Hike distance: 12.25 miles
Elevation gain: 2,519 feet
Prominence: 1253 ft
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“Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
Since we started hiking in this area, I've added 3 summits to my bucket list:
In November 2019, we summited San Jacinto; click on the hyperlink above to navigate to that blog. I wanted to start 2020 hiking season off with a bang, so we hiked Pinto Mountain less than one month after we both got to Palm Desert.
During Feb 2019 as we drove into Joshua Tree National Park from the south entrance I was drawn to Turkey Flats and Pinto Mountain and how prominent they were from the main road. Here's the picture that started my intense interest in this hike.
I began researching the hike and found descriptions with similar statements such as:
NOTE: Route finding for Pinto Mountain is extremely difficult and requires real off-trail navigation skills. Please use EXTRA caution and research before attempting this hike. This is an EXTREMELY strenuous cross country route to Pinto Mountain. Route finding skills, map, and compass are necessary to reach the summit. There is no official trail and many hikers find themselves making several attempts before reaching the summit.
CAUTION: Be prepared with GPS track and a good topo map - there is a lightly used trail on ridge but it's essential to have route-finding skills.
However, I felt we had really enhanced our hiking and route tracking skills over the past year and were ready to safely complete the summit climb.
The trailhead is located on Pinto Basin Rd, the main road from the south entrance of JTNP. We started by crossing Turkey Flats. Turkey Flats is actually a loose extension of Pinto Mt. It's composed of rock, gravel and sand (alluvium) that washed from the slopes and canyons in front of us. I've used the arrow to identify the Pinto since it crammed in among the other mountain tops in this section of the range. We were heading for the ridge identified by the yellow arrow.
Without significant winter rains, the brush looks beaten down by the summer heat.
We're standing at 1.25 miles into the hike on the Pinto Dunes located halfway between the trailhead and base of Pinto Mountain. These aren't traditional dunes but actually are just a modest layer of fine sand covering an elevated ridge.
This sand covered ridge marks the line between two opposing faults that have been pulled apart over millions of years. This fault action has caused the uplift of the Pinto and Hexie mountain ranges on either side of the faults. We've posted several pictures of the Pinto Mountains in front of us but in this picture behind Dave are the Hexie range on the opposite side of the basin.
After crossing the remaining 1.5 miles on the flats, we reached the alluvial fan at the base of the ridge and began our climb, a 3+ mile hike to the summit with greater than 2,300 feet gain in elevation. This picture shows the vast empty expanse of the Turkey Flats.
Here was our view looking up the ravine. Although we had planned on following the ridge we took a lower line through the gully just below the ridge. I've circled a white rock formation that we spotted at the start of the hike. It's significance will be explained later.
The first part of the ravine provided some fun boulder hoping, but the further we hiked the more challenges we faced. As the ravine narrowed the boulders became much larger.
In a few locations, we had to climb 10+ foot rock walls, but fortunately in each case we found solid hand and foot holds.
About 30 minutes after entering the ravine, we came face-to-face with the 'white rock formation' we had seen earlier. This 50+ foot high near-vertical rock wall forced us to make a key decision about continuing the hike. Our options were to either find a route up or around this obstacle or backtrack a considerable distance and find an easier climb out of the ravine. Although this picture makes it look like the hillside to the right was a good alternative, it was very steep and covered in scree. We never considered this a safe alternative.
REMINDER: This was how the 'white rock wall' appeared at the opening to the wash. At this point we couldn't appreciate the magnitude and challenges we'd face to scale this wall.
After careful review, we decide to follow a route to the right of the wall. Dave took the lead and things started out well. People have described the miles in and around the vertical wall as Class 3 scrambling.
Class 3: Hands, short fall. Class-3 is easy climbing. The route might be steep terrain or rocky outcrops where you need your hands. There would be lots of large handholds, and while Class-3 is easy and you wouldn't fall, a fall none-the-less would be short and result in injury but not death. You wouldn't do it with your hands in your pockets, but you probably wouldn't want a rope either, and you still might whistle a happy song (at least after you got over the outcrop).
However, after making good progress we were forced to turn around when the path became more challenging than we were comfortable tackling.
We regrouped and found a new route to the left of the rock wall.
Although the route was easier, we knew it would bring us to a lip at the base of the vertical rock wall where we'd face another challenge. Could we find a route around the wall or would we need to try and climb the wall?
Here's Dave standing on the landing/lip scoping out possible routes to the top. From this angle the wall doesn't appear very tall but as the next few pictures show it was quite the climb.
Dave spotted a steep route to the far left that seemed to skirt around the wall.
From the start, the route followed a roughly 45° incline.
The higher we climbed the more interesting things became. After climbing the slope that paralleled the wall, we needed to traverse along a very narrow ledge and then climb above the 'white wall' to reach a safe landing spot.
Success! As I approached our landing spot, I took this picture of Dave looking down the near-vertical 'white wall'. The picture also highlights how narrow the footing was during this last leg of the climb. Notice the rubberized gloves on Dave's hands. I had bought these gloves to increase hand grip for the anticipated tough rock scrambling that we'd encounter on Pinto. They worked so well.
Dave did an amazing job guiding us to this point. However, we couldn't celebrate since it had been slow-go for a while and we needed to pick up the pace to reach the summit and return to the car before darkness set in.
Coming up the ravine split to the left and although we were looking for a path to get us closer to our intended route on the ridge line we headed left.
Pausing for a moment to look back and appreciate how far we'd hiked.
As the terrain opened up and became less steep, we started to make up considerable time.
