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4 day loop at Lake Mead
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Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
4 day loop at Lake Mead on 01/05/2010 23:32:40 MST Print View


Each year my wife and I camp at Lake Mead for two weeks. We spend Christmas and New Year’s day with her family. I usually make time for a backpacking trip also. I have noticed that many BPLers ask for suggestion/routes for trips. Recently there was a post requesting help for a trip similar to what I did this year, in the Las Vegas area. I thought I would share my methodology for putting a trip together. I am sure many others here do it the same way. Generally, if I am interested in an area, I start with a large map to identify a potential route. From there, I will obtain more detailed maps to research/plan my trip. Generally, I try to avoid areas with any people, which normally means traveling cross-country.

Lake Mead topo maps can be downloaded free from I started with a 1:100,000 map. I roughed out a 4-day/3-night loop. I would travel through north through the Bowl of Fire, east and then south through Bitter Spring Valley, west through Pinto Valley, west along the shore of Lake Mead, and then north along Callville Wash back to my starting point. Since the route only requires two 7.5 Quad maps, I purchased them (Callville Bay and Boulder Canyon). I like these maps best, if not too many are required for a trip. I would be traveling a little north of the borders of both maps, but didn’t need the maps, as Echo Hills on the Boulder Canyon Map is an easy visual reference point.

Housekeeping & Other Matters

I really hope that very few people decide to hike the areas I am about to share. The goal of this trip was solitude with no people, and an enjoyable 4 days. Should you decide to make this trip or a similar one, there are a few things to remember:

- The ground in deserts is often rocky or sand and gravel. So plan your ground insulation appropriately.

- Water is sparse. Do not plan on finding water in any spring, unless you can verify availability. Also, springs in many parts of Nevada are spoiled by wild burros. They can be a real mess. You will see I started with 6 liters of water. I am well tuned to my water needs. Given the time of year, the terrain, and length to be traveled, I knew this would be ample. However, other times of the year, I would need at least 6 liters a day to hike in the kind of heat that occurs here.

- Traveling in washes is often necessary. Washes can be dangerous due to flash floods. Flash floods can happen even if it is not raining where you are traveling. The water can originate in areas far from your location.

Here is the first rough sketch of my trip. I numbered the approximate location I would camp each night. I checked the Internet for the weather forecast; zero percent chance of precipitation for the next 10 days. A good sign.

Captions are above each picture.

Big Topo

This picture is our “Base Camp” at Lake Mead. Cost is only $10 per night. Solar power allows us to stay for extended periods without staying at an improved campground. Amenities include, among others, forced air heating, shower, bathroom, stove, & oven.

base camp

The trip would give my wife, Joyce, time to visit her family while I was gone, so she was happy about that.

Day 1
Joyce dropped me off in the morning on Northshore Drive (Nevada 167) where Callville wash crosses under the road. I then hiked northeast along Callville wash towards the Bowl of Fire. Vehicles are permitted to travel in the wash, but nowhere else. At about 1.5 miles, I took a small wash north that flows from the Bowl area.

The red rocks of the bowl can be seen from the wash in the background. This area is part of the Muddy Mountains Wilderness Area. Those rocks by my pack are actually light bluish, so the color is correct.

Bowl of Fire 03

Here are a few pictures from the Bowl of Fire

Bowl of Fire 04

Bowl of Fire 05

Bowl of Fire 06

Once I got to the northern end of the Bowl, I headed east towards Bitter Spring Valley. Although it looks fairly flat on the map, it consists of a lot of rolling hills with hundreds of small washes. Not difficult walking, but not as easy as it looks on the map! Navigation is easy; just keep heading toward Echo Hills, which is prominent on the map. Eventually, I hit the east fork of Callville Wash again. After a mile or so, I found a side canyon with several “no motor vehicles” signs, so it looked like the perfect route to take. As I entered the mouth of the canyon, there was a huge chain blocking access to any kind of vehicles… just my kind of place. The wash gained elevation for about a mile or so, and I was soon on a large hard gravel plateau. The sun was setting, and it was getting cold fast. I laid out my bed, cooked a quick meal and watched the nearly full moon for an hour or so, with my sleeping bag draped around me. Then I crawled into the bag and went to sleep. The temperature would eventually drop into the 20s F.

In the morning I woke to a gray and dismal sky and it was cold. It felt like rain or possible snow. So much for the weatherman. I headed east gradually heading towards Echo Hills. I needed to find a large wash that drains south to the pass below Pinto Valley. The wash easy to locate. This wash would take me to Hwy 167, just below the pass into Pinto Valley. Crossing the road, I climbed about a mile until I could see Pinto Valley. The wash from the flowing down from the pass wasn’t easy hiking and I moved westward towards a large hill, where I found an old jeep trail that took me to the top of a hill looking down into Pinto Valley. Here is the view:

Pinto Valley 03

This end of Pinto Valley has some great red rock formations.

