California Desert Peaks

California Desert Peaks

Page Type Page Type: Area/Range
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Toprope, Bouldering, Aid Climbing, Scrambling, Canyoneering
Seasons Season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
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Recently adopted this page... this is about as good as it's going to get for now. Any suggestions, let me know.

Welcome to the California Desert!

When one tells people about California, they picture one of a few things: a.) Movie stars, convertibles, and palm trees; b.) Giant, fantastic granitic snow-capped peaks; c.) Hippies and prescription pot. And while we do have palm oases, granitic peaks (not typically snow-capped), and who knows what those desert rats do in their free time... Few people imagine the mysterious splendor of the California desert when imagining California.

Encompassing the entire south east portion of California, the desert region is home to dozens of mountain ranges, lesser and greater, known and unknown; the only constant in the desert is an adventure.

There is a surprising variety of climbs in the desert, ranging from the countless walk-up mountains (peaks that are literally buried in their own weathered detritus) to scrambles to technical climbs.

The highpoint of the California Desert is arguable, and largely depends on what you define the northern boundary of the desert as. If one considers the northern boundary to be Death Valley NP, then Telescope Pk (11049') in Death Valley is the highpoint. If the Inyo Range is your chosen northern boundary, Waucoba Mtn. (11123') in the Inyo Range, is the highpoint. Other candidates mentioned also include Glass Moutain (11140') south of Mono Lake, or even White Mountain Peak (14246'). Elevation tends to not be that important of a factor in the desert, however, as most ranges do not even top 8000', and there are many fine ranges at 5000' or lower. The lowpoint of the desert is quite certain, however... Badwater Basin in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level.

Marked by very open geography, long views, fascinating vegetation, and extremes in weather the desert is always changing, always surprising you with new secrets, and always silent. Ed Abbey wrote (paraphrased): "The desert asks you many questions, but gives no answers."

Places To Climb

The mountain and rock climbing in the CA Desert is endless. There are dozens of ranges sprawling over 15 million acres (give or take a million).

Some convenient groupings include:

Death Valley Region... contains many fine mountain ranges such as the Panamint, Saline, Last Chance, Funeral, Amargosa, Grapevine, and Cottonwood Mountains (amongst others).

Also near there is the Inyo Mountains, and a number of isolated, not especially noteworthy desert ranges (El Pasos, Cosos, Argus). The Mojave is almost completely (eerily!) flat from the south sierras to the San Gabriels/San Bernardinos.

Mojave National Preserve contains a number of excellent desert ranges, such as Clark Mountain, the Granite, Providence, and New York Mountains.

The South Mojave Desert/Colorado Transition Zone features some excellent ranges which don't have a grouping, (but may in the future)... the Old Womans, the Turtles, the Sheepholes, the Whipples, the Chuckwallas... they all rank very high on the list of favorites and most beautiful and isolated places in the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park features a number of fine mountain ranges (Little San Bernardinos, Coxcomb, Hexie, Cottonwood, Pinto, Eagle Mtns), as well as some of the most popular rock climbing in the world. Thousands and thousands of established routes (mostly trad) grace the endless granite domes of the Park. For more info see: Todd Gordon's Site or Mountain Project- Joshua Tree (formerly known as

Finally, the Colorado Desert has a number of nice ranges ringing it from the north to the southeast. Unfortunately, however, the Chocolate Mountains, the largest range, is completely taken up by the Chocolate Mountains Naval Gunnery Range. Therefore, much of the mountain climbing concentration is to the west, in Anza-Borrego State Park.

Desert Ecosystems

The California desert has a very harsh climate; the driest and hottest in North America, on the whole, with most areas getting 3-5 inches of precipitation a year.


The CA Desert is comprised of two major desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. The exact boundaries of the two are vague, but... The Mojave Desert runs from the very southern reaches of the Owens Valley (exact spot arguable, but somewhere near Coso the transition to Great Basin vegetation becomes clear), south to the base of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, along the Little San Bernardino Mountains, and then on a diagonal line to Needles... An arbitrary elevational boundary would be that the Mojave Desert stars around 3000' or so.
The exact boundary between the deserts is arguable and often debated, but the transition zone includes: Cottonwood, Pinto, Eagle, Pinto, Sheephole, Coxcomb, Iron, Turtle, Old Woman, Piute, Sacramento, Chemehuevi, Whipple, and Dead Mountain Ranges. The Colorado Desert in turn goes south to the Mexican border, west to the San Jacinto/Santa Rosa/Laguna Mtn. crest, and east to the river.

The Colorado Desert

The Colorado Desert is merely the name given to the Sonoran Desert, west of the Colorado River in California. It is generally a hotter desert. Temperatues can reach over 120 degrees in the dead of summer, frequently will be in the 110's, and will rarely get below freezing more than a couple of nights a year. Typical seasonal temps (high-low F): Jan 66-41, Apr 86-56, Jul 109-81, Oct 89-61. This does not, however, necessarily indicate warm weather year-round. When it's overcast and the wind is howling, it can get damn cold on the mountains of the Colorado Desert, especially the higher ranges like the Orocopias, Turtles and Chuckwallas.

Most of the Colorado Desert drains into the Salton Sink, which is the location of the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea, while formerly an ephemeral lake bed, was created in the early 20th century when engineers working damming and channeling the Colorado River, sprung a leak and channeled the river into the Sink.

