Pinta Benchmark • Range Highpoint: Sierra Pinta
• Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
• Southern Yuma County

Date Climbed
February 10, 2013

2,950 feet

18 miles

12 hours

2,030 feet

Clear, blustery, cool

2,010 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version

The Pinta Range, as seen from our parking area. Oh, so far

The rescue beacon where we camped

Next morning, we get closer to the base of the range

Same vantage, now looking southwest at peaks in Mexico

The initial approach canyon

Same vantage, looking out at the mouth of the canyon

The dry waterfall, about 1/4 of the way up the canyon

This big boulder about 2/3 the way up presented a challenge. We went right. Note: the bigger boulder at right is not the one I am referring to

Above the big boulder, the remainder of the route

Getting closer!

At this "prow", we went right and met the ridge at the saddle roughly in the center

The summit as seen from near a rock outcrop along the ridge

And there I was

And Ken, too

Summit montage: Top-left is north, Top-right is south and Pinacate Peak, Bottom-left is southwest at the ridge we scaled, and bottom right is east and the other summit rock outcrop

The mountains, about two miles distant on the walk out

The southern Pintas, and the stark desert flora

The mountains, now about 4 miles away, about halfway on the walk out

At last, the cars

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Prominence Peaks


Pinta Benchmark is the highest point of the Sierra Pinta, a remote mountain range buried deep in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in far-south Arizona. The lengthy range is like many in this part of the desert, with steep, rugged and rocky slopes, no forests or trees to speak of, and rising dramatically from the flat desert plains. The summit has no official name and is sometimes simply called Sierra Pinta. The actual benchmark at the summit is stamped "Pinto".

It has taken me many years to work up the interest to climb this peak. There are many good reasons not to. For example, it is extremely remote, requiring a long drive along washboarded sandy roads in the middle of one the least hospitable ecosystems in North America. The general area is also prone to see Mexican border crossers and drug-running. The actual climb is short, but because the peak is located on a Wilderness, the road leading into the range is restricted, meaning an 8-mile road walk each way just to get to the approach canyon. Thus, you leave your car parked in the open during the whole time.

However, there are mitigating factors, too. The actual climb is fairly straightforward and a notch simpler than the other major peaks out this way, such as Mohawk Mountain and Sheep Mountain. The main road is regularly patrolled by the Border Patrol, and as an absolute last-resort failsafe, there is a rescue beacon at this road junction. Thus, if someone did thrash or steal our vehicles, we could press the button and get some assistance from the Border Patrol. Other people have hiked it with no problems, so I began to consider a trip to the Pintas. The remoteness and challenge just to get there was also appealing. Among other things, this would be my first trip ever onto the Cabeza Prieta.

This opportunity came when Ken Jones mentioned he would be in the state during January and February, hiking a series of peaks. We had agreed to schedule a hike to the Pintas for late January, but we were rained out that weekend. We then re-scheduled it for two weekends later, or this weekend. We agreed to meet in Tacna along Interstate-8, and give it our best effort. I left my home saturday afternoon and topped the gas in Tacna, where we met as planned. From Tacna, we drove east on the interstate to an open gate on the south fence, then passed through it and proceeded south to our intended camp at the trailhead.

At the gate, I zeroed the odometer. The road is sandy but solid, and we drove south for 2.1 miles to the entry gate onto the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. The road runs southeast, paralleling the Mohawk Sand Dunes. At 18.2 miles (all miles cumulative from the Interstate), the road comes to a four-way junction where one of the scattered rescue beacons stands (there was also one a few miles north as we drove south). To this junction, the road was in excellent shape, with minimal wash-boarding. We were able to average about 35 m.p.h. South of this junction, the road narrows and becomes much sandier and very washboarded. At 23.5 miles, we crossed the Cabeza Prieta boundary, then found our trailhead/camp after 32.1 miles. The last 14 miles were a chore, and took an hour. In places, the road is sunk about 3 or 4 feet below the surrounding desert. If you go too fast, the washboarding will cause your vehicle to yaw, and a couple times I very nearly ran into one of earthen banks. The entire drive took about 90 minutes.

Images of the drive into the Cabeza Prieta N.W.R.

Goldwater Range boundary

Point of the Pintas, and some of the lesser-quality road

Now entering the Cabeza Prieta.

We rolled in around 4 p.m. in cool, sunny conditions. A small storm had passed through the state two days ago, but today was sunny, with some low clouds and temperatures in the 50s. Our camp area was plain but nice. We parked apart from the beacon and inspected the general area: flat sandy desert (called the Tule Desert, a sub-ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert), mainly featuring creosote bushes, and very little grass or significant ground cover. There were larger trees lining the road. Our objective, the Sierra Pinta, was way off to the east. The side road that we would be following, sometimes called Heart Tank Road, started from here. With irony, it was in far better condition than the road we had driven in. All that blocked us were two little signs on each side barring unauthorized vehicles. We intended to keep it legal anyway. When the sun set and the temperatures fell, we turned in for the night in our respective vehicles.