Pinto Valley 01

Pinto Valley 02

Pinto Valley 04

From here I would be heading downhill for a few miles to a junction with two other washes. The larger is Boulder Wash, which flows down from the other end of Pinto Valley, and another (unnamed) wash, which flows from a pass leading down into the Rotary Cove watershed into Lake Mead. Once I got to the junction of the 3 washes, I would head up the unnamed wash. However, the goal for Day 2 was to camp just before the junction. It was still overcast and felt like rain, so I would seek a campsite on high ground above the wash I was descending. As I got within a couple miles of the junction, I started looking for a site. About ½ mile from the junction, I found the perfect spot. It was getting windy, so I decided to set-up my tarp and cook dinner as soon a possible. I figured there was a good chance of rain, but the setting sun gave me hope for good weather the following day. As the adage says, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”

Pinto Valley 05

Although there was a steady wind during the night, I slept well. Surprisingly, there was no rain. +1 for the weatherman. Here is a picture of the site from the wash, taken the next morning.

Pinto Valley 06

Day 3.

Today I would hike up no-name wash and down to Rotary Cove. From there, I would generally follow the shore of Lake Mead to Finger Cove. I had some concern about traveling from Rotary Cove westward, but more about that later. For now, I had to hike up to the pass. Actually, it was easy hiking along no-name wash, with some nice rock formations. In addition, the weather was clearing. Blue skies with a few clouds. You can see the wash along the rock formation in the picture below.

Pinto Valley 07

From below the pass, here is the view of Pinto Valley looking back to where I had traveled. The mountains at the back end of the valley is where I entered Pinto Valley.

Pinto Valley 08

Once I reached the pass, this is the view looking down the wash towards Rotary Cove and Lake Mead.

Day 3 01

What can I say? Obviously the highlight of the trip so far.

Day 3 02

Day 3 03

The hike down the wash was easy going. In the picture below, is a 200 foot tall sand dune, and it is the white patch in the picture below. I would need to get to the dune, which is on the far side of Rotary Cove. The Topo Map showed that during normal lake levels, it would be very difficult to get to the dune. Since the lake is at its lowest level in history, it might be possible. The Topo Map also shows the elevation lines of the area which is normally under water, and that wasn’t very encouraging either. However, if I were to travel out of this canyon before the lake; over to the next canyon, which drains into Rufus Cove then, I would be fine for the rest of the trip. There is a 60-foot dry waterfall in that canyon, so one needs to cross in front of the waterfall if possible. Otherwise, if the crossing is made above the waterfall, it will be necessary to cross into the next canyon and then descend down to Sandy Cove.

Day 3 04

Below is a picture of the sand dune. As you can see, to the right of the dune is a rocky ridge, which drops down into Rufus Cove.

Day 3 05

The canyon begins to narrow as I approach Rotary Cove.

Day 3 06

And narrow….

Since I only had one liter of water left, and it takes 4 hours for my water purification tablets to completely purify the water, I needed to refill, no matter what route I was to take to move westward along the shore of the lake. It was just about noon anyway, so perfect timing for lunch and a little strategy session.

Day 3 07

After lunch I climbed a hill to scout my options. Here is the view from this hill, looking south across Lake Mead. You can see that the lake is down 150 feet in elevation from its historic high, and 100 feet lower than average. The shoreline at Rufus Cove is probably at least ¼ mile further out than average.
With the low water, Rotary Cove has several “fingers” in the water, which run back to a steep hill. And in between each of these fingers, the lake fills the space. Although I could not see all the details of each finger, it looked promising to work my way up and over each finger, until I reached the sand dune. I would need to walk the ridge of each finger towards the lake, then descend down the side of the finger towards the back where it connected to the hill, walk around the edge of the water, and then climb up the next finger; working my way up and down; forward and backward on each finger. The hill connecting the fingers was too steep to climb. The other option was to hike back up the canyon and climb over to the next canyon above Rufus Cove. With hindsight, I recommend that route.

