Trail Report: Charleston Peak hike

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Trail Details

  • Time on Trail: 12 hours, 45 mins
  • City / State: Mt Charleston Wilderness, Spring Mountains NRA /
  • Distance: 17.14 miles
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Elevation: +/- 4100ft.
  • Categories:   ,

We decided to tackle southern Nevada’s highest peak, Charleston Peak, from the Trail Canyon trailhead and then onto the North Loop Trail. We had planned to take the South Loop Trail as late as the night before the hike, but I was concerned about water. Temperatures will still in the 90s and I knew we would drink more than we thought. South Loop Trail has a spring according to my map, but you have to drop down about 800 vertical feet to reach it. That also means that you have to climb back up those 800 feet to get back to where you started. The North Loop Trail has Cave Spring just past Cockscomb Ridge and the 1940s burn area. It’s easily accessible and water was running. For this reason alone, I decided to change the plan the night before.

The first two miles of the hike climb up Trail Canyon to Cockscomb Ridge and for me it’s always brutal. I don’t like starting out going straight up hill, but that’s what you get. Once at the ridge, we met up with the North Loop Trail and headed west towards Cave Spring. You enter the 1940s burn area almost immediately. Large dead trees still stand tall surrounded below by new growth, mostly quaking aspen. This is a great time of year to tackle Charleston Peak. The temperatures drop and the leaves on the aspen begin to color the landscape. We hit it about two weeks early but many of the tress were already showing signs of the change.

We passed Cave Spring with full bladders but were already plotting our stop on the way back. We climbed to the spring to make sure there was flow and to grab a few things left behind by those that came before us. We continued on. The trail meanders through the aspen and eventually climbs the far side of the canyon by way of a series of switch backs. They’re long and steep in sections and lead to an open switch that crosses a scree slope below Mummy Mountain. Great views here of Mummy above and the burn area below.

As we made our way across the face of the mountain, the trail levels out briefly and turns to reveal the first good sights of Charleston Peak. What’s deceiving is that most people, including myself, start doing the math and saying things like “It’s not that bad. We have about 5 miles to go an it looks like we have done a lot of the climbing.” Keep telling yourself that!

The views just keep getting better from this point on. You leave the aspens behind and now have glimpses of the town of Charleston below and at a certain point you are looking down the entire length of Kyle Canyon. Very cool! And a great excuse for a break…I mean photos!

But from the 4 mile mark on, the trail is much more exposed. In many spots, the trail is 18 inches wide with a 2 foot shoulder and steep downhill slope leading to a few hundred foot drop. It takes a bit of getting used to, but be certain you give those sections your full attention. The trail winds around the rim of the canyon and your path is pretty evident as you glance across at Charleston Peak. It stays near the top of the ridge line and skirts large rocky outcroppings along the way.

Somewhere between mile six and seven we reached a saddle of sorts. The massiveness of Charleston Peak is right before your eyes, but you can’t see the summit at all. The trail turns more to the north and the drop offs are even bigger than before. I was really tired at this point. Chris and I were assessing how much water and Gatorade we had left and had to continue to talk ourselves into moving forward. Trent was 15 minutes ahead of us. The trail gets rocky and uneven but there are still trees, many of which have exposed roots that present another challenge for the tired hiker.

We turned another corner. By then every turn was hopefully the last one. We heard a whistle. It was Trent, maybe 300 feet above us on a switch back. We yelled back and forth about water, trying to find a reason not to tackle what we knew would be a lot of climbing by switchbacks. We pressed on.

The final ascent of Charleston Peak is a series of six switchbacks. The first two aren’t so bad. The three that followed were 3x longer and much steeper. Ass kickers for sure. By the third one, I found a second wind and Chris just the opposite. Plan B was to take it 25 steps at a time. Trent had already summitted and was yelling down to us occasionally. I waited for Chris after the third switchback to make sure things were ok. He was drained and so was I. I think adrenaline was working in my favor, something he must have tapped into earlier on the trail. I powered through the remaining switchbacks and met Trent at the top.

Windy, great views, a tattered but amazing American Flag, some scientific equipment, a wind shelter, and a few other hikers is all that made it to the top. A glider was passing back a forth near the summit. I think we had the better view! Chris made the summit a few minutes after me. The three of us signed the summit register, took a Team Trail Sherpa picture, sent a few success texts to the wives, and sat down for the Trail Sherpa tradition of cold warm summit beers! (Hey, great source of carbs!)

It was already later than we wanted it to be. Trent said on the way up that the first thing you think about after reaching the summit is being back at the trailhead. In fact, that’s all we thought about. We changed into dry socks and made our way down. The ascent took 7 hours and 30 minutes. The descent took a little over 5 hours. We stopped at Cave Spring to fill our bladders and had to turn the headlamps on at Cockscomb Ridge. The last two miles of the hike were done after dark.

The best feeling on the hike was the last step to the summit. The views were incredible! The second greatest feeling was the moment my ass hit the seat of the truck at 8:01 pm! Of course, the drive down the mountain with gassed legs was interesting!

Trail Photos

Trail Video

Trail Notes

If you spend a full day on the trail you will always have some crazy story to share or some new lesson learned that you want to share. This trip was no different for me.

The first note is that my hunch was right. Water would go fast. I am glad that I reviewed the map for the 25th time the night before the hike. That’s when I decided to change our route from the South Loop to the North Loop approach and brought Cave Spring into the mix. That came in handy on the way back when we ran out of water near the spring.

My second note is a warning. Anyone that decides to tackle such a big hike needs to be prepared. We ran into a foreign couple (German I think) on the trail. He had a regular school style backpack and she had just a litre sized water bottle. They were ill-prepared for the long trip and it was showing on her face. We gave her food and water on two occasions to make sure she could make it back. It was certainly a concern for us as a group. I doubt that they had headlamps either.

One final note. This hike will take everything you’ve got. When you get tired, you lose focus. For me, this happened long before we summitted! Because of the numerous spots along the trail with big exposure, you need to remain focused. These areas are not places where you can afford a misstep. Just a word of warning.

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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.