Moapa Peak is just pure fun. This climb was Day 5 of my 6-day desert scrambling vacation, which also included adventures in Death Valley NP and Red Rock Canyon NCA. I'd guess this mountain sees only a dozen or so successful ascents in a typical year, and I had it all to myself on the day after Thanksgiving. The weather was perfect, with temps around 60 degrees, a light breeze, and enough cloud cover for much of the day to block the desert sun. I headed north out of Las Vegas on I-15 before sunrise, and reached freeway exit #100 about an hour later. Another 8 miles down a dirt road, and I was at the "Rust Bucket" trailhead, which I named after the large URO (Unidentifiable Rusting Object) next to the parking loop. Here's a (PHOTO) of the peak as you're approaching it on the dirt road. The road is not too bad, but you will need a high clearance vehicle (not necessarily 4WD) to get all the way to the trailhead. Don't bother trying to drive beyond the loop, even though the road continues on through the gap in the ridge. It's a steep slope with poor traction, and I had to back up and make a second run at it to get my 4WD Toyota Tundra over the hump. There's really nowhere decent up there to park, and you'll only save 5 minutes of walking. I ended up driving back down and parking at the loop. The trailhead remains in view for most of the climb, and it's interesting to watch your vehicle get smaller and smaller as you ascend, until it essentially vanishes into the desert.
The climb up to Moapa Peak has no defined trails to speak of anywhere along the way, so this is an exercise in scrambling over some pretty rough terrain. If you're more accustomed to hiking up real trails, be forewarned that this peak will offer you a chance for some hand-to-hand combat in many stretches, especially if you get too far off the standard route. There's not much bushwhacking, as the vegetation is sparse. It is, however, very aggressive. I had a couple of cactus attacks right through my heavy leather boots; and long pants and low gaiters were not enough to keep me from getting a few additional stabs and scratches. Anyway, I finally started hiking at 8:55 am, and promptly got off to a false start by going up the wrong gulch from the trailhead. When I reached the end of the gulch and scrambled up to the saddle, I was dismayed to see that I'd have to downclimb a steep slope, giving up 500 feet of hard-won elevation, and then re-climb the equally-steep opposite slope to be on the correct saddle that led up to the headwall. That set me back almost an hour, but I pressed on, and reached the correct saddle at 11:00 am. Here's a (PHOTO) of the correct route, taken from the "Wrong" saddle. The Class 3 headwall presented no real difficulty (although some accounts describe it as the most technically challenging part of the climb). From the top of the headwall, I carefully continued upward, keeping a keen eye out for the cairns that marked much of the route. After a breathtaking climb, which traversed the south face of the mountain, I arrived at the infamous knife-edge ridge.
The ridge was a terrifying and suicidal .......oh wait, I sound like a wimp after Matthew Holliman just called it a "hands-in-pockets walk" in his summit log entry from four days earlier. But after looking at Matthew's peak-climbing resume', I think he's way overqualified to speak for us average hiking slobs. OK, there are sections you can stand and walk, and other sections you can straddle the knife-edge and scoot along. Only once (near the beginning), do I recall clinging to one side of the ridge with my ass hanging out over a few hundred feet of air. Nothing difficult, but anyone with a fear of heights or issues with exposure would not want to go here. It feels like walking on an airplane wing 3,000+ feet above the ground. Zdon's classic book (Desert Summits) states that "Some climbers may want the security of a rope along the ridge", but I'd think that anyone who's made it this far probably has the necessary skills to negotiate the ridge without roping up. I reached the summit at 1:20 pm, and was treated to exceptional views in all directions. I signed the register below Matthew's entry, and started down just before 2:00 pm.
On the descent, I overshot the standard route down off of the headwall by a few hundred feet, and (unwisely) decided to just keep going downhill. After a couple of tricky moves, I finally managed to get to the base of the headwall at the cost of a square inch of skin from my left shin and a few lesser bruises and abrasions. I got back to the truck at 4:30 pm, just as the last daylight was fading away. It had been such a great day I didn't even mind too much to find that I had a flat tire to change before I could make the 45-minute drive down the dirt road to the freeway.
In summary, this peak makes for a really sweet day trip out of Las Vegas. You should allow about 2 hours each way for the drive, and at least 6 hours for the climb. My GPS logged a total round-trip distance of only 6.35 miles, but most of that is pretty steep, as the elevation gain is 3,330 feet from the trailhead to the peak. You definitely want to climb Moapa Peak in the cooler part of the year, but remember that it gets dark very early in the winter. You don't want to lose too much time due to route-finding issues, and then be wandering around lost up there after dark. I'd recommend taking some orange flagging to mark a couple of key turns on the way up, and then pick it up on the way down.
It would be wise to have a partner along for this trek, as the remote location and unforgiving terrain could quickly turn a minor unpleasantry into a serious epic. If it's any comfort, I found upon my return to the trailhead that my cell phone worked, so I'd guess it would also work at most places up on the mountain. Take more water than you think you'll need. There is no water source on the mountain, and the dry desert air will dehydrate you very quickly, even on a cool winter day. Let's see, since I'm doing my safety lecture, what else ... Oh yeah, bring some gloves (I didn't), because the rock up there is extremely abrasive. But maybe I just noticed it more because I'd recently had 14 stitches removed from my left hand. In any case, I'll almost guarantee you'll lose some skin somewhere along the way, but hey, that's all part of the fun.