McFarland Peak, Bonanza Peak, Willow Peak
By: Erik Siering
Please bring back DPS burro bakes! The Burro, Bob Sumner, Bruno (Ann Kramer's truck) and I nearly ascended to heaven together. This sleepy beast lumbered out of the predawn darkness as we approached at a high speed on Lee Canyon Road. It would have been an inglorious, albeit fitting, end for desert list finishers. But I laid down rubber and just squeezed by without blood or fur...
The Bonanza Trail is a strenuous path along the crest of the Spring Mountains. It runs roughly sixteen-miles north to south between Cold Creek and Lee Canyon. Drive west from Highway 95 to access both trailheads. The scenery and a spring midway make this an appealing weekend backpack. Bob and I dayhiked it. We also climbed McFarland, Bonanza, and Willow Peaks: very fun, fun, and annoying, respectively.
From Lee Canyon the trail runs to the crest, passes west of McFarland Peak, and then regains the crest at Bonanza Peak before dropping northeast to Cold Creek. It is forested with ponderosa pine, white fir, and aspen at lower elevations, and bristlecone pine up high. There are spectacular views east and west to the distant deserts and mountain ranges. Water is available at Wood Spring, on Bonanza Peak's southeast slope. Reportedly seasonal, it was flowing well this time of the year.
The Lee Canyon trailhead (8,668') is slightly higher than Cold Creek (7,550'). We began here at daybreak after parking Bob's truck at the north trailhead. The Bristlecone Trail starts at the end of the paved road above the ski area. Two miles on the Bristlecone Trail leads to the signed junction where the Bonanza Trail proper forks off to the west. After a mile of uphill on the forested slope, the trail crosses a saddle on the crest near South Sister. Another undulating 2.5 miles leads to the base of McFarland Peak.
At the top of the six descending switchbacks is a faint spur trail, adjacent to an oddly shaped rock outcrop. Briefly described by Bob Michael in a 1998 Sage report, the north canyon ascent is quite straightforward. The use path leads up and north into the main gully. Occasional cairns mark the uncomplicated route. Continue up the drainage along the south side of a massive rock formation. There is one obstacle, a class 4-5 dry waterfall midway. Stay close to the rock wall on the left to climb class 3 steps. The slope beyond is steep but easy to a small saddle. Then walk southeast across the wooded plateau for a quarter mile to McFarland Peak's highpoint (10,742'). The top offers a panorama of Mummy and Charleston. We retraced our route on descent. It was very enjoyable.
The Bonanza Trail then drops to cross the gully and continue to the west ridge of McFarland. Reality differs from the topographic map, which indicates a much bigger ioop around the north side of the peak; the trail has been rerouted and shortened.
The trail then turns northeast and descends the steep north side of the ridge to rejoin the old trail near the bottom of the canyon. Again, the map here doesn't reflect a reroute. It heads west onto a ridge below Wood Spring, which is on the uphill side of a bend in the trail. Water flows from a pipe out of a metal box that captures the runoff. Beyond the spring is a turnoff leading to an attractive small campsite on the ridge.
The main trail switchbacks up the forested hillside at a gentle grade. Eventually, the trail passes the northwest side of Bonanza Peak at 10,200'. We left the trail just beforehand to beeline to the highpoint (10,397'), which is a nice rock outcrop with a vista of imposing McFarland Peak.
After lunch and Bob's summit catnap, we followed Bonanza's north ridge to intersect the trail. It drops in a mile to Bonanza Saddle, the crossover point above Cold Creek. The trail turns to the east side of the crest, descending eighty switchbacks to the trailhead. So I am told. Bob and I opted to climb Willow Peak (9,964'). It was 1:30PM.
Willow's north ridge from Wheeler Pass must be the best approach. Or as one register entry noted, a snow climb is excellent. The south ridge is tedious, Our beta came from "Hiking Las Vegas" by Branch Whitney. Branch has a unique perspective.., for example, elevation gain is simply the difference of the summit and trailhead elevations (?!), and various dead trees and logs are route markers. The description for Willow Peak is dopesmoking nonsense. The bare limestone ridge is a constant climb over and around large rock outcrops in a burn area, interspersed by side-hilling on shattered limestone. A use path is largely indiscernible. It would be expedient and less tiring to drop lower on the western slope and contour to the summit... which the author incorrectly places on the far side of the peak. The highpoint is clearly a quarter mile to the south. The register was placed by Gordon and Barbara in 2002; there is none on the lower flat. It took nearly two hours to cover the two miles from Bonanza Saddle to the summit. Rather than descend the ridge on our return, carefully picking our way through cliff bands, we soon headed off the crest straight for the trailhead parking below. The cacophony of a Boy Scout camp there greeted us as we trudged through the forest before sundown.
We determined the traverse and peaks to be 20 miles, 6400 feet elevation gain total. Done in 11.5 hours total, too much of which involved Willow Peak.
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