This is the most popular route for ascending Charleston Peak. It takes most of its elevation gain at the beginning, followed by a relatatively flat stroll through alpine meadows to the peak. Over half of the trail is above 10,000'. Lots of fine views along the way.
The trail is 8.3 miles one-way, with an elevation gain of about 4300 feet -- from 7600' to 11,918'. Although the trail itself is excellent, the elevation gain, length and high altitude make it very challenging for most mortals.
The South Loop trailhead is not marked on the main highway, and many first-time hikers end up taking the wrong trail, wasting a half hour. The correct trailhead is inside the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, and should not be confused with a separate trailhead on the highway just outside the picnic area.
The trailhead is easily reached by an all-weather paved road, about 45 minutes from Las Vegas. From I-15 in Las Vegas, take the US-95 freeway north (in the Reno direction). Follow the freeway for about 20 minutes to the outskirts of the city. Very soon after the last housing development, turn left (west) on State Route 157, which is clearly marked "Mt. Charleston." The road climbs about 5000 feet over the next 20 miles. Near the end of the highway, you pass through two villages of vacation homes, marked "Rainbow" and "Old Town." After Old Town, the highway makes a sharp turn to the left. Continue for about a half mile until you reach a parking area on the right shoulder, with pit toilets and stairs leading up the hillside.
This is the "false" trailhead. You can park here, but do not hike from here. Do not go up the stairs at the parking area, but instead continue walking along the road and into the Cathedral Rock Picnic area. (If you go up the stairs, a sign will direct you to "S. Loop" but this route to the trailhead is unnecessarily tiring and indirect.) The trailhead is about 0.2 mile inside the picnic area, the second marked trailhead beyond the fee collection booth.
It is advisable to park outside the picnic area, at the false trailhead, rather than inside the picnic area, because the picnic area closes at dusk and your car might get locked inside if you return after dark (which is likely, given the long hike). There is no admission charge for walk-ins. (The charge for cars is $5.) Ideally, hikers should start very early in the morning, before the picnic area is officially open.
The parking area at the false trailhead can fill up quickly on summer weekends, but parking appears to be tolerated along the right shoulder between the parking area and the entrance to the picnic area.
The trail climbs quickly in the first half, then levels out on a ridge. Over half the trail is above 10,000'. The trail is well-maintained and virtually impossible to lose except in snow. Hiking at night is reasonably safe with a flashlight. There are no significant physical dangers, apart from rapidly changing weather and altitude-related physiological effects. Beware of thunderstorm activity as you approach the exposed peak; this is not the place to be when lightning strikes.
This is the official Forest Service trail description...
"South Loop Trail makes a steep ascent out of the picnic area as it winds toward Echo Canyon. It soon passes through an avalanche chute of quaking aspen. This is a brilliant place in the autumn when the aspen leaves turn orange and gold. The trail continues a steep ascent up Echo Canyon. After a mile it begins climbing numerous switch-backs leading out of the canyon and up to the southern ridge. There are many spectacular views of Kyle Canyon along the way. To reach the ridge, one must hike 4 miles and make a 3000' ascent. The next two miles is relatively easy as the path travels through meadows of grasses and flowers. There are many scenic views of Lake Mead, Las Vegas, Pahrump, and Kyle Canyon. Ancient bristlecone pines are the only trees that grow at this altitude. Several excellent campsites are located along this section of the trail. After six miles, the trail begins to gain altitude once more. As it climbs closer to the timberline, the vegetation becomes more sparse as the trees become twisted dwarfs. After 7-1/2 miles, the trail makes a steep ascent toward the peak. Fierce cold winds whip across the barren rock. At the top of Mount Charleston Peak is the most awe-inspiring view. One can see nearly 300 miles in each direction on a clear day."
Just before the final ascent up the barren peak, the trail passes a field of mechanical rubble (photo). This is the debris field of a C-54 military transport plane that crashed in 1955 while taking Lockheed personnel to the secret base at Area 51 (news article, another article)
For a satisfying (and strenuous) shorter hike, you can hike only the first four miles of the trail, until it reaches the ridgeline, then return by the same route. The view here is similar to the peak.
Upon reaching the ridgeline, the cone visible immediately to the east is Griffith Peak, which is said to offer a much better view of Las Vegas than Mt. Charleston. We have not hiked Griffith Peak, but it looks like a reasonable alternative to the full Charleston Peak hike, appearing to be a scramble of less than a mile from the South Loop trail.
During the first 4 miles, when the trail climbs steeply, flat camping spots are limited. The most popular appear to be two overlooks at about 2 and 3 miles into the hike. Both spots are adjacent to cliffs and overlook Kyle Canyon. One disadvantage of these spots is that they are very close to the trail. You might also be concerned about camping here in a tent during high winds, for fear of being blown off the cliffs.
Once you reach the ridge, there are plenty of places to camp everywhere along the trail. Immediately upon reaching the ridge, there are two crude lean-tos (photo), which can accommodate perhaps 4-6 people, providing some protection from the wind. This is probably the best place to camp along the trail.
Further along the ridge are a couple of other crude windbreaks, including a circle of logs (like a small corral) about 2.5 miles before the summit that could accommodate about 4 people. There is also a basement-size depression on the summit itself, but its floor is very rocky.
Unless there is rain in the forecast, there is no need for a tent in the summer.
No special equipment is required in season, but be prepared for extreme changes of weather and possible frigid conditions or harsh sun at the top. There is no convenient water along the South Loop Trail so be sure to carry enough.
Winter hiking requires appropriate equipment and experience for snow and ice. It is not for novices.
Cell phone coverage:
- Cingular (digital): There is no digital cell phone coverage at the trailhead, at the summit or along most of the trail, but there is limited coverage at a point about 1.5 miles before the summit (Cingular).
Comparison with North Loop Trail
Many hikers climb Mt. Charleston in a loop, ascending by the South Loop Trail and descending by the North Loop Trail and Trail Canyon. The South Loop is usually chosen for the ascent because it is less steep at high altitude, having taken most of the elevation gain at the beginning. Both routes are about the same length and cover the same elevation gain, but the trailheads are about a mile apart. That final mile, which is best covered by hiking along the road (down and up 500 feet of elevation), may seem excruciating after the long hike. (To avoid this, you could spot a 2nd car at the north trailhead, or force one member of the party to hike to the car and return to get the others.)
The easiest hike is probably to both ascend and descend by the South Loop. This has the advantages of allowing you to cache water along the way, or abort your journey enroute. Regardless of the route taken, it is best to start very early in the day and allow 14+ hours for the entire trip.
In the winter, the South Loop Trail is probably safer than the North Loop, since there are no significant ledges adjacent to the trail. The North Loop hugs the cliffs on its highest couple of miles and could be harrowing in icy or snowy conditions. On the other hand, there tends to be less snow on the North Loop, where there is more sun exposure.
On the main road (SR-157), a few hundred yards beyond the entrance to the picnic area, is the Mount Charleston Lodge, which has a restaurant that is open 24 hours. This is an ideal place for a meal before or after the hike. There are no other significant services in the area, so you should stock up on supplies in Las Vegas.
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