Sunrise Mountain, like its larger, better known neighbor Frenchman Mountain (immediately to the South across Lake Mead Blvd.), is not technically within the border of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. However, I’m including it in the Lake Mead section because, like Frenchman Mountain, it serves as a gateway to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and offers a grand view of both the Lake Mead region and Nellis AFB below. In addition, you will find a lot more solitude than the more heavily traveled Frenchman Mountain trail. And, in my thinking, the Sunrise Mountain adventure is more rugged, wild, challenging and interesting.
Sunrise Mountain sits in its own beautiful valley to the North of Frenchman Mountain. There are at least 4 interesting and challenging summits on the borders or that valley. Lots to explore…and likely you will have the entire valley with its 5 summits to yourself!
Because Sunrise Mountain is largely unknown to most people, who are either heading for Frenchman Mountain or for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, there are a couple other features that are mistaken for Sunrise Mountain. Some have assumed the first (Northern) false summit of Frenchman Mountain is Sunrise Mountain. Actually both of the double summits on Frenchman Mountain are part of Frenchman Mountain. Alternately, to the North across Lake Mead Blvd. from the Frenchman Mountain trailhead there is a distinctive high ridge with a wide trail at its base. Some, including myself on my initial exploration of the area, think this ridge might be Sunrise Mountain. Wrong again! See the directions below for the true location of Sunrise Mountain.
The best time of day to summit Sunrise Mountain is, as the name says, at sunrise (sunset would also work). The best time of year is between October and May. During the Summer months temperatures in this area easily rise to 120 degrees!
The most direct approach to Sunrise Mountain is from the Frenchman Mountain trailhead on Lake Mead Blvd. To get to the Frenchman Mountain trailhead, travel up Lake Mead Blvd. East from Las Vegas until just before the road reaches a high point before it begins to descend to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. You’ll notice a large pull-out parking area on the right (South) side of the road. Park there. This is the Frenchman Mountain Trailhead. If you head up the large mountain to the South (right) you’re heading up Frenchman Mountain. On the other hand, if you want to go to Sunrise Mountain, cross Lake Mead Blvd. and head North (left).
There is a high narrow ridge almost directly across Lake Mead Blvd. to the North, but slightly East from the Frenchman Mountain parking area. In my initial exploration of the area I scoped out the gullies both to the East and to the West of this high narrow ridge. Both gullies rose to a high saddle and then descended into a large valley. Bordering that valley, on its West side is Sunrise Mountain, the highest feature above the valley.
To get to Sunrise Mountain, take the gully on the West (left) side of the high narrow ridge immediately across Lake Mead Blvd from the Frenchman Mountain parking area. The gully on the East side of the ridge is interesting and offers some additional jumping off points for interesting adventures in the area, but it’s not the route you want to take if you’re heading to Sunrise Mountain.
As you head for that Western gully (left of the high ridge), there are no trail markings and it’s a bit confusing. It looks at first as if you are walking into a large parking area across Lake Mead Blvd from the Frenchman Mountain trailhead parking area. Just head across that parking area up to a high point beyond which it is obvious motor vehicles can proceed no further. Beyond that high point you will notice a pretty distinct trail continuing up the gully. Soon that trail will reach a saddle before it begins to descend into the next valley.
As you top that saddle you will notice a large mountain bordering the West side of the valley ahead. It’s the largest mountain in the area North of Frenchman Mountain. The mountainside displays distinct slabs of once horizontal rock that have been pushed up to angles greater than 60, 70 degrees and even steeper. This is Sunrise Mountain.
The use trail continues down the North side of the saddle toward Sunrise Mountain. Curiously, this trail is well marked with cairns, many only 50 feet apart, though you’re descending through a shallow canyon wash and its hard to get lost. Just keep going downhill like flowing water. However, later on the return trip I saw the value of such frequent cairns when many alternate small washes appeared splitting off in different directions and could be confusing. On the less obvious return trip route, just head with a bearing South toward Frenchman Mountain and the right side of the high ridge in the center of the South end of the Sunrise Mountain valley. Hopefully you have lots of water and are not making this trip in late Spring to mid Summer when temperatures which can easily exceed 120 degrees!
Back to the descent toward Sunrise Mountain: Continuing down the well-marked wash, the walls will rise a bit and there will be some beautiful Aztec red rock features. The going is relatively easy with few obstacles.
The wash will eventually “T” out at its base to one of a network of ATV trails. Now the challenge is to find the best way to navigate over a ridge to the Southern base of Sunrise Mountain. I turned right at the “T” and headed up a short, fairly steep slope on the ATV trail to get my bearings. Sunrise Mountain again came into view at the top of that slope along with the maze of ATV routes that crisscross the Sunrise Mountain valley. There is no direct trail leading to the South end of Sunrise Mountain, but I did notice below me an ATV trail that skirted the South end of Sunrise Mountain, so I headed straight for that trail and turned left to scope out possible routes to the summit. We’ll call this the Southern ATV route.
There’s a shallow, narrow wash that breaks off to the right (North) of the Southern ATV route and skirts the lower Eastern side of Sunrise Mountain. While scoping out this wash it appeared that there was at least one potential route to the top of the ridge that could then lead to the summit.
Retracing my way back to the Southern ATV trail, I located a fairly wide canyon on the West side of the ridge I had just skirted earlier. There was a downed sign in Spanish that seemed to indicate a gun range. In fact, I could hear below to the West toward Las Vegas the sounds of gun firing throughout the remainder of this adventure. However, there was no shooting on Sunrise Mountain.
Anyway, at the Spanish gun sign I turned right up the wide canyon, which I will call “Cairn Canyon”, which heads up the South side of Sunrise Mountain and is the main route people take to the summit. There are many cairns marking the route up that canyon. About mid-way up the canyon it appeared there were additional potential summit routes up fairly gradual slopes to the right and left. I’ll call these the 3rd – 5th potential summit routes.
First, I went all the way to the top of “cairn canyon” where there was a brief class 3 section to the top of the ridge at the North end of the canyon. From there it appears you take a right and head up a steep hill and from there reach the summit.
My post surgery recovery did not allow pulling myself over even the easiest rocks on this day, so I headed half-way back down the canyon and then ascended the fairly gradual ridge up the East side of the canyon. This took me way above the summit of “cairn canyon”. At the top North end of this ridge there is that same steep hill I saw above the top of cairn canyon that then potentially leads to the summit. I turned at the base of this hill and will return on a cooler day and when in better condition (it was 90 degrees on this day).
Next time I’ll go half way up “cairn canyon”, then take the gradual ridge up the East side of the canyon to avoid all the rocks and boulders in the wash, ascend the steep hill at the top of the ridge and from there navigate to the summit.
In summary, Sunrise Mountain, though not as high as Frenchman Mountain, is far more interesting with many potential routes to the summit. It’s a place that allows a lot of adventure and experimentation. The views are incredible and the solitude is refreshing. It’s a fairly untouched wilderness all in itself. By the way, though this was a mid-Spring Saturday (first Saturday in April), I was the only one present in the Sunrise Mountain area the entire day and did not see another soul from the point I left the Frenchman Mountain trailhead parking area until I returned to that area.