemed to dry out, but I stayed put and waited to see if it was a trick. It was. The downpour started around 1pm and lasted for hours. I had parked on a saddle (waypoint GRNSAD) just in case there was a flash flood, and the closest ravine went from dry to a rushing 2' deep and 5' wide stream. There were sheets of water running through the gravel under my rental Jeep. I felt smug about waiting, about not parking on the alluvial fan where the DPS trailhead is, and about bringing a good book.

After the storm

By 4pm I was out taking cloud pictures and walking around. I discovered that if I walked out on the alluvial fans beyond my saddle there was actually cell service! I checked in and let my family know everything was OK, and settled in for the night.

I left the Jeep at 540am, walking a compass bearing by headlamp. This is not efficient when there are huge stream cuts and boulder fields! The red line on the map and the description below are based on my return route, which was much easier than the line I climbed. (The blue line represents DPS Route B.) From my Jeep, I walked down the road (to GRNRD9) and turned up a smaller track that ended at the Route A trailhead (GRNATH).

30 minutes into my hike it started to rain lightly, but having started I wasn't in the mood to sit out another whole day. I kept walking, hoping it would break before I got into the final canyon. The first gully was easy, the second (GRNA02) was a confluence of two gullies and the easiest way through was right where they join. (I found that on the way out, having stayed too high on the way in.) Stay just left of leftmost gully on the way up, where there is a great ramp with larger rocks on your left (south).

Up-canyon from 1.7k the wash has cliff walls, and it's best to drop into the wash around waypoint GRNA03. I walked in the wash until just past the next fork and then found better footing on the west side of the drainage (GRNA04). I stayed just left (west) of a gully until I went over a shoulder from which my Jeep was still visible and dropped into the main wash at 1.9k (GRNA05).

I took the right fork at 3.3k (waypoint GRNA10) just above some cool baserock, as it turned into fractured brown rock. I followed the gully for a while, except at 3.5k there are two waterfalls which I bypassed on the right (east). The easiest climbing there seemed to be 50-100 feet above the center of the drainage. From 3.4-3.5k it's hard to make the case that this is really class 4 (as per the DPS Guide) unless you deliberately take the hard route. It's easy/fun class 3. I drifted right instead of staying in the drainage, so I came up just east of the summit instead of to the west as the DPS Guide says. It took just over 3 hours to climb, and the summit was still in and out of the clouds, but I found some shelter from the wind and checked in by cell phone.

The round trip took less than 6 hours, including time on top, so I was back to Jeep well before noon. The sun was out at the trailhead, but the peak was once again in the clouds.

See the trailhead page for driving maps and all waypoints.

The fun was definitely not over. On the way out I found the mud deeper and the sand softer. The steep ravines near where I parked had eroded so deeply that I had to shovel rocks and gravel into them to avoid scraping the front and back bumpers of the Jeep. Places I had cruised over on the way in now clutched at the tires and loaded down the engine. Once I was in deep enough to hear the sand rubbing on the undercarriage but had enough speed to keep moving.

The long stretches of streambed heading southeast toward the Arlington Mine were no longer recognizable as a road. Fresh sand had washed from bank to bank, making stream braids indistinguishable from road forks. It's a wide flat valley with no clear main channel, and I was worried about stopping to study the choices, so I ended up zooming in and following the track log on my GPS "at speed".

This used to be a road! (McCoy Mtns in the background)

Palen Mountain

Once back to the Palen Pass Road / Arlington Mine Road intersection (waypoint PALARL) I thought maybe I was home free. Nope. Driving west toward Palen was even worse, because here there were 2-3 foot drops from the roadbed into sand that might be solid or might be mud and there were puddles of standing water several feet deep. As described on the trailhead page, the last big wash to cross before climbing to Palen required rolling 2' pink boulders out of the way and cutting fresh tracks. It took about 2 hours to drive about 18 miles, and based on the obvious movement of large rocks I was glad I hadn't tried to drive here while it was actually raining.

McCoy Mountains are the lump which is so prominent when driving on the Palen Pass Road.

