This is a very magical view of Charleston Peak during a dusting of snow in mid-October. The conditions were just right to coat every pine needle of every bristlecone pine tree with an intricate glistening layer of snow and ice:
It may be rare that these exact conditions could be repeated. So the ice crystal photos taken today (see the video and slide show on this page) may be unique.
This adventure begins at the Trail Canyon Trailhead and ends at the South Climb Trailhead: One car parked at each trailhead saving a mile on foot between trailheads at the beginning or end of the adventure. In the past I have used just one car as I normally do solo wilderness adventures, but it was nice for a change to do the Charleston loop trail without this additional mile, thanks to my adventure partner Kelly on this day!
Driving to the trailhead at Trail Canyon is pretty easy, up I-95 North from Las Vegas, take a left at the Kyle Canyon exit, continue about 20 miles up Kyle Canyon to Mt. Charleston Village, pass a fire station continuing straight where the road bends to the left. You’ll arrive at a parking area (same parking used for Mary Jane Falls). In all, it’s less than 40 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
After passing through Charleston Village, pass a fire station, the road will bend to the left, crossing a short bridge and then heading up about a half mile where you will take the first right after passing some cabins, then on up to the South Loop Trailhead parking lot (which is also the parking lot for Cathedral Rock). By the way, in this parking lot are the best restrooms of all the Mt. Charleston area trailhead parking lots with actual flush toilets and sinks with running water.
Temperature: On this day the temperature in the Las Vegas Valley was predicted to be a high of 74 degrees. We started at about 35 degrees. As we ascended the temperature in the Valley also rose, but with the altitude differential (about 5 degrees loss per 1,000ft X 4134ft elevation gain to Charleston Peak) we still ended up losing a few degrees until it was about 20-25 degrees at the summit. This made for an average temperature of a less than 30 degrees on the trail all the way to the summit.
As we approached the first summit, Lee Peak, elevation 11,289ft, the clouds that were shrouding Charleston Peak began to grow in density and total area covered until everything on the North Loop was under cloud cover with ice crystals falling and collecting all surfaces – trails and trees. Visibility on Lee Peak was about 1-200ft. The cloud cover only began to lift during the final 1.5-mile ascent to Charleston Peak.
Trail Canyon Trailhead to the Upper North Loop Trail: Beginning at the Trail Canyon Trailhead, ascend 2 miles to its junction with the North Loop Trail. Take a left on the North Loop Trail and continue to ascend past Cave Springs (the hollow log filled with water piped from Cave Springs just above) and the base of Mummy Mountain, then on up to where the trail levels off a bit and Charleston Peak comes into view. I refer to this as the upper North Loop Trail area. Continue to parallel Kyle Canyon. You’re just below the North Ridge of Kyle Canyon at this point and could take a sharp right about 100ft to the top of the hill on your right and look down into Lee Canyon. Along this section of the upper North Loop Trail there are a number of great camping spots for those who want to make the Charleston Summit trip a 2-day experience.
Detour to Lee Peak Summit: In about 1/2 – 3/4 miles after this relatively level stretch of trail there will be a series of steep switchbacks. You are actually ascending Lee Peak. About 500ft from the summit of the switchbacks, there is a viewing plateau at the point the North Loop Trail begins to circle around the end of Kyle Canyon. You are actually about 1/8th mile from the summit of Lee Peak. At this view point take a sharp right off-trail and head up to the summit of Lee Peak. Then, from the summit of Lee Peak angle down back to a point a little further along the North Loop Trail (another 1/8th mile). On this day this stretch became shrouded in clouds and around the Lee Peak summit detour the ice crystals began to fall and eventually fill the air and coat everything.
Ascent to Charleston Peak: As the North Loop Trail continues to circle around to end of Kyle Canyon toward the base of Charleston Peak the bristlecone pines become truly majestic and beautiful, twisted into thousands of unique amazing shapes, like a forest of giant artistic bonsai plants. The trail also narrows with sudden sharp huge cliff drop-offs to the left. This can be treacherous in icy or heavy snow conditions. On this day there was a 1/4 – 1/2 inch of newly fallen fine ice crystals which created a surface with fair traction. The clouds began to lift gradually revealing the wonder of the snowfall that had just occurred.
The final one-mile ascent up to Charleston Peak summit is less treacherous with a more gradual drop-off (more gradual than the former cliffs) along the outer edge of the trail as it switches back and forth to the Charleston Peak summit. By the time we reached Charleston Peak summit the clouds had completely lifted.
Descent from Charleston Peak to the Burn Area: From Charleston Peak Summit, begin descending, staying more to the edge of the South ridge of Kyle Canyon vs. taking the main South Loop trail. Why? This stretch offers a much better view than the South Loop Trail below while avoiding a large descent and re-ascent. In addition, the hard rock basalt surface is much firmer and easier to navigate. You’ll reach the 1955 CIA C-54 Military Air Transport Service plane crash site, then continue along the top of the Kyle Canyon South ridge until you see a trail angling off to the right to connect with the South Loop Trail just a few feet below it’s high saddle and the beginning of the burn area.
Through the Burn Area to the Griffith Peak Trail Junction: Now, with Griffith Peak in view ahead, you’ll descend through the 2013 burn area where an entire ancient bristlecone pine forest was destroyed by fire. The charred hulks of the ancient trees have a beauty of their own, but imagine what was lost in that burn, not to be fully restored in the next thousand years! Full restoration is at least 2-3 thousand years off. During this stretch on this day we could hear the snow melting and snow and ice falling from the trees. The magical ice crystal coating was rapidly disappearing.
The trail descends to a low point in about 2 miles, then ascends another mile or so to the Griffith Peak Trail Junction. After so much descent the brief 1-mile incline feels like climbing Mt. Everest!
Griffith Peak Trail Junction to the South Climb Trailhead: The South Loop Trail now rapidly descends through a series of fairly steep switchbacks to the canyon base about 3 miles ahead. This section of trail offers 4 amazing viewpoints along the way. The forest gradually changes from Bristlecone Pine to Pinyon Pine below the final viewpoint and steeper switchback descent to cross the base of the canyon before continuing down a steep flight of huge steps to the final mile which begins at the base of the steps. The trees quickly change to Ash, which become a brilliant yellow, then orange in the Fall. The final mile continues along the canyon and through the Ash forest to the South Climb/Cathedral Rock Trailhead parking area.