Mt. Charleston (aka Charleston Peak) is the highest peak in southern Nevada, and one of the most popular hikes in the state. It is the 8th most prominent mountain
in the U.S. with 8,259 feet of prominence. It's also the most prominent mountain in Nevada
. Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, it provides desert dwellers with a dramatic change of scenery (big trees and alpine meadows) and a taste of strenous high-altitude hiking. From the top, you get the expected panoramic view, with the Sierra Nevada on the horizon to the west and parts of Las Vegas visible to the southeast. The peak is served by two well-maintained trails -- South Loop Trail
and North Loop/Trail Canyon
-- which can be done together as a loop. This demanding round trip hike can be excruciating if you are out of shape, and it takes all day for the average hiker.
Both trailheads are easily reached by paved roads, about 45 minutes from Las Vegas. From I-15 in Las Vegas, take US-95 north (in the Reno direction). Follow the highway 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, with a smaller side road (Echo Road) going straight. Go straight on Echo Road to reach the North Loop/Trail Canyon trailhead, or bear left to reach the South Loop trailhead. See trail descriptions for further details.
: The South Loop trailhead is not marked on the main highway
, and many first-time hikers end up taking the wrong trail, wasting at least 30 minutes. See trail description
There are no permits required for hiking or backpacking. However, campfires are restricted, and due to current drought conditions, fires are allowed for trail campers only during the winter months.
Mt. Charleston is located in the Spring Mountains unit of the
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Seasons and Weather
The snow-free season is roughly June through October. May and November vary greatly from year to year and may possibly be snow-free for part of the month. Winter hiking requires appropriate preparations and technical experience for snow and ice. Snow can be heavy at times and could obscure the trail. During bad winter weather, summit conditions can be arctic and could become deadly for the unprepared.
During the snow-free months, the greatest weather concerns are thunderstorms and high winds. Significant rain is rare, but winds can turn a pleasant hike into an extremely painful one, given that most of the trail is exposed. Consult a wind forecast if possible, such as this one
Mt. Charleston is often mentioned in Las Vegas weather forecasts (on TV and in the Las Vegas Review-Journal). However, these reports are referring to the Mt. Charleston Lodge at the trailhead, not the summit. The temperature at the trailhead is usually about 20 degrees cooler than Las Vegas during the day and 30 degrees cooler at night -- and possibly even colder when there is snowcover. (Here are the current weather conditions and forecast
at the trailheads.) It might be 10-20 degrees cooler than that at the summit.
In the spring and fall, snow-cover on the peak can be judged from a few places in Las Vegas (not everywhere). (You can see the peak from the northeast park of town, and also at the junction of South Rainbow Blvd. and the I-215 freeway in the southwest.)
The summit is bare and rocky. There are a small radio repeater, a survey marker or two and a summit log, but not much else. One interesting feature is an excavated pit about 4 feet deep and 10 feet across, like the basement of a small building. Several people can camp here and be protected from the wind. (The floor is rocky, however, so you would need a good mattress).
If your life's goal is to see Pahrump, Nevada, there it is --stretched out at your feet to the west. To the east, you see Kyle Canyon, the small vacation community from wence you came. Beyond these sights, in all directions, you see endless series of mountain ranges and dry valleys. This not the best place to see Las Vegas, however, as it is partially obscured by intervening relief.
Camping and Lodging
For backpackers, there are plenty of places to camp along the trail. The official trail brochures say, "Camp at least 200' away from springs and trails." Camping away from springs is reasonable, since wildlife depend on them, but camping away from trails is unrealistic in some places. The best and most popular camping spots appear to be adjacent to the trail. (In maintainer's opinion, if you are neat and break camp early, you shouldn't have a problem. There appears to be no enforcement.)
Since rain and insects are rare, you can usually camp in the open, without a tent.
There are also several Forest Service campgrounds on the highway:
Hilltop, and Fletcher View (closed for renovation). They tend to fill up mainly on summer weekends. If the campgrounds are full, you should be able to find a place to camp on BLM land in the lower desert. (Try turning off State Route 157 at the Harris Springs Road, which is about halfway between US-95 and the trailheads. Follow the road up the hill to find an endless expanse of open terrain.)
