Bonanza Peak elevation is 10,397ft. Though it is just 2000ft above the elevation of the Lower Bristlecone Pine Trailhead where this adventure begins there is an additional 1,700ft descent and re-ascent just before the summit, and before that, the Bonanza trail descends and re-ascends 300ft 2-3 times. So, the total ascent for this adventure is close to 4,500ft and the distance is at least 26 miles.
That said, I’ve never been on a more beautiful trail than the Bonanza Trail. The majestic Bristlecone Pines, artistic rock formations and spectacular views along with the solitude make this trail totally unique. I did not see a single person the entire length of the trail both out and back. The Bonanza Trail is not very well known, and the long distance contributes to its relative obscurity and peacefulness.
Along the trail you will see spectacular views of Mummy Mountain, the North Ridge of Kyle Canyon, Lee Peak and Charleston Peak. Other views include the Sisters, Mack’s Peak, McFarland Peak, Pahrump, Telescope Peak (on a clear day), Gass Peak and the Sheep Range. This day was a bit hazy due to California forest fires, but the views mentioned were relatively clear.
The adventure occurred on the last weekend of September. The challenge is to get a long enough day for this ultra-marathon experience while at the same time avoiding the heat of mid-Summer. Late Spring or early Fall seem to be the best time. There was just enough light to complete the adventure (from the first light of day to nightfall in the evening) and the temperature was ideal. I did run a good portion of the downhills along the way (equaling nearly half the total distance at a run), so walking this in one day between dawn and dusk probably would not work.
There is a shorter route to Bonanza Peak summit from the town of Cold Creek. The approach road to the trailhead is reported to be pretty rough, but the trail distance is less than 1/3rd of the distance I took on this day from Lee Canyon and back. Another option would be to have 2 vehicles and make this a one-way experience. A third option would be to spend the night on the Bonanza Trail. I passed many ideal camp sites.
Take Hwy 95 North from Las Vegas and take a left at the Lee Canyon Road exit (Hwy 156). Travel up Lee Canyon Road to the Lower Bristlecone Pine Trailhead which is near the end of Hwy 156 before the road makes its final ascent to the Ski complex. The trailhead is well marked.
Beginning at the Lower Bristlecone Pine Trailhead, the first 3 miles are along a very well graded fire road, passing through colorful bright yellow Fall Aspen trees (if you’re doing this in late September/early October). The incline is steady and gradual, but by the time you reach the intersection of the Bonanza Trail you have ascended between 500 and 800ft. Along the way, that distinctive sharp peak on your right is South Sister. Save that for another adventure because you have a full day ahead. Looking up and ahead to the right you can see the Bonanza Trail high ridgeline which you will eventually ascend and traverse. To the left are views of Lee Peak, Mummy Mountain with the North ridge of Kyle Canyon stretching between.
Upon reaching the intersection of the Lower and Upper Bristlecone Pine Trails you’ll take a right onto the Bonanza Trail. A sign there says that it’s 13 miles to the Northern Bonanza Trailhead near Cold Creek. Your destination today is Bonanza Peak, about 10 miles distant. The incline increases on the Bonanza Trail as you ascend a number of switchbacks through pine forests, eventually reaching the upper ridgeline of the Bonanza Trail. Along the way views of the Sisters open up. There’s a “Mt. Charleston Wilderness” marker on the upper ridgeline. Over the ridgeline Lee Peak and Charleston Peak are visible. By this point you have ascended about 1,800ft from the Lower Bristlecone Pine trailhead.
This begins what I consider the most beautiful portion of the Bonanza Trail as it passes through Bristlecone Pine groves. Continue upward ascending a series of steps, and finally reaching a small trail branching to your right that leads up to a great camping area on the ridgeline. But if you’re not camping, avoid the right bratch and continue downward, then ascend again through a series of steep switchbacks to the upper ridgeline. Here is where you will begin to see even better views of Lee Peak, Charleston Peak and eventually Macks Peak and McFarland Peak as the trail rises and falls 2-300ft at a time.
As you approach McFarland Peak you’re at the highest point you will reach (about 9,800ft) before summiting Bonanza Peak. This is where the trail begins to descend as you skirt the base of McFarland Peak. Views of Pahrump valley all the way to Telescope Peak are now opening up.
As you round the far side of McFarland Peak the trail sharply descends by switchback to a kind of saddle/ridge. Rounding that ridge the first view of Bonanza Peak comes into view. There is a huge intervening canyon between where you stand and Bonanza Peak. This begins the great downward plunge into the canyon to an altitude only 120ft above your starting altitude at the Lower Bristlecone Pine trailhead! Altitude-wise, it’s like starting all over again, only this time you’ll need to ascend from the base of that canyon all the way to the 10,397ft summit of Bonanza Peak. There’s a lot of solitude on this stretch as most people summiting Bonanza Peak take an out and back from the Cold Creek area and most people beginning on the other end in Lee Canyon via the Bristlecone Pine trail turn around at McFarland Peak.
Upon ascending the series of gradual, steep, long and short switchbacks you will eventually circle around the far side (West) of Bonanza Peak to find a small trail branching off to the right, marked by a cairn. This is logically heading to where the summit must be located. I took this trail on a hunch and it did pass through a stretch of forest to the summit, though at times I wondered whether or not it was indeed the summit trail. It was longer than expected and seemed to be heading away from where the summit should be. However, eventually the trail ended at a high point with the summit box.
From the Bonanza Peak summit, though you’re partially in a forested area, the view does open up to the North, East and South. To the East, in the distance below McFarland Peak, Angel Peak, Mummy Mt., Lee Peak and Charleston Peak are visible. To the North, the Sheep Range and Gass Peak can be seen. To the South Pahrump Valley, the Panamint Range and Telescope Peak are visible. However, on this day due the haze from the California forest fires all these sights were a bit faint.
Turning around and descending from the summit, it was a bit confusing at first locating the return trail. You don’t want to take the Bonanza Trail in the wrong direction unless you’re heading for Cold Creek. All the way back along the Bonanza Trail and Bristlecone Pine Trail the waning sun is at your back brilliantly and colorfully lighting up everything ahead of you. The entire day the sun is pretty much at your back in both directions on the Bonanza Trail which makes this adventure on of the adventures I have experienced in terms of both lighting and scenery.
The return trip is basically a race against the waning light. You want to get to the wide fire road on the Lower Bristlecone Pine trail before the light goes out! However, if you have a headlamp, you’ll be okay. On this day I reached the Lower Bristlecone Pine trailhead without having to resort to a headlamp. Though, another 10-15 minutes would have put me in total darkness! That last stretch with the South Sister and Mummy Mountain in the golden red glow of sunset was truly magical!