Trip Report: Gold Butte / Lake Mead Car Camp

Gold Butte / Lake Mead Car Camp
By Donn Seeley
HIKE 03/17/2022 MOD

Last Thanksgiving, I put together a trip to southern Nevada, and one of the highlights of the trip was an exploratory hike down Indian Hills Wash. We had to turn around before we reached the bottom of the canyon because we were in danger of running out of daylight on the hike back out. Deborah Askew and I were both disappointed by that, so I worked with her to schedule a return visit for this spring that would do the full length of the canyon.

Friday 3/18: We managed to find a place to camp that was much closer to Indian Hills Wash, and we got an early start. The flowers and the birds were immediately captivating - it was a big contrast to November. Agaves and yuccas were in vigorous bloom. We saw 6-foot-tall Palmer's penstemons, Coulter's lupine in carpets, desert chia with its mysterious black inflorescences studded with little blue flowers. The phainopepla birds were everywhere, looping through the air grabbing bugs.

The hike is (still) amazing. We discovered that there are actually three sets of narrows rather than just two. They all have class 3 obstacles, mainly chockstones. The walls continue to be massive and high and colorful all the way down to the bottom. Unlike narrow canyons in southern Utah, Indian Hills Wash punches through rock layers that are standing almost on end, so there's different scenery around every corner. We discovered that there's a lot of driftwood left at the old Lake Mead high stand, in fact so much driftwood that it fills the canyon from wall to wall in one section. The canyon finally pops out of the mountain onto mudflats about a mile from the Colorado, with nothing left of the lake but many acres of dead tamarisk.

(I still have scars on my legs and arms from the catclaw acacia trees / shrubs. My memory wants to edit that part out...)

Saturday 3/19: For this day, I planned an exploratory loop that started and ended at our camp site. We went north, then descended into New Spring Canyon. There are a couple of narrow spots with class-4-ish descents that I passed on the south side and others scrambled down. The flowers and trees were very different from Friday; I got a photo of what is apparently a ragged rockflower shrub in bloom, and there were plenty of red barberry trees in the upper reaches. The canyon widens and turns into Million Hills Wash, which goes through its own (short) gorge. We stopped for lunch with a view east to the Grand Wash cliffs and the bottom of the Colorado River gorge.

The view west was of the very grand entrance to Connoly Wash, our return route. Connoly was a giant V-shaped gash in the rock wall. It was impressive up close too; the gorge never quite turns into classic narrows, but it's very claustrophobic, with huge jagged walls and many colors and textures. There was a lower gorge that opened up a bit, then a central gorge that closed way down. There was an irresistible photo op at a tall knife-like pinnacle. After several more twists, the canyon opened up again, and we walked a few miles through flowers (and catclaw) back to the road.

Sunday 3/20: I had another exploratory loop planned for this day. The goal was to hike up Cottonwood Wash to some interesting-looking granite peaks, then follow some dirt roads and wash bottoms back to the car. The scenery was just as pretty as advertised, and we once again saw lots of new flowers; we were bowled over by the carpets of desert goldenpoppies. The downside was that the gorge had several pour-offs and was choked with boulders, and it took something like an hour and a half to go a little bit more than a mile upcanyon. At this point the peaks were tantalizingly close but the wash went up a huge pour-off. I decided to take the group up the slope to the south and try to drop into the upper bowl. That strategy worked but it was still very slow going. My original plan was obviously not working out, so I set a goal of climbing around the northernmost peak, from which I thought there would be an easy descent to a road.

The quick summary: wrong! We clambered up never-ending slabs, and each time I thought that we'd be in the clear, a cliffy draw would force a new route. At lunch time we were barely two and a half miles in after 4 hours of hiking. The peaks and slabs were spectacular but incredibly obnoxious to navigate. I decided that we should contour north and look for a jeep track that would take us back down to the bottom. The terrain got a little bit less difficult as we continued on, but we were separated from the jeep track by cliffy ridges and gorges that I wanted to avoid. Finally, by happenstance, we stumbled across a bulldozer track that allowed us to descend. The scenery was almost Oz-like with its profusion of poppies.

Many thanks to the participants for the fun times: Deborah Askew, Hong Duong and James Kucera.

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