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Mt. Charleston Summit via South Loop Trail
(Mt. Charleston National Recreation Trail)
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Spring Mountains (Mt. Charleston), Kyle Canyon
South Loop Trail
 
South Loop Trail
Cathedral Rock - Mt. Charleston Trailhead (view W)

Note: Trails in the Carpenter 1 Fire area are closed. Check with the Forest Service.

Overview

This hike is very strenuous, climbing 4,278 vertical feet in 8.5 miles. The trail starts near Cathedral Rock and climbs 3,100 feet up the side of Kyle Canyon to the summit ridge in about 4 miles. The trail then runs northwest for about 1.6 miles at a more leisurely grade through Bristlecone Pine forests and open meadows. After that, the trail steepens, climbs past timberline, drops into and traverses a broad bowl, then makes a long, steep, final push to the summit. On a clear day, they say hikers can see 300 miles from the summit.

The US Forest Service is trying to change the name of this trail to Mt. Charleston National Recreation Trail.

Link to map.

South Loop Trail
Echo Overlook (view NE)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this is a pretty safe hike, but watch for ice during winter and early spring. The trail is strenuous, so take it easy at this elevation if you've just come up from the desert. There are places along the trail where a slip would prove fatal, but nothing out of the ordinary; watch your footing near edges. This trail is a bit long and hard for young kids. During summer, watch for thunderstorms. I've twice been run off the ridges with lightning all around -- not fun.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, this is a long hike, so be sure to bring the 10 Essentials. This hike goes into the Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area, so pay particular attention to respecting the land.

South Loop Trail
Traversing hillsides (view W)
Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located in Kyle Canyon up in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, about 1 hour northwest of Las Vegas. From town, drive out to the Spring Mountains Visitor Center, then continue up the road to the Cathedral Rock Trailhead.

An alternative start to the South Loop Trail is from the Griffith Peak Trailhead, but the road is getting pretty rough.

South Loop Trail
Hiker on switchbacks above Echo Overlook (view S)

The Hike

From the Cathedral Rock Trailhead (Table 1; Waypoint 01), the trail runs up and left about 200 yards to a fork (Wpt. 02). At the fork, the Cathedral Rock Trail turns right, while the South Loop Trail continues straight.

Both trails pass through a forest of ponderosa pines and white fir with an open understory of wax currents and a few other shrubs, plus some grasses, thistles, and a few forbs. In the trees, views are short but overlook the parking area and picnic area.

South Loop Trail
Hiker at trail junction on the crest (view SW)

Past the picnic area, the trail runs steeply up the hillside as it runs generally southeast towards the base of the Echo Cliffs. After about 20-25 minutes, the trail joins an old road (Wpt. 03), which is followed up and across an avalanche chute that comes down from Griffith Peak. This is a nice area in the fall when the Quaking Aspen leaves are changing color.

The trail passes a fork in the old road (Wpt. 04) to the right and runs very steeply up the east side of the avalanche chute below towering limestone cliffs. The trail cross the avalanche chute (Wpt. 05) and switchbacks up the steep west side of the canyon to the top of the Echo Overlook (Wpt. 06). Echo Overlook is about halfway to the crest: only about 2 miles, 1.5 hours, and 1,500 feet to go. For details on this section of the hike, see the description of the Echo Overlook trail.

South Loop Trail
Hiker in The Meadows (view NW)

From Echo Overlook (Wpt. 06), the trail generally contours west across the hillside to another nice overlook. The trail then begins a long series of switchbacks that lead up the side of the canyon, eventually gaining the crest of the ridge at about 4 miles out (Wpt. 07). There is a nice Bristlecone Pine forest along this section of trail and a nice meadow just below the crest. Note that the trail has been rerouted since the USGS topo maps were last updated; the trail now runs up the ridge to the west of where the USGS topo map shows the trail.

South Loop Trail

There is a trail junction at the crest (Wpt. 07). The trail to the southeast (left) leads around the south side of Griffith Peak and down to the Harris Canyon trailhead (5 miles out); the trail to the northwest (right) leads to the summit of Mt. Charleston.

From the trail junction (Wpt. 07), the South Loop Trail runs out across mixed meadows (The Meadows) and through bristlecone pine forests at easy grades for about 1.6 miles. There are a number of campsites in the trees along the edge of the meadows that would make nice spots for an overnight backpacking trip. Campsites can also be found right on the crest. There is no water on the crest. The USGS topo map shows the trail running on the crest of the ridge through here, but this part of the trail has been rerouted and now runs across the hillside a short ways below the old trail. There are nice views of the meadows and points south from the new trail, but not of Kyle Canyon.

South Loop Trail

After The Meadows (Wpt. 08), the grade increases as the trail passes through a bristlecone pine forest. Shortly, the trail breaks out onto the rim of Kyle Canyon (Wpt. 09) with great views of Mummy Mountain to the north and the desert to the east.

The next section of trail also has been rerouted. From the viewpoint (Wpt. 09), the trail climbs steeply up the ridge before angling back to the west, passing timberline, and climbing onto another ridge that comes up from the southwest (Wpt. 10). From here, hikers get the first good view of the summit.

From the top of the ridge, the trail drops a bit to traverse a wide bowl. A few patches of stunted bristlecone pines grow through here, but this area essentially is above timberline.

