Mount Wilson, Red Rocks, Spring Mountains


By: Bob Michael


Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort.-Loren Eisely, The Immense Journey Everyone who spends time in wild country must surely have had at least one of these transcendent experiences where the extravagant beauty of a place so overloads your senses that you actually enter an altered state of consciousness. I've had several of these epiphanies; in Williamson Bowl below Mt. Tyndall; hip-deep in flowers in Lead King Basin below Snowmass Mountain, Colorado; Senita Basin in Organ Pipe at twilight. "Vegas George" Quinn and I shared our most recent drugless fri on the indescribably spectacular summit of Mount Wilson, one of the great peaks of the American West and an absolute MUST for the DPS List. A route which finishes across great welcoming billows of orange-tan sandstone slickrock (a la Guardian Angels) ends up atop a knob perched on the verge of a great Yosemite wall of sandstone with a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet. Add in some of the world's most extraordinary structural geology, and you have one of the peaks of a lifetime.

Mount Wilson, highest point of the Red Rocks cliffs southwest of Las Vegas, is rather like El Capitan; the back side is a hike, the front side a big wall. (I assume my readers are more inclined to the hike ascent.) To reach the roadhead, turn east from I-IS in south Las Vegas onto Nevada Highway 160 to Pahrump. About three miles west of the pass at Mountain Springs, watch on the right for the paved Lovell Canyon Road which heads north. Three miles from 160, a fair dirt road (2WD high clearance, not suitable for cars) turns off to the NE; there was a cairn at this junction in April '96. The road ends in Pinyon forest in a wash at a barrier erected by the BLM to mark a Wilderness Study Area boundary (El. 5790'). From here, the route heads generally northeast up narrowing and sometimes brushy washes and gullies in pleasant but very nondescript Pinyon-juniper country; finally, the brushiness of the narrowing gullies forces you onto a ridge. The goal is point 6968' (2124 m) on the Spring Mountain crest. This little point by itself gives one of the great vistas of the West,; here, the whole panorama of the back and top sides of the Red Rocks cliffs, gouged into a mighty brotherhood of peaks by plunging precipitous canyons, explodes onto your eyeballs. Directly ahead is the broad Ponderosa-dotted tawny back of Wilson. (From here the slickrock looks third class; it isn't.)

At the range crest, you are in gray limestone. Although the limestone is about 150 million years older than the sandstone of Red Rocks to the east, the limestone is unmistakably on top of the sandstone. This doesn't quite compute. The razor-sharp line of demarcation which can be plainly seen below you to the north and south between gray on top and orange-tan on the bottom is the exposed plane of the Keystone Thrust, an incredible megastructure which is unmistakable evidence of great crustal shortening. This structure dates from the time of the creation of the Rocky Mountains, when the entire Southwest underwent enormous compression from the west; the limestone came from somewhere to the west and was pushed over the top of the sandstone. We are talking here of many cubic miles of rock essentially, a whole mountain range - being torn from its roots and being shoved as a coherent unit miles to the east until it rode up and over the back of the sandstone mountains. Geologists can only speculate in awe as to the actual mechanisms by which something so seemingly impossible can happen, or the actual amount of horizontal travel along the plane of the thrust. This seems to me a much more fantastic structure than the strike-slip (San Andreas-type) faults typical of California, which are two crustal masses just moving past each other. Much later, block-faulting and uplift which created the current Basin and Range topography thrust a big chunk of the Keystone Thrust skyward at present-day Red Rocks, and erosion has "unroofed" the structure making it plainly visible to our wondering eyes.

Immediately below Point 6968' is the one nasty part of this route, a very steep and unpleasant traversing descent down treacherous, loose limestone rubble down the east face of the divide. It is impossible to follow the cliffed ridgeline east from Point 6968'; the only doable route descends to the north of the point. It is important to lose a lot of altitude fast and then traverse over to the flat part of the ridge at about 6,400'; any attempt to traverse higher will end up in dangerous rotten cliffs. And, as bad as this stretch is going down, it's worse coming back up.

Once safely on the west ridge of Wilson, the rest of the trip is pure ecstasy. At a little dip in the ridge, one crosses the plane of the Keystone Thrust; it is easy to straddle this tremendous discontinuity, along which a whole mountain range trundled, with one foot in gray soil and one foot in light tan soil. The sandstone is badly shattered near the fault plane, but as you proceed west along the ridge, huge friendly rolling sandstone billows take form and welcome you onto their enchanted, sundrenched spaces. If it looks like southern Utah, there's a good reason; geologists believe the Aztec Sandstone that reaches its greatest thickness at Mt. Wilson is equivalent to the Navajo Sandstone, the cliff-forming unit at Zion and in touch of southern Utah far to the northeast. Was there once a great blanket of Aztec-Navajo over the whole area? If so, what happened to all the rest of it? Again, geologists don't really have a clue, although in between Red Rocks and Zion there are areas of Aztec Sandstone that make up the Valley of Fire, as well as part of the Muddy Mountains. (The latter is another one of these "rootless" limestone ranges that have been torn loose and shoved horizontally over the Aztec.)

The route goes quite easily over the slickrock to the little summit knob, where half a mile of rock simply ceases to exist right in front of your eyes; the view down to the desert floor is very much like looking down from an airplane. To the north and south, great parapets and fortresses of naked multicolored rock soar across unimaginably deep canyons. I would rank this peak among the top 5 of the DPS list (right up there with Picacho del Diablo) in terms of the sheer exhilaration and wonder of just being there. I was still on a high next day on the long drive home.

I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion.

--The Immense Journey

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