Day 3 08

The route over the fingers went well until the last one. The last finger was just opposite the sand dune. As I descended this last finger, and worked by way back to the hill, I saw that back of the finger was a straight cliff into the water. No way to work around it. However, it looked like that back of this finger did not connect to the hill, but to another canyon. However, I could not get an angle to see for sure. In addition, I had moved far enough around the hill, that it looked like I might be able to climb up over into this little canyon, if it existed. I would need to climb up to a pinnacle above me and look to see. Here is a picture I took later. Above the white bathtub ring is a dark outcropping. I climbed up through the gap on the right side of the outcropping. Definitely Class 3 stuff. On the other side, was a canyon leading to the finger. However, I could not see how far back the lake reached into the canyon. If it was too far back, the canyon wall on the opposite side was too steep to climb. If it was not too far back, it would be an easy walk to the sand dune. Also, from the gap, it was too steep and loose to climb down into this new canyon without ropes. There was a sheep trail along the length of the outcropping on the backside. I would need to take this trail along the back just to see if I could get down into the canyon. Even if I descended into the canyon, I still would not know if I could get to the sand dune. I would have to climb down into the canyon and walk to the lake to see if I could continue around to the sand dune. So I took the trail to see if there was a route down to the canyon. I was now at the left side of the outcropping in the picture, but on the backside. There was nice chute going down. Once on the canyon floor, I walked back to the lake finger, and there was a clear shot on the other side to the sand dune. Knowing what I know now, I would have backtracked and climbed over to the Rufus Cove Canyon. Would have been quicker, easier, and safer.

Day 3 08b

While I was working my way around the outcropping, I noticed this fellow above me on the ridge across the canyon. He just stood there watching.

Day 3 08c

View from the Sand Dune looking back at Rufus Cove. I had traversed most of the bathtub ring in the picture below, from right to left.

Day 3 09

Below is the view from the sand dune looking across the ridge down into Rufus Cove (bottom – L to R). From here, the route would be down this ridge to the shore of Lake Mead. I would then be traveling along the shore until Finger Cove. Although the Topo Map shows most of the shoreline from Rufus Cove to Finger Cove as sand, about 50% of it is rock. The shoreline along most of this route slopes down to the Lake. The easiest hiking is to travel about midway in the bathtub ring. The action of the lake over the years has actually created a terrace-like effect. The terraces can be up to two feet wide, and easy walking. When you come to a terrace that has been washed out, you can move up or down to the next level terrace. In addition, the terraces are not continuous, as washes or small canyons, which require hiking inland, across, and then back to the shoreline, frequently interrupt them. When you get to Fire Bowl Cove and Finger Cove, their slopes are very rocky and unstable. Not too difficult, but one needs to take their time to avoid slipping or injury.

Day 3 10

Finger Cove
I got to finger cover around 4 PM. There is a small section that has a sandy shore, although somewhat sloped. But it is terraced and very easy to find a level spot. I decided to sleep under the stars, since they sky had cleared and a full moon was rising.

Day 3 11

Here is my campsite for the night. Notice how I set it up parallel to the shore, to ensure a level bed.

Day 3 13

Day 3 12

Critical to a good nights sleep in the winter desert is enough insulation on the bottom to keep you from losing heat to the ground and enough cushion for sleeping on rocky surfaces. The cushioning was important for the first two nights, but tonight the sand will make for a feathery sleep.

I used a Backpacking Light Torsolite insulated air mattress sandwiched between a full length 1/8” Gossamer Gear ThinLight and a NightLight pad. Light weight and versatile to provide insulation and padding in just the right places.

Bed Sample

Day 4
This would be a leisurely day. I needed to return to the Junction of Callville Wash and Northshore Drive between 3-4 PM where Joyce would pick me up. The plan was to hike along the side of Finger Cove, until I could cross over to the ridge on the other side. The ridge also looks down on Callville Bay, and creates the eastern boundary of the bay. I would continue on the ridge until I was north of the high level water mark of the bay, and then climb down a canyon. The picture below shows the route along this ridge. The trail shown is a Big Horn Sheep trail, not manmade. In fact, I did not find a singe shoe print anywhere. If you look at the left side of the picture, you can see a sliver of Finger Cover. The right side shows the terrain of Callville Bay, which is now exposed due to the low water level. It would be extremely tough to try to descend into this area. The bay does become flat further north, but I would not drop into the now dry section of the bay due to over growth of shrubs and such. Hiking around the now dry part of Callville Bay is not easy, so I would travel along this ridge until a canyon would drop me beyond the point of the high water mark of the bay. From here, I would walk outside the high water boundary of the bay, until I reached Callville wash, which flows from the north. Once I got to the spot where Callville Wash flows into the bay, I would follow it to my starting point.

Day 4 01

As I traveled up the wash, I found these guys watching me. If you look closely, you will see two Big Horn sheep.

Day 4 02

Below those two, this fellow was also watching me. Hard to see… look at the lower center of the picture.

Day 4 03

Further up the wash, I turned around a took a picture of the ridge the sheep were on.

