Signal Peak, Big Maria Mountains
By: Gary Craig
It seems like most trips these days have a big group for a Saturday climb, and most everyone hangs around for a potluck dinner and car-camp that evening. But, participation often drops off for a Sunday climb, if there is even one scheduled. I led a nice DPS outing in mid-December with Sue Holloway that bucked the trend here: we had a fairly small group on Saturday (Signal Peak, a.k.a. Kofa) but the group doubled in size for Sunday (Big Maria).
Since Sue and I are both “I”-rated leaders, we planned to lead the “back-door” route on KofA, known as Route C in the Peaks Guide. In addition to Sue and myself, we had Cliff Jones, George Wysup, Richard Whitcomb (and his “support crew”), Bruno Geiger, and Gary James present at 7am for the route C turnoff from Palm Canyon road. The weather looked great and we had no trouble following the road to the trailhead, although it is slowgoing at times as the road becomes very faint in a few places in the wash.
We started hiking about 8am via route C, which went pretty well via the Peaks Guide directions. We took our first short break at a ridge crossing at 3840+’. Routefinding became a bit more difficult after this point (due to some light brush), and Richard turned around near here because he wasn’t feeling well. The remaining six of us pressed upward to the 4200’ saddle where views open to the south. Hiking is easier from here to the summit as the terrain is more open, although the summit itself is not obviously in view for much of the way. However, the walking was pleasant and we made the peak in short order, where we had nice clear views in all directions, and we took an extended break for an early lunch. We started down toward the cars basically via the same route; a slight detour just at the top brought us to the remains of a wind sock used in past days for helicopter landings; we had seen it earlier and thought it was some sort of antenna. With that mystery resolved, we retraced our steps with only minor variations in the middle sections for brush avoidance. Just before reaching the trailhead, we met Richard, who was feeling better and out for a stroll awaiting our return.
Soon we were rolling along the road again, bouncing down the wash toward where we left two vehicles at the junction with the Palm Canyon road. Here, we spent a few minutes to get cleaned up, have a cool drink, and get reorganized a bit for the drive to the Big Maria trailhead. The drive to this point at the Palm Canyon road junction from the route C trailhead takes about 45 minutes either way due to roughness of the indistinct track.
Nevertheless, we were all back on the US 95 pavement by 3pm for the drive back through Quartzite (world’s largest swap meet and RV parking lot) and Blythe to the Big Maria turnoff from Midland Road onto the powerline road; this drive took an hour at most on paved roads.
The plan was to regroup at this turnoff and meet with some fellow DPSers who were only coming for Sunday’s hike, but when Sue (and Cliff) and I drove up, no other vehicles were present. I explored up the road a ways, saw no sign of anyone, and returned. By this time Richard and George appeared at the road junction, but Gary J. and Bruno were AWOL. We figured they had stopped in Blythe for some reason and would join us later, so we drove north on the Big Maria powerline road for just under a mile to a nice flat area on the left (W) side of the road, which we used as a campsite. We were expecting to be joined later on by the others for Sunday’s climb, and this was a nice visible spot to hook up. The first arrivals were Charlie Knapke and Devra Wasserman, followed shortly by a BLM ranger just checking us out. We had a small fire going in Cliff’s eco-friendly washtub-firepan, and the ranger seemed duly impressed with that and departed, seemingly satisfied. Snacks, shrimp, salads, and quesadillas formed the basis of our happy hour and potluck as we warmed by Cliffs fire. In the early evening John Strauch and Jim de la Peña arrived, just in time for the fire’s dying embers and a brief chat, after which everybody meandered back to their vehicles for the evening.
We had a non-alpine start planned for Sunday, as Big Maria isn’t too tough of a hike and we hadn’t much driving left to do. The first thing we noticed after arising was that Brian Smith and Audrey Goodman had arrived sometime in the middle of the night. Brian’s late arrival was not unexpected; on prior trips he and I seem to have an un-arranged contest to see who can get to camp latest and still hike the next day. What was unexpected was that there was still no sign of Gary J. and Bruno. Now, the theory was that they had gotten a motel room in Blythe, or, that they had driven all the way in to the trailhead the day before. Either way, our plan was to drive to the trailhead and (possibly) wait for them there. We proceeded slowly north along the powerline road with no real difficulties to the trailhead, where we did indeed find our missing comrades, who had mistakenly driven all the way in on Saturday afternoon. After realizing their error, they decided not to retrace their route over the rough road to our camp. Well, one mystery was solved at least. The condition of the road to the trailhead was much the same as I remember from five years ago or so; high clearance is required for sure but not necessarily 4wd.
Skies were clear on Sunday for Big Maria but there was a bit of a breeze as we started hiking up the wash on the standard route. It is best to enter this wash as early as possible, because the walls become quite steep and entry becomes more difficult the farther you go. The route went as described in the Peaks Guide to the ridgeline at 2440+’, which was our second full break en route, where we waited to consolidate the group. The final few hundred feet to this ridge are fairly steep and sandy, eliciting much huffing and puffing from the group. On top of the ridge, the wind was blowing furiously from the north, but we were able to stay out of the worst of it behind various boulders and rock towers.
The walking is easier from this point, up to the ridge at 3040+’. The 3080+’ rounded bump at UTM 154496 is passed most easily on the right via a use trail, and then one walks up the summit mass via any route up, right, and across the open slope. It was windy at the very summit so many in the group dropped down a few yards to the shelter of some boulders for their lunch break. Everyone had a bite to eat while enjoying long-ranging views across this section of the Mojave; clear, though not quite so clear as Saturday. After a nice rest we snapped a group summit photo and started the hike back down.
We returned to the 2440’ ridgeline saddle and dropped back down to the south, glad to get out of the wind but sad to lose the 360° views one enjoys from the ridge. The group spread out a bit during the descent but we stopped occasionally to regroup, and there is no real danger of getting lost, as one just walks “downstream”. We continued walking out to the cars via the standard route, with little trouble, in good time.
Upon returning to the cars we relaxed a bit and passed around some snacks and pre-Christmas treats as we packed up for the drive home. One by one we started south toward Midland Road, Blythe, and points beyond. The last two vehicles out were Brian’s and my own, and wouldn’t you know it, the road flattened Brian’s right front tire about a mile from the pavement. So, Brian, Audrey, and I got to enjoy the desert for an extra halfhour or so while we fiddled about changing the tire. It wasn’t our first choice, but there are worse ways to spend time on a Sunday afternoon...
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