They Built a Road to the Top... What To Do?Does a road to a summit cheapen the summit experience? Given that mountaintops are a natural place to install communications towers and the like, it’s no surprise that many peaks have roads that lead to the summit. On one extreme, you could drive the entire route and then lay claim to a successful ‘summit visit’. I don’t think any climber or hiker would accept this as a proper way to ‘climb’ a mountain, but nevertheless, there are other points to consider, and I welcome input and dialogue on the subject.
In no particular order:
The road is the only viable hiking option to the summit, barring advanced 4th or 5th-class routes, or brutal and unattractive bushwhacking. In this case, there are no other ‘usual’ hiking routes to the top. Do you simply ignore this peak altogether? Do you cut the difference and hike the road? How far up to you drive before parking, if the option exists?
In the southwest United States, many desert peaks have roads to the top as natural and discrete places to install various towers. I can imagine the authorities assuming that no one would be interested in the peak for any other reason – in the days before such esoteric lists such as the county/state highpoints or prominence lists came into being and popularized by the internet.
So… do you hike the road if no other option exists? Case in favor: Cunningham Mountain in La Paz County, Arizona. A rugged desert peak with plenty of prominence, a rough, steep road leads to the top, and although it’s gated against public vehicles, it is open to foot traffic. Admittedly the road is unattractive, but the peak is otherwise very difficult to climb otherwise. With the road as an option, a fairly fun and easy half-day hike to the top is an option, with outstanding views of the deserts below.
Should we have removed this peak from our lists altogether because the road is the only option to the top?
I believe that most hikers and climbers adopt a personal set of ‘rules’ and guidelines in what they’ll do to count a peak as properly climbed under human power. Some use a required minimum elevation gain, parking early then hiking the road to the top. Others simply want to visit the top and if the road is drivable to the top, will use that option.
Who is to say whose rules are better?
The United States state and county highpoint rules are deliberately open on this rule. The rule is – visit the top, and you can count it. A climber might cringe at the openness of this rule, but if my 90-year old aunt gets it into her head to visit a few state highpoints in her car, should I adopt an attitude that ‘it won’t count in my book’ because she drove to the top?
Another point to consider, and this has a personal aspect to me: you, or a loved one and long-time hiking partner, is addled by an infirmity (e.g. arthritis). You can hike a fairly gentle road to the top, or hike a lengthy trail with some scramble sections. If you are fit and have the time, I’m sure many of us would choose the trail. But if the infirmity is enough to hold you back from the trail option, does taking the road make the ascent any less worthy? My wife was a warrior hiker in her 20s and 30s, felled recently by arthritis. She can still do trail and road hikes of reasonable length (6 miles tops, perhaps). In our case, the road option is our only realistic option in many instances.
Is road hiking necessarily bad? Some of our most enjoyable hikes have been along roads. In a few cases the roads are well graded and well kept, and if closed to public vehicle traffic, become nothing more than ‘wide trails’. I cite Keystone Peak in southern Arizona as a good example or a good road, well kept, with great views all the way up.
Is road driving necessarily bad? It’s rare a road that leads to a summit is smooth enough for most passenger vehicles all the way up. The vast majority do require high-clearance and 4-wheel drive, and in some circumstances the act of driving the road is far more challenging and exhilarating than a hike would have been. My canonical example: Santiago Peak in southern California, which is the highpoint of Orange County and a highly prominent peak as well. The hiking options are few and usually very long (and a lot through that ugly low manzanita scrub common to SoCal). Years ago when Indian Truck Trail was open to public traffic, I bashed my truck up that road to very nearly the top, and had a great time. I don’t pretend to have ‘climbed’ Santiago Peak, and frankly, absolutely nothing about that peak interested me other than its list credentials. To me, the road was really the only viable way to make that peak interesting. A wilderness experience it is not, but I had a fun few hours.
If a road to the top is bad, is a road ‘almost’ to the top bad as well? Where would we draw the line? Do we diminish hikers who parked at Whitney Portal (el. 8,000 feet) to hike California’s highest peak? Should we have required they park in the Owens Valley and hike the mountain ‘properly’? Would an ascent of Mount Whitney be any less impressive if the road had been built to 10,000 feet?
I can think of many other variables and conditions that could alter the decision-making as to whether to follow a trail or a road. Time availability is one big issue. It’s nice if you live near a peak with a long trail, where you can plan for a long day or an overnight. But if you’re just passing through with maybe a half-day available, is taking the road less honorable?
For the record, here are my personal ‘rules’, all of which are self-negotiable:
Whenever possible I try to follow a trail if one is available. If the only trail options are way too long and I am pressed for time, I will consider the road. If I drive the road I usually park early and usually try to have at least 1,000 feet of gain, perhaps more if possible, but oftentimes the nature of the road leaves little choice as to where to park. If it is a ‘worthy’ mountain that includes a road option, I will strongly lean toward the trail routes unless circumstances force me against the trails (of course, this begs the question as to what is ‘worthy’…). When hiking with my wife, we must adjust our options accordingly. She likes trails as well, but cannot take on the lengthy 12-milers any more. Some case samples:
Sandia Crest, New Mexico: Not living in or near Albuquerque, I don’t usually have the time for the 15-mile La Luz Trail hike to the top. Passing through in 2000 I took the tram to the ridge and hiked through snow and some ice and sludge to the top, which was a lot of fun and felt like an ‘accomplishment’, however minor. In 2003, with my wife and with a plane to catch within two hours, we made a quick drive up the paved highway to the top.
Pikes Peak, Colorado: Again, not a local, and just passing through in 2002, I drove the road because I thought that experience would be fascinating, and it was… however, guilt set in and on the drive down, I parked about 3 miles and 1,000 feet down and hiked back up so that at least I could sleep at night with a sound mind. One day I would love to visit at length and hike the standard routes to the top.
Harquahala Mountain, Arizona: A rough 4wd Jeep road leads to the top. In 1997, I drove in about 3 miles and hiked the remaining 7 miles, thereby ‘climbing’ the peak entirely along the road. In 2004, with my wife (and before her arthritis set in), we hiked the lesser-known mule-team supply trail up the north side. I live just 90 minutes from the trailhead. If someone was just passing through and wanted Harqy for his or her list, I would not begrudge them if they drove the road. It is not an easy road, requiring a good vehicle and knowledge about 4-wheel driving.
Mount Mansfield, Vermont: Time was the major variable, but we felt driving the toll road to the spine of the range and hiking the trail to the top was a nice alternative.
Mount Washington, New Hampshire: I have not done this one yet, but its ‘worthiness’ is so well-known that I will definitely follow the trail routes to the top as opposed to the road or railway. My wife, on the other hand, will probably be obliged to take the road or railway. In my book, she’ll get the same credit as I will.
Santiago Peak, California: Already discussed, but briefly: a brush-covered range in Southern California with little to recommend it other than its status as Orange County’s highpoint. No time nor interest to hike it, I happily drove the 4-wd road to the top, and don’t feel the least bit conflicted by this, seven years after the fact.
In a nutshell, I choose the option that best fits the mountain, our time availability, and our skill and or ability level. I am constantly ‘adjusting’ my self-imposed rules, as there always seems to be a mountain that refuses to be pigeon-holed so easily.
So… what are your thoughts?