NOTE: The DPS Guide 2WD is now the 4WD trailhead (waypoint PAL4WD) because the road has deteriorated and the old 4WD trailhead (waypoint PALDPS) is now off limits behind a wilderness stake. Be sure to review the trailhead page before following directions below!

The DPS Guide directions for Palen seemed seriously messed up to me. There is a wash at the right bearing, but my GPS said it was the wrong wash. There was a white rock and a "prominent pinnacle", but if that's the pinnacle mentioned in the DPS Guide the angle between these features doesn't match. Maybe the problem is that the buttress up to pinnacle doesn't show at all from the trailhead unless the light is right. Maybe the problem is that the buttress itself LOOKS like a pinnacle from the DPS 4WD trailhead but it's actually not. Maybe the DPS Guide says 2WD when it means 4WD. No matter, I got there mid-afternoon and spent some time cleaning up, getting the route figured out, and taking pictures while the sky cleared.

Palen is on the left, the 'pinnacle' is in the middle

I left the Jeep at 7am, on a perfectly clear day. It was calm and cold, with lots of dew as you'd expect when it cools off after a huge storm. I dutifully walked up to the DPS Guide's 4WD trailhead, finding the road was much better above the wilderness stake than below it! A pile of mining timbers marks the DPS Guide's 4WD parking area. I should have dropped into wash sooner, where the walking was easier, and the line on the map indicates where I think the best route is.

From the trailhead (waypoint PAL4WD at 1.3k), walk up the closed road 0.4 miles (100' of gain) until you see a scraggly Palo Verde tree (waypoint PALBC7). Scramble down to a shelf and continue up-canyon about 0.1 miles to an easy way through the aggregate cliffs down to the main wash (PALBC8). Below PALBC7 the stream drops abruptly away from the road, and it's not good to be in wash. Above PALBC8 walking in the wash is better than going through the former trailhead (PALDPS). The wash is gray gravel with huge pink boulders (no small pink rocks, only huge ones) laying in the wash and embedded in sides, apparently from a higher ancient layer?

Near PALDPS the main wash turns left. To climb Route C, which follows a defect behind the buttress that looks like a pinnacle only from its base where you can't see the whole ridge, I took the smaller wash that goes directly toward the buttress. The wash turns into a white slot canyon, which ends in a headwall on the right, so I climbed out on the left at 1.6k (waypoint PALC01). The rock is white down in the canyon and pink up on the sides: This appears to be the white rock I could see from the trailhead. Palen would be good on a hot day, because you get to climb in a shaded slot all morning!

See the trailhead page for driving maps and all waypoints.

I angled left (northwest) in a less dramatic drainage to get west of the buttress at about 2k (waypoint PALC02). You could follow a rib below this if you didn't want to walk in the wash, but the slot is worth visiting. There is a class 2-3 waterfall with a ledge, and above that the canyon turns right and the boulders get sharper. There is a trail of hard-to-miss pink boulders marking the right drainage, and I'm not sure why that doesn't get more mention in trip reports! I walked into the sun at 830am around 3k.

The map doesn't look the way I remember the climb! The canyon opened into a valley, I was still following pink boulders, and at some point the canyon forked with pink rocks going off to the right of a cleaver. Following the pink rocks didn't look as good, but avoids Cat's Claw and gets you to firmer footing near the saddle (waypoint PALC03). I traversed up to the north ridge of Palen (waypoint PALNOR) about 100 yards from the peak. The summit area is class 2-3, with the easiest climbing on the right (west) side. I traversed below ridge bumps where it got sort of airy, and right at the summit it seemed low class 3 to me (but I didn't spend much time searching for easier route).

I reached the top in under 3 hours, and found a benchmark showing this was originally called Red Top, not Palen. I found a windbreak and enjoyed a nice long rest before starting down in a very cold wind. Always preferring a loop, I dropped west off the summit to descend Route B. This route is really not Class 2 if you stay anywhere near the ridge. I went down a chute and crossed over a notch below a class 3 face. From this notch, the ridge itself looks bad (full of cuts and faces, looks like it may have cliffs). I dropped south onto talus to bypass the upper ridge, then traversed back over to the ridge only to find it was still tough going. Definitely not Class 2. Route B is more properly a face traverse than a ridge route, eh? Below 3.3k you can stay on or near the ridge and it's actually Class 2.

