OverviewCartago Peak is the informal name given to the highpoint of a series of granite pinnacles along the Sierra Crest, four miles west of the small town of Cartago. Given the peak's relative obscurity--it's unnamed, mentioned in no guide books, and isn't even marked with a spot elevation on USGS maps--it is climbed infrequently, only once or twice per year according to the register. However, the peak is an unusual and enjoyable scramble, and well worth a visit.
The peak is perhaps most noteworthy for the intricate navigation required to even identify the summit block. The summit plateau is a broad, sandy amphitheater dotted with gnarled foxtail pines and literally a dozen or more granite crags and pinnacles competing for the climber's attention. The effect is surprisingly disorienting, identification of the summit is remarkably confusing, and attaining the highpoint might even be darned frustrating if the scrambling wasn't so enjoyable on the various pinnacles. Most are class 3 or 4, and worthy exercises in themselves. The highpoint is class 3, and located at the southeast end of the summit plateau.
Two routes have been described in trip reports. Cartago Peak is most commonly climbed from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) via Death Canyon, a roughly 31 mile round trip excursion out of Horseshoe Meadows. (If using this option, the peak is typically climbed in combination with Muah Mountain, the other SPS Listed peak in the immediate area). The other commonly used route approaches the peak from the east, literally from the town of Cartago. This is the shortest option, with round trip stats of only 9 miles and 6,700' gain, but despite the modest stats this approach is not to be underestimated--it begins in the desert at the 3,800' elevation, and involves slogging up seemingly endless steep, loose sand slopes.
In addition to the fine scrambling and interesting route-finding, views from the summit are excellent, with Olancha Peak dominating views to the south, and Mt. Langley prominent to the north.
Getting ThereFrom the west (Pacific Crest Trail). To climb the peak from the west, follow the driving directions on climber.org for Horseshoe Meadow. (In short, follow Whitney Portal Road for three miles from Lone Pine, turn left on Horseshoe Meadows Road, and follow this to road's end). Follow the Pacific Crest Trail south from Horseshoe Meadow past Ash Meadow until it is possible to drop down east into Death Canyon, at a point west of the peak. Follow Death Canyon up to the summit plateau and its array of pinnacles.
From the east (Cartago). Take Highway 395 to the north end of Cartago, and take a good unsigned dirt road west as shown on this map. (This road is located just past a wood, barn-like structure on the east side of the road). Drive northwest on the road for 0.2 miles, stay right at the junction, and after another 0.4 miles turn left and cross the LA aqueduct on a bridge. After driving over the bridge, turn left and drive south for another 0.6 miles. Park alongside the side of the dirt road. An old 4WD road leads a short way up the sandy hillside. You have the option of following the canyon to the right, or the ridge ahead of you. Both are sandy; the canyon seemed less so than the ridge, but you'll find plenty of loose footing whichever way you choose.
Red TapeNone required for dayhikes. The peak is located in the Golden Trout Wilderness, so a wilderness permit is required for overnight stays.
When To ClimbBecause of it's relatively moderate elevation and the generally hot, arid climate of the Southern Sierra, Cartago Peak makes a good early or late season climb; May-June or October are probably best. When snow blankets the High Sierra, much of the climb can be snow-free, with snow likely to linger only around the upper reaches of the ridge and summit plateau.
If you choose to climb the peak from Cartago, be sure to get an early start, as the lower elevations can be hot even in late October. When considering when to climb, keep in mind that here is little water available on either the eastern or western approaches, and what few sources there are along the PCT are often polluted by cattle--climbing when snow is present is highly recommended, especially if you plan on camping.
CampingMost trip reports for climbs from the west suggest camping at Ash Meadow.
There are few reasonable campsites on the climb from the east. A few flat, sandy spots are found along the ridge at around the 9,000' level--carry water. Most people climbing from the east will probably find a dayhike preferable. Cheap lodging can be found in Ridgecrest, an hour's drive to the southeast.
Mountain ConditionsContact Inyo National Forest for current conditions.
The NWS Forecast is the most reliable source of weather information for the Sierra.
Etymology"The former town of Cartago was created as a steamer landing on the southwest shore of Owens Lake to handle shipments of silver bullion from Cerro Gordo. John Baptiste Daneri, native of Sardinia and a Lone Pine merchant, built the landing, a large warehouse, and a store, in 1872. For six months the place didn't have a name, and was referred to as 'Lakeville' and 'Danerisburg.' On November 1, 1872, Daneri named it 'Cartago,' perhaps -- as Lingenfelter suggested -- in the hope that he was creating 'the Carthage of the West.' (Richard E. Lingerfelter, 'The Desert Steamers,' Journal of the West 1, no. 2, Oct. 1962.)
The creek was called 'Carthage Creek' on all editions of the Olancha 30' map, 1907-47. It appeared as 'Cartago Creek' on the 15-minute quad, 1956, a change that was ratified by a BGN decision in 1961."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada