OverviewLocated in the transitional ranges between the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and the lower Tehachapi Mountains in eastern Kern County, Piute Peak is a broad, uniformly-shaped massif rising to over 8,440 feet, making it one of the highest summits in Kern County (trailing only Owens Peak to the north and Pinos/Sawmill Mountain to the southwest). Piute Peak runs parallel to (and east of) Breckenridge Mountain, but rises nearly 900 feet higher. The popular recreational area of Lake Isabella (Kern River, etc) are located to the north. The eastern slopes of Piute form the western boundary of the Mojave Desert.
Similar to Breckenridge Mountain, Piute is a huge mountain but lacks any real distinct summits other than its highpoint, and even this can be difficult to discern without detailed maps. The mountain is heavily forested up high and features numerous rock outcrops, including a bunch located at and near the highest points. A fire from 2008 charred much of the area south and west of the summit.
Piute Peak is of interest to those hiking the highest peaks by prominence (it comes in at #29 on the California list at over 3,480 feet of clean prominence) and to those interested in the Sierra Club's Hundred Peaks Section (HPS) list, although currently the HPS list leads to the nearby location of the former Piute Lookout, not the true summit of the mountain (more info at the bottom of the page). A network of fair-to-good quality dirt roads travesre the range from the north out of Lake Isabella/Bodfish, from the south via Tehachapi/Walker Basin, and from the east via the high desert and Jawbone & Kelso Canyons. The hiking portion will be small and quick, but there's enough simple scrambling and map-reading to make this a worthy half-day visit and an escape from the summer heat.
Getting ThereAs mentioned above, there are three main approaches to the summit area. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I covered two of the three in my trip there:
North approach from Lake Isabella: go south from Lake Isabella through the town of Bodfish on the Bodfish/Caliente Road. Follow this road up some switchbacks (it is paved) to a pass about three miles south of Bodfish to Saddle Springs Road, which will be on your left and marked as Sequoia Nationa Forest Road 27-S-02 and a sign for Saddle Springs Camp and other destinations. Follow this road up into the range for 16 miles (by my odometer, 16.7 by the posted mileage signs) to a major junction with FR 28-S-01, marked for Walker Basin. Go right another mile or so, traversing south of the peaks, and park near a rock outcrop on your left, across the way from a lesser road that goes north.
Advantages: Lots of camping and sightseeing options in and around Lake Isabella.
Disadvantages: The road is kind of rough and very exposed for the first few miles. It gets better, wider and more improved after about the 8-9 mile mark, passing through a small "town" of summer cabins.
Southwest approach via Tehachapi/Highway CA-58: Exit CA-58 at Bealville Road west of Tahachapi and go north 13.5 miles to Walker Basin Road, and right on Walker Basin Road 9.5 miles to the signed Piute Mountain Road (28-S-01) on your left. Piute Mountain road is good dirt. The first few miles is rural residential, then it gets quite steep as it gains to the top. You'll come to the rock outcrop/parking area after 8 miles (by my odometer).
Advantages: Easiest and shortest approach from Bakersfield or Tehachapi.
Disadvantages: Road is very steep. You'll want 4-wheel drive just for power and traction, especially coming down. This road would kill a smaller vehicle's brakes. Also, not many camping options in this area, which is rural residential (and very pretty). There are some ad-hoc camping areas along the road, first come, first serve.
East approach via Jawbone & Kelso Canyons: I did not follow this route at all. The HPS website gives good directions and mentions this may be the best route for non-4wd/high clearance vehicles. The link is here:
Sierra Club's HPS "Piute Lookout" Road Directions
Note that this leads to the Piute Lookout, an old and dismantled lookout but not the summit. However, the road directions will get you to the summit area. You'll come to the "major junction" I mentioned earlier.
Advantages: Apparently better for smaller vehicles. (I would still err on the side of caution and suggest that the smallest vehicles and those with low clearance should still avoid these roads)
Disadvantages: Very circuitous drive.
Red TapeThere is none as far as I know.
CampingThere are good camping options throughout the Lake Isabella region and along the fabulous Kern River Gorge. The Sandy Flat campground is about 4 miles southwest of Bodfish along the road fronting the Kern River. Another campground (name I forget) is a couple more miles south. Cost was $18 per night.
It would appear to me that there are numerous good primitive sites all around the Piute Peak area. Fires may need a permit, and practice leave-no-trace ethics.
Sequoia National Forest Website
Details About the SummitThe highest point of the Piute Range is a minor challenge in map-reading and minor navigation, but very easy overall. The USGS Map shows five areas over 8,400 feet elevation located along a east-west trending ridge, with the middle area showing a small 8,440-foot contour; this is the presumed summit.
From the rock outcrop along FR 28-S-01 (shown as a tiny 8,200-foot contour south of the road), you'll likely hike the lesser road (not shown on the map) that goes northish to the saddle between the middle and eastern summit bumps.
Three of the 8,400-foot areas are clumped together on the western-most summit bump, featuring the Pah-Ute BM. Covered in rock outcrops, these areas are clearly lower than the middle summit and need not be visited except for the amusement factor. The hike out to these is straightforward cross country.
The middle summit bump - with the 8,440-foot contour - actually features two distinct rock outcrops on a NE-SW bearing from one another. I climbed both, and the NE outcrop is obviously higher than the SW outcrop. The NE outcrop features an easy low class-2 scramble, while the SW block has a slightly more challenging cleft to handle, but is easy overall.
The eastern summit bump has some low rock outcrops maybe 5 feet high and are clearly lower than the middle bump's outcrops.
A: The HPS list actually leads to "Piute Lookout", located somewhere apart from the summit area. There seems to be some desire to remove Piute Lookout from the list and replace it with the summit area, but so far this has not been done.
B: The 2008 fire charred the summit area pretty badly, but (with deep irony) cleared out the underbrush and tree cover enough to make line-of-sight views and travelling easier. There's still enough dead crud lying around suggesting that under normal conditions, this is thick forest with thick underbrush.
Oh Yeah,... I saw a bear, too.
Piute Peak, 5/30/09 (www.surgent.net)
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