We had made a conscious decision to turn left in the ravine and delay our climb to the ridge. The terrain ahead looked more favorable at this point.
Along the way there were a few fun spots.
Our confidence had increased significantly since the start of the hike. This was a 15' climb using small but secure holds that felt easy.
We following this path for over an hour. This jagged rock outcropping us signaled the start of our climb out of the ravine and on to the ridge.
It was a slow 25-minute climb on a moderately steep incline with loose footing.
We had a great view of the ridge line (curving center to left) that had been out intended route. Something tells me it would have been an easier hike but much less of an adventure.
Since starting the hike, this was the first time we could see a faint outline of the trail.
We gained elevation quickly on the steep winding trail.
There was a brief climb around a rock outcropping. Dave briefly lost his footing and almost face-planted into a cactus. Luckily he just brushed against the cactus needles.
Emerging from the rock climb, we could see the summit plateau.
Forty-five minutes after reaching the ridge, we were a short walk to the summit cairn.
Four hours after starting the hike we had reached the summit.
A summit register notebook was inside a tightly sealed ammo can. We were the 10th and 11th person to summit Pinto Mountain in the past 2 weeks.
Dave enjoyed lunch and the views from 3,983 feet. We saw no one during the entire hike; it was great having the summit to ourselves.
The view looking west across the barren lowland of Pinto Basin. Like everywhere you go in the region, the summits of San Jacinto (10,834'; top center) and San Gorgonio (11,503'; far right) were visible.
The northern view of the Bullion Mountains (far left) located in the Mojave Desert.
Soon it was time to start our descent. There was no visible trail so we debated which route to the wash looked most manageable. Here's another great picture of the Pinto Basin and Eagle Mountain in the background (left of center).
We start our descent on the scree covered slope. Our target was the wash visible in the middle and curving to the right.
The answer: On all fours. The question: How do you get down a steep rock covered slope with no secure footing. Dave demonstrates the technique. Each step we took we slid 3 additional feet down the hill.
It would have been easier if we had used a sled, snowboard or skis on the hill.
It took us close to an hour to navigate the slope and begin hiking in the wash. The start of the wash; what a welcomed sight.
We felt better once we reached the wash and were back to 'normal' hiking conditions. For me this is sometimes the hardest part of the hike. The excitement of the summit and challenges were behind us and now it was just a long slow hike through the wash and on to the Turkey Flats.
There was some interesting geology around us. I wish I understood the subject better so that I could appreciate in the moment instead of reading about it afterwards.
This was without a doubt the largest ocotillo I have ever seen. The spiny branches of the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) are one of the classic sights of the American Southwest. The long, thorny branches appear gray and desiccated for most of the year, but then they flourish with bright green leaves after it rains. In the spring brilliant red flowers appear on the tips of its branches, giving the serpentine plant a colorful touch.
Finally the wash ended and we began our march across the Turkey Flats. We still had a good amount of day light left. In total, it had taken a little more than three hours to hike from the summit to the Flats.
Around now 'civil' twilight had set in. Although we were losing sunlight, we knew the direction to follow to reach the car. Dave was relieved since twilight limited my ability to take more photos.
One last look back at the second mountain from my bucket list that we had summited. Pinto is the third broad peak from the left.
As we reached the car, there was no doubt, we were beyond twilight and darkness had set in.
We had completed the Pinto Mountain loop hike in 9 hours and 25 minutes.
Job well done and now time to head home for a supper and a post hike swim.
It was a great feeling and sense of accomplishment to complete this hike. First, because it was the 2nd peak knocked off the bucket list. More importantly, it was another important step in the progress we were making as hikers.
I've always believed this 'progress' started during the Siyeh Pass hike in Glacier National Park. Right before reaching the Pass, we lost the path due to deep snow cover in a cold and windy environment. In the past, the tough weather conditions, the remote location in GNP, and our frustration and 'fear' would have gotten the better of us. We would have turned around and walked back to the trailhead. Instead this time we paused and came up with a plan to separate, but stay within eye sight, to try and find the trail. We knew our limitations and trusted our skill to assess the situation and formulate a plan. The approach worked, we found the trail and completed the loop hike. The end result being a big boost in our confidence as hikers.
During the Pinto Mountain hike, we did not let a combination of new challenges get the better of us. At the near vertical white rock wall, we failed in our first attempt to get around this obstacle. However, once again we paused and searched for an alternative route. The second path we selected didn't require more rock climbing skills than we possessed, but it did require that we use them at heights we hadn't previously encountered. Dave took control and got us over this challenge. Secondly, on our descent from the summit there was no visible trail leading to the wash. As the warning had stated, route finding for Pinto Mountain is extremely difficult and requires real off-trail navigation skills. Although we may not have chosen the best line off the summit, we navigated through, in and around some tough conditions and reached the wash in good time.
I'm not sure what our next step will be but I think it will involve more reliance on map reading and compass skills. I'm look forward to preparing for that test!
TrailsNH Hiking Difficulty Calculator
The TrailsNH Hiking Difficulty Calculator gives you a better sense of the challenge a hike may require. The goal for this calculator is to help you determine how doable a hike is for you. Is it too big? Although they acknowledge the full experience of a hike is impossible to estimate, so you should always prepare for the unexpected.
TrailsNH extended the established 'Shenandoah Hiking Difficulty Scale' from 250 to 500 and added two new effort categories: 'Challenging' and 'Bomber' hikes.
They also include assessments for 'Energy Miles' and Steepness Rating, Grade, and Angle which they believe provide an overall better evaluation of hiking demands. Click on the link to navigate to TrailsNH.com for more detail, including the formulas they use for each assessment.