Good mountains ranges to climb in in the Colorado Desert are in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, around the east side of Joshua Tree NP (the Orocopia Mountains, the Chuckwalla Mountains, the Coxcomb Mountains), and the Colorado River ranges (Chemehuevis, Whipples, Big Marias).

Vegetation is typically creosote bush scrub, with mixed cacti (mostly cholla or opuntia), and also saltbush scrub. Riparian areas typically have trees (as opposed to the colder Mojave Desert where few trees ever grow), including Honey and Screwbean Mesquite, Ironwood, Palo Verde, Catclaw, Smoke tree, Cottonwood, and the rare California Fan Palm.

The Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is a hot desert, still. But much more manageably hot. Other than Death Valley (which is ghastly hot) temperatues in the Mojave generally stay in the low 100's in the summer. It can, of course, soar above that for weeks on end; but typically it's 10-15 degrees cooler than the Colorado Desert (or "down below"). Nights get below freezing often (most nights) in the winter, and the higher ranges have severe winters with heavy snowfall on the peaks. Typical seasonal temps (high-low F): Jan 60-30, Apr 78-43, Jul 103-68, Oct 83-48.

Much of the Mojave Desert drains into isolated drainage basins which have dry lake beds at their bottom. This creates varied biotic communities within the basins.

The Mojave Desert most likely has far more people climbing mountains in it than the Colorado Desert. And much of that use is concentrated in the 3 NPS Units: Mojave, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree. However, there are many worthy objectives on BLM land outside of the Parks (the Old Womans, Kingston Range, and Sheephole Mountains amongst others).

Vegetation varies greatly with elevation. At the lower reaches of the Mojave, it is largely creosote bush scrub (across the endless bajadas between ranges creosote is king), with mixed Yucca (schidigera and brevifolia- Joshua Trees) and cacti (cholla, barrel, opuntia, mammalaria). Higher, one gets into scrub oak woodlands, and a gradual transition to a mixed juniper, sparse to dense pinyon-juniper, and then a pine forest belt on the highest peaks. Some high peaks have relict populations of white fir on the highest reaches. Others feature bristlecone pine up high. Riparian vegetation is much more limited, featuring cat's claw, smoketree in the farthest southern portions of the Mojave, occaisional cottonwood, and saltbush-type community plants. The dry lake beds also have saltbush scrub.

Wilderness and Land Management in the California Desert

Land management in the California Desert is fairly complicated. The primary land managers climbers are to be concerned with are the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and CA State Parks. US Fish and Wildlife Service and of course the Department of Defense both manage vast tracts of the desert, but the USFWS land has little in the way of mountains and the DOD land is all off-limits.

The California Desert has a vast amount of wilderness. It is home to the largest mass of wilderness lands in the lower 48 states, and features wilderness managed by BLM, the NPS, and CA State Parks.

The NPS doesn't have a tremendous amount of information about their wilderness areas, but essentially all upland and mountain areas in all of the 3 NPS units are protected as wilderness. This is particularly the case in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, where everything but the very road corridors themsleves is designated wilderness. Most of the open valleys in Mojave National Preserve are not protected. has good information on all of the NPS units: Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park.

For more information on BLM Wilderness Areas, see the Field Office's websites:

Ridgecrest Filed Office: Argus Range, Bright Star, Coso Range, Darwin Falls, El Paso Mountains, Golden Valley, Grass Valley, Inyo Mountains, Kiavah, Malpais Mesa, Manly Peak, Owens Peak, Piper Mountain, Sacatar Trail, Surprise Canyon, Sylvania Mountains

Needles Field Oficce: Bigelow Cholla Garden, Bristol Mountains, Cadiz Dunes, Chemehuevi Mountains, Clipper Mountain, Dead Mountains, Kelso Dunes, Kingston Range, Mesquite, North Mesquite Mountains, Old Woman Mountains, Piute Mountains, Sheephole Valley, Stateline, Stepladder Mountains, Trilobite, Turtle Mountains, Whipple Mountains

Barstow Field Office: Bighorn Mountain, Black Mountain, Cleghorn Lakes, Funeral Mountains, Hollow Hills, Ibex, Kingston Range, Newberry Mountains, Nopah Range, Pahrump Valley, Resting Spring Range, Rodman Mountains, Saddle Peak Hills, South Nopah Range

Palm Springs Field Office: Big Maria Mountains, Chuckwalla Mountains, Little Chuckwalla Mountains, Mecca Hills, Orocopia Mountains, Otay Mountain, Palen/McCoy, Rice Valley, Riverside Mountains, San Gorgonio Additions, Santa Rosa Additions

El Centro Field Office: Carrizo Gorge, Coyote Mountains, Fish Creek Mountains, Indian Pass, Jacumba, Little Picacho, North Algodones Dunes, Palo Verde Mountains, Picacho Peak, Sawtooth Mountains

For more info on Anza-Borrego SP, try The Desertusa page.

For more information

For more information on the California desert, in particular mountains in the CA desert, check out the great book by Andy Zdon, Desert Summits, put out by Spotted Dog Press. It is the definitive guide to peaks in the California Desert (with a little info on desert peaks in NV as well).

Other good books on the desert include...

-The California Desert by Edmund Jaegar
-The Mojave by David Darlington
-Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Pam MacKay
-Colorado Desert Wildflowers by Jon Mark Stewart
-The Jepson Desert Guide by Jepson