The DPS Guide says to follow the skyline here... I found the red rock is not good footing, but the green is better, and you have to traverse pretty far around to get to the notch I used. Maybe I came down the wrong ridge? The ridge dropping directly south from the summit looked easier, so let me know if you're sure! From the 3k west ridge saddle (waypoint PALWES, with green rocks) I dropped down a bowl that turned into a drainage. Going up this way, you'll want to follow the right drainage fork (waypoint PALB03) but walk on the rib between the two forks for the best footing. Look for a green saddle as you climb.

Route C is more fun to climb, Route B is a good descent route. Even though it's longer, the footing is better and you can walk faster. Around 1.7k there is a giant cairn on the south side of the boulder-strewn drainage, and below that you can find better footing on old road. Around 1.6k (waypoint PALB02) the side slope gets steep and I had to get back in the wash going down. Below that there is a cool little gray slot canyon and bits of road on the south side of the wash. On the way up, PALB01 is where you take the right fork. Below that there are sections of an old mining road, which is more continuous below a couple of 6x6 posts with a steel cable. Going up, after you pass the cable, the road vanishes in the wash but you can stay left and search for that gray baserock section.

I was back to the Jeep about noon, and the drive back to Palen Pass Road was much better after a day of the mud drying in the sun. Back out on Midland Road, several power poles near turnoff to Big Maria had been snapped off by the storm I sat out at Palen Pass!

Big Maria Mountain

After the other two peaks, driving to Big Maria was a walk in the park. There are some steep dips and places the powerline road goes sharply around washouts, but no mud and no sand. I parked 0.2 miles before the DPS trailhead, because this is a GREAT place to start hiking. It avoids driving thru the last nasty wash AND has better footing. Having no cell service on Palen that morning, I took the time to drive south on Midland Road to make some phone calls before heading to Big Maria, and I still had daylight left.

See the trailhead page for driving maps and all waypoints.

I left the Jeep at 630am, just before dawn, following a very nice gravel ramp from my parking spot, avoiding the slow rock hopping up the canyon from the DPS trailhead. Navigation was easy: stay on the ramp, aim for the right side of the canyon, and stay out of the wash! It might be slightly longer than DPS route, but I bet it's faster. As I entered the mouth of the canyon, I stayed up out of the wash on the south side. At BIGM02 I went over a hump rather than following the drainage dogleg, then stayed on the north side of the drainage. On far left side of canyon, beyond all the boulders, against the cliff face, there is a use trail!

As I entered north (left) branch of multiple-gully split, I noticed a landmark detached tower high on the left side (waypoint BIGM03). Above here the terrain looks more slabby (vs. all the boulders below). I switched between right and left sides of wash, never walking in the wash. Around 2k the canyon really narrows and gets brushy, then opens into a big bowl (waypoint BIGM04). It wasn't clear which way to go so I chose a gully that continued in the direction the narrow section had pointed. As soon as the footing to the right looked easy, I drifted up and right onto the rib east of the gully (waypoint BIGM05) because the rib had more solid footing.

I hit the ridge just below 2.6k (waypoint BIGM06) and turned east toward the peak. This is not the DPS Guide route, but I think it's better both because it's shorter and because the footing is more stable. I followed the ridgeline until it got rocky, then bailed off to the north by crossing a sharp ravine (waypoint BIGM07) and traversing to the last saddle (waypoint BIGM08) before the summit (BIGMAM) at 3381'.

I was on top in less than 2 hours. The big surprise is all the farming on the east side - it looks like Kansas but it's really the Colorado River. This was another good peak for a hot morning - I didn't see the sun until I reached summit ridge. I stayed on top almost as long as it took me to get back to the Jeep, then realized there was quite a bit of day left and drove to Sheephole...

Big Maria's Backside

To file a trip report, please fill in the Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.