Day 4 04

And turning around looking up the wash, is where I am heading. The rose colored peak (top right) is just behind the spot I would met my wife. I got there right at 2 PM, and she picked me up at 2:30. She was the first person I had seen in 4 days. All-in-all a great adventure!!

Day 4 05

BASE WEIGHT Qty Wt ea. Total Wt (oz)
Gossamer Gear Hipbelt Pockets 2 @ 0.80 = 1.60
Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus Pack (med) 1 @ 22.30 = 22.30
Mountain Laurel Designs Pack Liner 1 @ 1.20 = 1.20
Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn Tarp with guy lines 1 @ 10.60 = 10.60
Gossamer Gear Ti Stakes (10ea) in cuben sack 1 @ 3.00 = 3.00
TorsoLite Inflatable Sleep Pad 1 @ 8.70 = 8.70
Gossamer Gear 1/8" full length Insulation Pad 1 @ 2.10 = 2.10
Gossamer Gear NightLight foam pad (torso length) 1 @ 3.50 3.50
Gossamer Gear Polycryo Ground Cloth (40" X 96") 1 @ 1.70 = 1.70
Western Mountaineering UltraLite Sleeping Bag (20F) 1 @ 29.00 = 29.00
Backpacking Light UL 60 Balaclava 1 @ 1.90 1.90
Montbell Extremely Light Down Jacket 1 @ 6.10 = 6.10
Montbell U.L. Windshirt 1 @ 2.70 = 2.70
Mountain Laurel Designs Event Rain Mitts 1 @ 1.10 = 1.10
Patagonia Capilene 1 Base Layer Bottom (medium) 1 @ 5.00 = 5.00
Smartwool Merino Wool Glove Liners 1 @ 1.50 = 1.50
Smartwool mid-Crew Walking Socks 1 @ 1.70 = 1.70
Platypus 1 liter water sack 4 @ 0.90 = 3.60
Platypus 2 liter water sack 1 @ 1.30 = 1.30
REI Ti Ware Teapot .8L 1 @ 4.60 = 4.60
Snow Peak LiteMax Stove 1 @ 1.50 = 1.50
Snowpeak Titanium Spork 1 @ 0.50 = 0.50
Cannon SD1200 IS Digital Camera 1 @ 4.90 = 4.90
Dr. Bronner's soap in mini-dropper bottle 1 @ 0.50 = 0.50
Finger Toothbrush 1 @ 0.05 = 0.05
First Aid/Emergency Kit 1 @ 2.60 = 2.60
Maui Jim Ho‘okipa MauiReaders Sunglass Sack 1 @ 0.30 0.30
Spares Kit (Cuben Fiber sack) 1 @ 0.06 = 0.06
Spares Kit (matches) 1 @ 0.10 = 0.10
Spares Kit (Micropur tablets X 10) 1 @ 0.20 = 0.20
Toilet paper (10 sheets) 1 @ 0.20 = 0.20
Zip Lock Bags 3 @ 0.30 = 0.90
Fisher Space Pen 1 @ 0.18 = 0.18
Topo Maps 2 @ 1.10 = 2.20

Total Base = 7 lbs 15.4 oz

Granola bars 6 @ 2.50 = 15.00
Instant Coffee 1 @ 0.80 = 0.80
Instant Hot Chocolate (6 packs) 6 @ 0.65 = 3.90
Mountain House Meals (3 dinners - 2 person packets) 1 @ 19.40 = 19.40
Oatmeal (3 breakfast X 2 packets ea) 1 @ 9.20 = 9.20
Snowpeak stove cannister (7.1 oz each) 1 @ 7.10 = 7.10
Trail Mix 2 @ 7.00 = 14.00
Water (liter) 6 @ 34.00 = 204.00

Total Consumables = 17 lbs 1.4 oz

Total Pack Weight = 25 lbs 0.8 oz

Mountain Hard Wear Cliffer LS T (merino wool/poly) 1 @ 5.00 = 5.00
REI eVent Baseball Cap 1 @ 2.00 = 2.00
REI OXT Airflyte Hoodie 1 @ 12.20 = 12.20
REI Schoeller Acme Pants 1 @ 16.90 = 16.90
Salomon XA Comp 4 GTX Shoe 2 @ 13.40 = 26.80
Smartwool mid-Crew Walking Socks 1 @ 1.70 = 1.70
Book of matches 1 @ 0.10 = 0.10
Fox 40 micro whistle (on lanyard) 1 @ 0.20 = 0.20
Gossamer Gear LightTrek 4 Trekking Poles (pr) 2 @ 3.40 = 6.80
Maui Jim Ho‘okipa MauiReaders Sunglasses 1 @ 0.60 = 0.60
Nylon Lanyard with Clip 1 @ 0.80 = 0.80
Photon II Micro Light (on lanyard) 1 @ 0.40 = 0.40
Sun Thermometer (on lanyard) 1 @ 3.00 = 3.00
Swiss Army Classic Knife (on lanyard) 1 @ 0.70 = 0.70
Timex Expedition Watch 1 @ 1.20 = 1.20