The night was very cold, with temperatures in the 30s. Around 2 a.m., a truck rumbled into camp. I sat up and watched it as it came up behind our vehicles and shone its light on us. It was a Border Patrol truck. It then turned and inspected the beacon. At this point, I poked my head out to greet the patrolman. He asked us what we were up to and our intentions. I told him our plans, and he was friendly and pleasant. This was good, because we wanted to make the Border Patrol aware of our "presence", so they'd know why two vehicles are parked way out here, plus to keep an eye on them as they did their normal rounds. At 4 a.m., we both awoke and got our stuff in order, taking our time. The plan was to leave before dawn, to walk as much of that road in darkness as possible so as to be at the base of the mountain by daylight.

We locked up the vehicles and started the long eight-mile trek toward the range at 5:30 a.m. There was no moon in the sky, but the millions of stars in the sky shone enough to give us just enough ambient light to make out the road against the contrasting darker-colored brush lining it. Thus, we hiked without a flashlight for most of this trek. The road itself was flat and sandy, with no rocks whatsoever. In fact, one would be challenged to find a rock larger than a baseball in this whole desert plain, apart from the actual mountains. With nothing visual to distract us, we walked and walked and walked, so that when the sun did start to rise, we were well over half way to the range. We covered the 8 miles in about 2 hours and 40 minutes, taking a break at the road's end near a small weather station, near the "guzzler" printed on the map. In the shade of the range, the temperatures were still very chilly.

Now began the actual climb. From the road's end, the canyon starts in earnest, and the summit is only a mile farther on, but over 1,800 feet higher. We followed a scant path for a few yards before it petered out in the jumble of large rocks and thick brush of the canyon bottom. We poked our way up these rocks for a few hundred more yards to a point where the canyon splits. The left split leads up to a water-stained overhang, presumably Heart Tank itself. We went right, and continued on our task of hopping from rock to rock, avoiding brush, and figuring out each little section a few feet at a time.

In about 20 minutes we had gained about 300 feet from the road's end, and had come upon a smooth-rock waterfall. There was no flow, but there were a couple of natural pools (tinajas) holding water from the previous couple of storms. The rock itself was quite slick. I was able to friction-step my way up the approximately 20 vertical feet, but I had to lean way in to keep my center of gravity nearly on the rock itself. Ken had no luck, and opted for a bypass up a brushy chute, then a traverse across a rock barrier. We met again at the top of the waterfall, and continued upward.

The going was a consistent blend of rocks and brush. The navigation was easy and the climbing and scampering easy, too. We seemed to encounter a "major" obstacle every 400 vertical feet. Usually, these occurred at points where the canyon pinched in, or split. We always angled right, and the various obstacles had enough hand-holds or bypass options so that we could get up and past them. However, at times, we had to try a few routes first before solving the riddle.

Another significant obstacle comes about two-thirds of the way up (see image on the left sidebar). A large rock sits in the gully, and at first, going left up a series of fractured stone ledges seemed promising, but I pulled off two large stone flakes and quickly determined that I wanted no part of this loose rock. Ken was able to work up a brushy chute up the rock's right (looking up), and I followed him. Above this rock, the terrain steepend considerably. We were on the home stretch toward the main ridge, which now was only a few hundred feet higher.

There was one more main obstacle about another 200 feet higher: another choke point. There's a six-foot "step" that neither of us were comfortable with. Ken again went right and worked his way up a nasty loose rock chute, pulling off a couple loose flakes in the process. Me, I angled left and up a slope to another chute, and found it to be manageable, gaining about 20 vertical feet. This was the only segment of the whole climb that I felt would warrant a Class 3 rating. My hunch worked well, as when I topped out here, I saw a big cairn, so I assumed others had felt the same way.

Looking up, the ridge was just another 250 feet higher. The gully splits farther up, and according to our information, were were to go right, crossing below a rocky prow (see picture at left). By now, the slope was very steep, maybe 35%, but the rocks were "mostly" solid. We moved carefully and had no problems, and momentarily, we had arrived onto a ridiculously tiny saddle, maybe five feet wide before it dropped precipitously off to the south, and five feet between the rock outcrops lining the summit ridge.

