The Mountains of California
Big Maria Peak • Highpoint: Big Maria Mountains
• Big Maria Mountains Wilderness
• Riverside County

The summits of Big Maria as seen from Midland Road

Crossing the desert flats approaching the canyon

Now most of the way up the approach canyon...

...and from the same vantage, looking up at the tricky rocky section to the ridge

Now on the ridge, Big Maria is still not very obvious. (It's probably the bump on the left)

Impressive Big Maria Peak

The final 20 feet

Looking down the ridge at the Little Marias, Palens, and other desert ranges

Date: December 21, 2008 • Elevation: 3,381 feet • Prominence: 2,298 feet • Distance: 7 miles • Time: 6 hours • Gain: 2,500 feet • Conditions: Breezy and freezing cold


Big Maria Peak tops the Big Maria Mountains, a dozen miles north of Blythe in eastern California. The range is low and rocky, with no forest or any shade trees. The climbing season for this peak is short as it is too hot for about 8 months of the year to hike it. Ironically, I was here on the Winter Solstice, and the day would be one of the coldest of the year here, with lows in the 20s and highs barely reaching 50.

I was driving west to family and friends for Christmas. I was interested in Big Maria Peak, and planned to split the drive over two days, overnighting in Blythe, then hiking the peak the following morning. I had planned to car-camp, but the weather was bitterly cold and blustery, so I stayed at the cheap Blythe Inn. The place was barely okay. It was clean, but not well tended. The Bible had gang graffiti all over it. The next morning (today), I was awoken by some guy kicking and pounding the door next to mine at 5 a.m. So I just stayed awake, and when the sun rose, I packed up and left.

I went north on Lovekin Road five miles to where it bends left, crosses over railroad tracks and turns into Midland Road. After another 8.5 miles on Midland, I turned north at power lines crossing the road, staying on a dirt track presumably there to service the power lines (the BLM calls this road the "Midland-Vidal" Road). I followed this road north about 4 miles, parking before an eroded, washed-out section near a drainage. I was at 1,000 feet elevation here.

A major winter storm had barrelled through the Southwest in the previous few days. Although it was now clear and beautifully blue, the cold Arctic airmass behind the storm was still evident. I bundled up and started hiking at 8:15 a.m., walking north directly into the winds. It was cold enough to make my teeth hurt. How many people in Blythe can ever say that?

I followed the remainder of the road, then angled across rocky desert flats, aiming for a big west-facing drainage. This segment covered about 1.5 miles, and once I got to the drainage, I dropped in to get out from the biting wind. The drainage would be the main route to the top, a 3,381-foot summit. There is also a 3,380-foot summit nearby, plus another at 3,379 feet about a mile to the north. I'd go to the 3,381-footer first, then decide what to do afterwards.

Now in the drainage, I walked east into the mountains, followng the drainage as it zigged and zagged. I hopped from boulder to boulder, managing the brush, and even encountering ice patches in spots. In the shade, it was freezing cold, as were the rocks when I touched them. While this segment was easy, it was tedious and the cold was sagging my spirit. I decided to get into the inner drainage, where it splits and opens up, then figure out my next move.

In an hour, I was deep within the inner drainages, but now I had direct sun and that made all the difference in the world. Also, I had clear views of the ridges and I was happy to be actually climbing and out of the rocks in the drainage. I was at about 1,600 feet elevation. The range crest that I wanted to be on was north of me, a little less than a thousand vertical feet higher.

I hustled up the first couple hundred feet, happy to finally be gaining elevation. The going here was steeper than before but (most) everything was solid. However, the last 150 vertical feet below the ridge was extremely steep, and the rocks all seemed to be loose, so that even a slight touch would set them sliding and tumbling.

I angled toward what seemed to be more solid bands of rock, but discovered even these guys weren't as solid as they looked. Handfuls would flake off as I grabbed them. Needless to say I was extremely careful in this section. I double and triple-checked each step and hold to ensure it was solid before moving forward, and in time I had achieved the range crest, elevation about 2,550 feet. I knew once I got here the terrain would be far friendlier, and it was.

The remaining hike from this 2,550-foot point to the summit breaks into two parts: a half mile heading east and gaining about 500 more feet to come to a low point on the main north-south ridge spine connecting the Big Maria peaks, then the final hiking segments to the actual peaks. I was heartened to find a rough path and cairns marking a way up and down the easy rocky obstacles. Now on the main north-south ridge, I turned left (north) to tackle the 3,381-foot summit first, having to climb up and down a couple of intervening false summits. Finally I could see the objective, a skewed profile with an easy slope from the west and impressive cliffs to the east.

The top is rocky and bare, and the sign-in log was encased within a strong box with a China Lake sticker on it. There were lots of signatures over the years, many I presume with the Sierra Club Desert Peaks group. The most recent visitor was about a month ago. Although some wondered if the south summit (the 3,880-footer) was possibly higher, others had scoped it with levels and seemed to feel this peak (where I was at) was the true highpoint.

I signed in and admired the views. Immediately west were the Little Maria Mountains and the Palen Range, south were the Chuckwallas, but east had the best views: an incredible jumble of peaks, spires, hills and cliffs, all part of the Big Maria Wilderness. Unfortunately the sun was still low in that direction so any photographs would not show the intricate beauty through the glare.

I didn't stay long as the breezy wind and cold was uncomfortable, so after five minutes I started the hike down. Once back to the junction with the east-west ridge, I decided to skip the southern 3,880-foot peak. The hike down the lower ridge went without any difficulty, then it was that steep portion with all the loose-set rocks.

Here I decided to trade style for practicality, and took much of it on my butt, crab-crawling downward slowly and ensuring the rocks on which I had my feet and hands weren't moving. More than once they weren't and having one break loose at an inopportune moment would have been real trouble. It took me 20 minutes to down-climb (or down-scoot as the case may be) this section. But once below the loose stuff, the gradient lessened and I could now stand and rock-hop much of the way down into the canyon bottom.

Going down went quickly as I could see routes a little easier than going up, and in some cases found paths I had missed coming up: scant cairned trails that would have been nice to know about on the ascent. Although I didn't keep track of time closely, it felt like less than an hour I was out of the canyons and back onto the desert flats. Then it was just an easy matter of hiking the road to my truck. I checked the time when I returned (2:15 pm, a six-hour hike) and changed into drier, more comfortable clothes for the drive to Blythe. I celebrated with a Del Taco feast before driving 200 miles into Monrovia where I crashed at my pal Treetops' place for the night, topped off with football on the tube, take-out Japanese and Mad magazines from the 1970s.

I enjoyed my hike up Big Maria Peak, but it was a little rougher than I had planned for. Other than the bitter cold and the wind, the actual climb was easy and straightforward.

(c) 2008, 2019 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.