South Loop Trail Old guide books say that water is available at Peak Spring (Wpt. 12), which is down in the base of the bowl (west of the crest). However, it looks like a hard hike. For hikers wanting to visit the spring, the trail junction is not where the map shows it to be. From the top of the ridge, it is only about a 3-minute walk (220 yards) to the junction, rather than the 700 yards shown on the map. The junction (Wpt. 11) is marked by a 4x4 wooden signpost lying on the ground, plus 2 pieces of logs and a few rocks bordering the start of a faint trail that heads west and down into the canyon. Be sure to take your GPS. [I did not notice these features when I was there in July 2009; I don't know if they are gone or if I missed them.]
South Loop Trail
View down Kyle from the crest Canyon (view E)

Continuing across the bowl, the trail regains the crest at the site of plane crash (Wpt. 13) dating from 1955. What remains of the twin-engine C-54, which was being operated by the CIA, are collected in two large piles, but smaller pieces litter the hillside. This looks like a case of really bad luck. Granted the pilots were way off route, but they missed skimming over the ridge unharmed by only a few feet.

From the crash site, the trail angles up onto another side-ridge that comes up from the southwest (Wpt. 14). The trail runs steeply up the north side of this ridge back to the crest, then follows the crest (nice exposure) before taking a slightly lower-angle route across the western slope for the last few minutes to the summit (Wpt. 15).

South Loop Trail
Passing timberline (view NW)

The summit provides great views in all directions. To the east lie Mummy Mountain, the desert ranges beyond Mummy, and Las Vegas. To the south are Griffith Peak and Mount Potosi. To the west are Pahrump and mountain ranges in Death Valley. To the north are Mount Sterling, McFarland Peak, Mack's Peak, and the Sisters. In addition to these, hikers can see an uncountable number of other peaks, ranges, and valleys disappearing off into the distance.

South Loop Trail
Last of the trees (view NW)

There is a weather station (in a culvert shed) on the summit powered by a solar panel that can be seen from points far below. There is also a short antenna tower (lightning rod?) by the weather station, a summit register in an ammo can, and a little quarry on the south edge of the summit that offers refuge from the wind and a possible campsite.

To get back to the trailhead, retrace your steps on the South Loop Trail or continue northward on the North Loop Trail to the Trail Canyon trailhead. On the way down, stay on the trail and don't cut the switchbacks. Cutting switchbacks damages the trail and the vegetation and it makes trail conditions worse for everyone.

South Loop Trail
Hiker above timberline
South Loop Trail
Debris litter the site of a Cold War plane crash (view N)
South Loop Trail
Crash site debris (CIA C-54, 1955)
South Loop Trail
Crash site debris (CIA C-54, 1955)
South Loop Trail
Crash site debris
South Loop Trail
Crash site debris
South Loop Trail
The final push to the summit (view N)
D80B_02219
Steep trail near summit (view N)
South Loop Trail
Summit Flag set Memorial Day 2013 by Benjamin Vouk
D80B_02219
Summit and weather station (view N)
South Loop Trail
Weather station on the summit (view E)
D80B_02219
Summit register and flag on radio antenna
D80B_02219
Hikers retreating from the wind (view N)
D80B_02219
Wind shelter on summit (view E)
South Loop Trail
Grand view to the north
D80B_02219
Grand view of Mummy Mountain (view E)
D80B_02219
Grand view to the south
D80B_02219
Grand view to the west

Hiking Down the South Loop Trail

 Last of the trees (view NW)  Last of the trees (view NW)
South Loop Trail
Near the summit (view E)
South Loop Trail
Above timberline (view SE)
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail South Loop Trail
South Loop Trail
The Meadows (view SE)
South Loop Trail
The Meadows (view SE)
South Loop Trail
Approaching Griffith Peak
more to come ...

Table 1. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance (mi) Cumulative Distance (mi) Verified
01 Cathedral Rock Trailhead 621731 4013026 7,713 0.00 0.00 Yes
02 Cathedral-South Loop Trail Junction 621802 4012928 7,716 0.10 0.10 GPS
03 Join Old Road 622189 4012284 7,914 0.66 0.66 GPS
04 Old Road Forks 622517 4012134 8,186 0.35 1.01 GPS
05 Avalanche Chute 622283 4011678 8,586 0.35 1.36 GPS
06 Echo Overlook 622152 4011880 9,077 0.74 2.10 GPS
07 Crest of the Ridge 621303 4010816 10,741 2.22 4.32 GPS
08 After the Meadows 619500 4012137 10,802 1.58 5.90 GPS
09 Rim of Kyle Canyon 619096 4012848 11,054 0.54 6.44 GPS
10 Ridge from the Southwest 618179 4013194 11,328 0.71 7.15 GPS
11 Trail to Peak Spring 618071 4013381 11,356 0.14 7.29 GPS
12 Peak Spring 617100 4013500 10,370 . . GPS
13 Plane Crash Site 617329 4014071 11,424 0.68 7.97 GPS
14 Summit Ridge 617132 4014146 11,530 0.14 8.11 GPS
15 Summit 617242 4014665 11,918 0.39 8.50 GPS
01 Cathedral Rock Trailhead 621731 4013026 7,713 8.50 17.00 Yes

 
Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
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© 2014 Jim Boone; Last updated 131103

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