Total Worn = 4lbs 14.4 oz

Total FSO = 29 lbs 15.2. oz

Edited by ngatel on 01/05/2010 23:47:54 MST.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
4 day loop @ Lake Mead on 01/06/2010 01:52:15 MST Print View

Very well done report, I felt like I was there. Your TR posts are one I look forward to reading, keep them coming.


twig .
(bretthartwig) - MLife

Locale: Australia
Re: 4 day loop @ Lake Mead on 01/06/2010 04:16:16 MST Print View

Great report Nick,
Thanks for taking the time to write it up. Looks like another great part of the world.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"4 day loop at Lake Mead" on 01/06/2010 06:33:04 MST Print View

Excellent Nick, this was a great read and the pictures were stunning, especially the vibrant red rocks of Day 1.

Gordon Smith
(swearingen) - MLife

Locale: Portland, Oregon
4 day loop at Lake Mead on 01/06/2010 23:16:24 MST Print View

That's a very nice report Nick, thanks for that. We have a lot of similarly gorgeous desert terrain here in Oregon but so far I've only day hiked a small bit of it. Your report makes me want to plan a much longer trip.


James Arriola
(Ravs4fun) - M

Locale: Desert Southwest
4 day loop trip at Lake Mead on 01/07/2010 17:34:06 MST Print View


What a great trip report. I have dayhiked part of the area from your trip. It's some amazingly beautiful country. I wasn't lucky enough to see Bighorn sheep like you did but have seen their tracks in the area.

One of my favorite hiking areas in the Lake Mead area is the Muddy Mountains Wilderness alittle north of your trip area. There isn't any springs in the area but you might be lucky enough to find a pothole with some potable water in it.

Thanks for taking the time to post your amazing trip.


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Another sign of Big Horn Sheep on 01/07/2010 18:20:16 MST Print View


I do a lot of desert hiking and the sheep are elusive. I saw a total of 9 of them on this trip. I was jazzed!!

Saw a lot of these coffee beans too :)


Edited by ngatel on 01/07/2010 18:21:51 MST.

Jang-Tian Shieh
(syoten) - MLife

Locale: Taiwan
Re: 4 day loop at Lake Mead on 01/07/2010 18:46:36 MST Print View

nice report!
Desert hiking looks cool. That's also the scenery I don't have any chance to see in Taiwan.


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: 4 day loop at Lake Mead on 01/07/2010 19:35:25 MST Print View


Very little water in the desert, unlike you River Tracing trip where it looks like there is too much water :)


And before anyone asks, the coffee beans are really BushBuddy fuel :)

Peter Sustr
(czechxpress) - F - M

Locale: Boulder
Great report on 01/07/2010 21:31:55 MST Print View

Great report,

I'm happy you didn't see any people the entire time, what a great feeling that is.

Nice report and enjoyed the pics!! I think the guys at Gossamer gear owe you a special treat for using alot of there gear. :)

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Great report on 01/07/2010 21:57:20 MST Print View

>> I think the guys at Gossamer gear owe you a special treat for using alot of there gear. :)


I know your comment was "tongue in cheek."

Thanks for the kind words.

It is a testament to the quality of equipment they build. In addition to the stuff I mentioned by name, I also carried LT4s and a Mariposa Plus. My other go to pack is a Murmur.

I had a ULA Conduit and an Ohm, but sold both of them. Excelletn equipment, but Gossamer Gear makes some fantastic stuff, that just works better for me.

I actually ran into Glen Van Peski on a section of PCT earlier this year... and all I can say is, what a true gentlemen.

The way I look at is that I gave my hard earned money to GG, and they delivered what they promised. We are even. It is great to do business with them. I have also bought from ULA, MLD and Six Moon and feel the same about those companies.

Final thanks goes to BPL for providing this forum, and the members who recommend these great UL providers.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Great report, love the colors of the desert on 01/09/2010 18:06:46 MST Print View


Thanks for the great report and taking the time to do such an extensive write up with so many good pictures to illustrate what you saw and did.

Love that we can see places all around the country or other parts of the world that we might never get a chance to backpack in, but we still get to vicariously experience through detailed trip reports like these.