Mt Wilson, Black Mountains
Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona

Pre-Summit Bluff on Western Approach Ridge

Western Summit Approach Ridge Exploration

Initial Exploration

Overview – Mt. Wilson, Black Mountains, Arizona, Adjacent to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

While Mt. Wilson is not technically within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, it is surrounded by the LMNRA with the Temple Bar area to the East and the Colorado River and Arizona Hot Springs to the West. For this reason I’m including Mt. Wilson in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area section of this site.

Mt. Wilson is a distinctive high point in the Black Mountains and offers incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding wilderness including Lake Mead, Potosi Mountain, the Rainbow Mountains, La Madre Mountains Wilderness, Mt Charleston Wilderness, Gass Peak, the Sheep Range, Frenchman Mountain, Fortification Hill, the Hoover Dam area, and points to the South and to the East I have not yet explored.

The customary approach to Mt. Wilson summit is from the Eastern side of the Black Mountains starting in the Temple Bar area of Lake Mead. I’m exploring a potential Western approach to the summit.

Trailhead Directions – Mt. Wilson, Black Mountains Adjacent to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The adventure begins at the Arizona Hot Springs trailhead on Arizona Highway 93, 4 miles South of the Nevada/Arizona border. Instead of crossing under the highway as you would if headed toward Arizona Hot Springs and Liberty Bell Arch, travel in the opposite direction up Horse Thief Canyon Road, the unpaved road that branches off from the trailhead parking area.

Route Description – Mt. Wilson, Black Mountains, Arizona, Adjacent to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

4th Exploration

This time I ascended the Western Approach Ridge all the way to a few feet shy of the Western Summit Approach Ridge pre-summit bluff where I was stopped by the steep, loose rock cliff area above the avalanche slope. I scoped out a potential summit approach that would circle the right (South) side of the pre-summit bluff. Spectacular views of the Lake Mead area and beyond and a demo of the three main climbing gear pieces I use on avalanche slopes and cliff head walls: Trail running shoes with traction, stability and a gravel guard; knee braces for stability and knee protection while ascending and descending on all fours through tight spots; and light but incredibly strong home-made trekking poles that will not collapse, for additional stability.

3 Learnings:

  1. Potentially circle the right side of the bluff in search of a more gradual ascent route.
  2. Increase my conditioning to marathon level conditioning due to the long approach and necessity for more speed in the approach and descent and more energy and strength in the tricky high points.
  3. Pick a time of year (Later Fall to Early Spring) where temperatures are lower. Temperatures at the trail head today were around 95 degrees. However, days with cooler temperatures also have fewer hours of light for such a long journey.

Round-trip time today was 6 hours up and 3.5 hours for the return equaling 9.5 hours total.

3rd Exploration

See the Horse Thief Canyon Loop page where I navigated the full length of Horse Thief Canyon to its upper end at the base of Mt. Wilson, then ascended the avalanche slope on the right side of the canyon to a high point on the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge and finally descended that ridge back to Horse Thief Canyon, Horse Thief Canyon Road and Hwy 93.

2nd Exploration – Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge

Today I found the dry waterfall bypass route at the end of Horse Thief Canyon Road permitting the ability to continue up Horse Thief Canyon, discovered the beautiful oasis of Horse Thief Canyon Springs and located the main Western ridge leading to the summit of Mt. Wilson.

Circumventing the Dry Waterfall Beyond Horse Thief Canyon Road

At the upper end of Horse Thief Canyon Road, when confronted by the cliff dry waterfall (which a rock climber would have no trouble ascending), instead of attempting to tackle the dry waterfall, take a left up the ridge above the dry waterfall barrier. You’ll soon find a faint trail leading up over that ridge on the left side of Horse Thief Canyon and then back down into upper Horse Thief Canyon above the dry waterfall.

