Trail Report: Echo Cliffs
The South Loop Trail is one of my favorites. But this is the first time that I have set foot on this trail with so much snow still on the ground. We set out with the goal of summitting Griffith Peak but the trail had a different agenda. We had to settle for a 4.24 mile round trip to Echo Cliffs.
The approach to Echo Cliffs winds through some old growth ponderosa pines, below a frozen waterfall and scales the mountainside on the way to Avalanche Chute. We hit heavy snow before we reached the Avalanche Chute and even more once the forest opened up. That part of the mountain gets some early day sun and the top layer of the snow was wet and soft making for a few break throughs.
Once at the clearing above Echo Cliffs, the views really open up. Avalanche Chute, Echo Cliffs, Mummy Mountain, and the town of Mt Charleston are all in view. Great photo opportunities and the perfect place to stop for a bite and a drink before heading on to Griffith Peak.
The South Loop Trail is a classic. From the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, the trail heads uphill immediately. The starting elevation is 7621 ft and the top of Echo Cliffs reaches 9069 ft. As you climb the side of the hill through the ponderosa pines to the first view of the avalanche chute, you get a real sense of the power of nature. The ponderosas tower above your head and show signs of past battles with fire and avalanches.
The trail crosses the avalanche chute less than 1 mile into the hike. Once across, it gradually increases in elevation as you make your way up the canyon. To your left, you will see the sheer cliff wall rise hundreds of feet above you with a frozen waterfall in the winter and running water in spring and early summer.
One of the few descents in the approach to Echo Cliffs is the last section before you reach the avalanche chute for the second time. The trail crosses the chute and then begins a series of switchbacks up the side of the canyon. The views are awesome from this vantage point and you will spot a few caves in the canyon walls. If you look up to the top of the sheer cliffs across the canyon, you will also see several ponderosa pine on a shelf below the peak. It’s amazing to see such large trees on such a high perch.
The switchbacks will gradually lengthen and head back toward the opening of the canyon and rise to the point above Echo Cliffs. About 100 yards from the point, look to your left for a tree that grows on a rock shelf – it looks almost like a cave under the tree. That’s a great shot for the scrapbook!
From the large open area above the cliffs you have a full view of the scenery below. You will have great shots of Mt Charleston, Mummy Mountain, Avalanche Chute, Griffith Peak, and even a peek at Charleston Peak (pun fully intended!). Headed down the grade toward the canyon to a really cool shelf that gives you the perfect spot for pics and video. But be sure not to go to close to the edge. It’s a long drop down.
From this point, you can continue the quest to Griffith Peak and even Charleston Peak or retrace your steps back to the South Loop Trailhead. Echo Cliffs is just shy of the half-way mark to Griffith Peak.
We had a blast on this slow paced hike, but the snow base is too weak to support the weight of the average hiker. Conditions on the snow fields will become more dangerous in the coming weeks. A month from now, and most of he trail will reveal itself and a summit bid is on!
We saw a few strange sights on the hike too. We passed about a dozen hikers in tennis shoes, shorts, t-shirts, and no gear except a bottled water. I just don't get it. There was a significant exposure with a downhill slide as we approached the chute. The snow pack in the chute was still more than 10 feet deep in spots and there is a strong likelihood that some areas would be prone to break throughs. I wish people would take the risks a bit more seriously.