At this saddle, we turned left and bypassed the rocks by scampering up an easy slope facing the canyon we had just ascended. Gaining the top, we saw the actual summit still a few dozen yards farther away, but a steep cliff barring our progress. I was fearful we'd have to downclimb below the prow, and follow the left gully. However, I was able to find a ledge on the south-facing rocks that offered an easy, if minorly exposed, way down onto the small notch separating our current rock outcrop and the next one over, with the true summit.

Once past that obstacle, the final few dozen feet to the top was easy, up a nice safe slope with a palo verde growing right in the middle. We arrived on top just before noon, meaning a three-hour climb, which, for me, is not too shabby. Ken was pleased, too. We stayed 30 minutes on top, inspecting the wonderful views and the enormous solitude. We tagged both rock piles along the small summit ridge, and signed into the log, noting that someone had been up here three days earlier, but only one visitor for all of 2012. We saw the usual batch of familiar names, and the log held names and dates from 1965. The benchmark "Pinto" is cemented into the rocks below the highest of the rocks.

Looking north, the rest of the Pintas gave way to desert plains and then, farther on, the Mohawk Mountains. Looking west, we saw the Copper Mountains, the Tinajas Altas and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains, plus the distant Gila Mountains. The most remarkable view was south at the magnificent Volcan Santa Clara in Mexico. To the southwest slightly were the pink sands of the Altar Desert, and beyond that, a faint blue sheen: the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). I was surprised we could see that far! The views alone were worth all the effort.

The climb down went slow, as we retraced our route and took extra care to not hurt ourselves. We had no navigation problems and were able to handle the couple of tricky segments without issue. However, we were both lagging now, given we'd hiked and climbed close to 10 miles to this point. It took us a little under three hours to inch our way back onto the road at the mouth of the canyon. We took a break here, trying somehow to get "excited" about walking another 8 miles of road back to our vehicles.

The walk out was tedious. The upside was that the day was cool and slightly breezy. The views were nice, and every so often I'd turn around to see the Pintas slowly getting farther away. We agreed to walk our own pace, and I was about 10 minutes ahead of Ken. We took one break about half way out, but the act of sitting down, then getting back up, was laborious. Ironically, it was easier to just keep walking. Also, there are very few landmarks to judge the distance. It was just the endless road. Still about three miles out, I saw the beacon near our cars, and this was mildly exciting, but it never seemed to get any closer. Finally, the walk ended and I was back to my truck. I changed clothes and relaxed, and Ken arrived 10 minutes later. It was 5:30 when I arrived, meaning a 12-hour day for me. Ken took ten minutes to change, but we wanted to be driving as soon as possible.

In retrospect, the road walk had its own allure. It was very pretty, in its own sandy and creosote way. The tediousness allowed me to clear my mind, and it was a good way to meditate while walking. I literally thought of nothing. However, it's the type of thing I want to do once, but not twice. It definitely takes some will to "want" to hike an extra 8 miles after an already-strenuous climb.

For the exit, we drove the road north. I very much wanted to be back at that road junction fourteen miles north (the one 18.2 miles south of the interstate) before complete darkness. Other than the annoying washboard, this segment went well, and it took about an hour. The final 18+ miles were driven in the dark, but by now, we were on the better road and were able to average 30-35 miles per hour, except those times when the Border Patrol pulled us over. Ken got pulled over, then we were both pulled over at the Goldwater gate, just 2 miles from the interstate.

The Border Patrolman knew we were coming, having been radioed by his colleague down the road. Still, he questioned us, shone his flashlight at us, looked inside my truck. He was friendly, and very definitely bored, just being parked there in the desert in the dark. He asked us where we'd been hiking, and when I mentioned the Cabeza Prieta, he replied that we couldn't have hiked there, since "the granola types get pissy when people go there." Clearly, he was wrong. He kept us for nearly 15 minutes. I only now had a cell-phone signal and very much needed to alert my wife we were safe, since my self-imposed 8 p.m. time limit was coming near. Anyway, he let us go. Ken and I shook hands and he took off, while I stayed an extra couple minutes and phoned my wife. After that, it was a three-hour drive home, with a stop for a meal at the Space Age Cafe in Gila Bend.

The whole journey had gone well, and we had zero problems. We never saw a hint of any border crossers, especially footprints along the road we walked. I had left a few bottles of water beside my truck while we were hiking for a couple reasons: in case they needed it, they could have it, and also, as a gesture that in my kindness, please don't break into my vehicle. Well, those four bottles were still there, untouched. The whole experience was fantastic, and the climb was far simpler than Mohawk or Sheep. I am happy to have hiked it. I won't be going back for a second time, but I would like to revisit the Cabeza Prieta sometime. My thanks to Ken for proposing this hike and being a great partner.

(c) 2013 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.