Ascending Horse Thief Canyon, Discovering Two Beautiful Springs

You can then continue to ascend Horse Thief Canyon. There is even a faint trail that appears and disappears leading on upward into the canyon. There are no major barriers for some time. Eventually you will reach Horse Thief Canyon Spring runoff cascading over some rocks. Continue up the canyon to the first spring oasis. There is a marshy area with lush undergrowth and a few large trees. You can hear the sounds of life. Birds singing, insects buzzing. There is a faint trail on the left side of the canyon that circumvents the brush. Continue upward to the second oasis area. The brush is not thicker and there are more large trees and undergrowth creating an even more distinctive life zone.

On this day the brush seemed so thick that the only option was to take a large canyon to the right in order to continue upward toward Mt. Wilson. I ascended this 2nd branch to the right off of Horse Thief Canyon for about 1/8th mile until another branch opened up to the left. At this point it became clear that the ridge between Horse Thief Canyon and the next parallel canyon to the South was the main ridge leading up to the summit of Mt. Wilson. So, instead of heading up the parallel canyon I ascended the ridge between. We’ll call this the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge.

Ascending the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge | Spectacular Views

The avalanche slope leading to the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge is rather steep with lots of loose rock. Tread lightly and try to refrain from putting your full weight on any one boulder. It’s unclear how firm or loose those huge boulders on the avalanche slope are. But it is possible to weave around the rough spots. Just take your time and be careful.

Fortunately, the avalanche slope is only about 3-400ft high and levels off somewhat at the top of the Western approach ridge. You can continue along that ridge all the way to the summit of Mt. Wilson. There are a number of high bluffs along the way to either circumvent (to the right) or boulder over the top. As you ascend the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge, the view begins to open up in a grand way behind you. Lake Mead, Fortification Hill, Frenchman Mountain, Gass Peak, the Mt. Charleston Wilderness, La Madre Mountains Wilderness, Rainbow Mountains and Potosi Mountain all come into view along with the Hoover Dam area and the cliffs along the Colorado River. The view becomes more and more spectacular as you rise up the ridge toward Mt. Wilson.

Navigating Bluffs on the Mt. Wilson Western Summit Approach Ridge

As I mentioned, there are a number of bluffs along the ridge and it seems that as you top one bluff, there is another before you. So it’s not easy to pick out the actual summit of Mt. Wilson. As I began to close in on the summit, it looked as if this was just another bluff. Being at my turn-around point, I headed back down the Mt. Wilson Western Approach Ridge, not realizing that this next bluff was actually the summit of Mt. Wilson, only a few more hundred feet above! When you see Mt. Wilson from the distance it appears to be a sharp peak. What I saw ahead of me was a fairly gradual bluff. Things look different when they are close up!

One subsequent trip in the area which I will call the Horse Thief Canyon Loop, showed that this approach ridge was actually the most direct and gradual Western route to the summit of Mt. Wilson. I’ll return to actually summit Mt. Wilson!

Initial Exploration – Hwy 93 to the Lower Western Ridge System Toward Mt. Wilson, Arizona

Expecting to cycle Horse Thief Canyon Road via mountain bike I soon abandoned the bike due to a combination of deep sand and steady ascent. The road is fairly good for running, so I ran Horse Thief Canyon Road to its upper end in the Western foothills of the Black Mountains. The run up Horse Thief Canyon Road took about 90 minutes.

Horse Thief Canyon Road ends with a 20-30ft dry waterfall barrier, so I headed right looking for the next canyon upward. That canyon also ended with a dry waterfall barrier. Though this barrier was more passible, I went for the 3rd canyon which offered a steady ascent upward. The surface was steep and filled with loose boulders. It was possible to navigate the boulders with little problem up to a canyon rim. On this day I descended East to cross another canyon, then up to the next saddle. I’d attained a high perspective and thought I was looking East to Mt. Wilson. However, I believe that Mt. Wilson will appear over the summit of the next ridge. On this day I turned around at the saddle.

Next trip I will ascend the saddle ridge to the left and circle further up the ridge system on the Eastern side of Mt. Wilson continuing to search out a Western approach to the summit. Alternately, I may seek a way to bypass the dry waterfall at the end of Horse Thief Canyon Rd in order to continue up that canyon.