Because the mountain is so close to Las Vegas, you can easily lodge in the city. The closest hotel-casino to the mountain is the
Santa Fe Station, which often has bargain rates. If you have more money to spend, you can stay at one of the two hotels in the trailhead vicinity:
Mt. Charleston Lodge (at the South Loop trailhead), and the
Mt. Charleston Hotel (about 5 miles below the trailheads on 157).
Warnings and Additional Information
-- Unless you are in top physical condition, be prepared for the possibility of not reaching the summit. This is a very difficult hike for most people, especially lowland dwellers. There are no physical barriers, just a lot of trudging.
-- Bring a flashlight even if you plan to get back by nightfall. Any delay enroute could push you into evening. The trail is easily followed at night -- if you have some light.
-- Bring a hat! The sun can be brutal at high elevation.
-- Bring a windbreaker! Regardless of the weather at the base, there could be strong winds at the summit.
-- Bears are not a factor in this mountain range.
-- Apart from a the
Mt. Charleston Lodge (restaurant/motel) and a small public library
, there are no significant services near the trailheads. You should stock up in Las Vegas, including gas.
-- Mt. Charleston can get very crowded on summer weekends. The main problem is parking. The limited parking at the trailheads fills up fast, so it is wise to get there very early (at dawn). During summer weekends, parking along the shoulder of the road near the trailheads appears to be tolerated. In the worse case, you may have to park on Echo Road, near the junction with SR-157. (There is plenty of parking there, but you may have to walk a half mile to a trailhead.)
Winter hiking requires appropriate equipment and experience for snow and ice. It is not for novices. The North Loop Trail could be particularly dangerous because of the steep switchbacks and adjacent cliffs at its higher elevations. The South Loop is probably safer from falls. However, because most of the North Loop trail has a southern exposure, it gets more sun, and there is likely to be less snow on the trail in the shoulder seasons. In April, hikers have observed heavy snow on the South Loop Trail but very little on the North Loop. (Snowfall varies so much from year to year that trail conditions are hard to predict. For the North Loop to have less snow, there has to be time for it it melt in the sun since the last snowstorm.)
A review of trip reports on the net suggests that most winter hikers seem to prefer the North Loop.
For more winter advice, see the April trip report
Reader "John" says...
"Charleston Peak offers ice climbing in the WI2 to WI5+ range. Areas include: Lost Falls (WI 2), Echo Falls (WI 3), Vegas Hose Monster (WI 5+), Little Falls (WI 2+), Avalanche Falls (WI 4), and Mary Jane Falls (WI 4). For more information see NevadaClimbing.com's Ice Climbing Areas page."
Apart from the North and South loops, other off-trail routes are possible. The Road and Peak Guide
of the Sierra Club Desert Peaks Section may offer more info on obscure routes. This trip report
describes a route from the Lee Canyon ski area.
Map study suggests that a route to the summit from the west ought to be possible starting at Wallace Canyon. Provided you can get to the end of dirt road indicated on the topozone map
, this hiking route appears to be much shorter than the South or North loops.
Some rockclimbing routes are found at Rockclimbing.com
If you have info on other ways to the summit, post it here.
Maps and Information Sources
Nearly all of the trail loop is covered on the
Charleston Peak, Nevada topographic map at a scale of 1:24,000. (The only portion missing is 2-3 mile section where the South Loop Trail climbs to the ridge. That section is found on the adjoining Griffith Peak, Nevada, map) This is the most detailed map available of the trails. (As far as we know, there is no Trails Illustrated or other commercial map available for the area.)
The Spring Mountain Range, as well as Red Rock Canyon, are covered in a
official Forest Service map at a scale of 1:126,720. This map shows the trails, but not in great detail.
The Spring Mountains Visitor Center is housed in small cabin on the main road (SR 157), about 3 miles before the trailheads. It is open 7 days a week. The center sells books and topographic maps and offers free brochures on area trails. Unfortunately, since a Mt. Charleston hike should start very early in the morning, the visitor center may not be open when you pass by.