- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
This difficult Potosi Mountain hike is one of those quintessential Las Vegas routes.
Photo: Jim Boone (all)
A playground for the rich and famous, Las Vegas attracts many celebrities; some sadly never make it home. In 1942, a plane carrying Carole Lombard (famous movie star and wife of Clark Gable) crashed high on the east face of Potosi Mountain. The site is now a footnote in history, occasionally visited by plane-crash buffs, Lombard fans, and Southern Nevada hikers.
The crash site has been picked over for decades, but much material remains, including small bits of human remains. Please respect the site and the memory of those who died here. The lower slopes of Potosi burned in 2005, so much of the pinyon pine forest is gone, but vegetation is coming back.
The road to the communication towers atop Potosi Mountain is now closed to the public, so the route starts low in Cottonwood Valley on the east side of the mountain. Cottonwood Valley Road, graded in the old days, now requires a high-clearance vehicle. A 3.6-mile access road, which requires a 4-wheel-drive vehicle or a good set of walking shoes, leads out of Cottonwood Valley and up a canyon to the base of the steep east face of Potosi.
Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert…this is a tough hike on a steep, rocky mountain, but other than falls and loose rocks, there are no unusual hazards. While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and Leave No Trace.
Potosi is a mining district, and there are several mines along the access road, but remember: Mines are unsafe to enter. Some metal shards at the crash site have sharp, rusty edges.
There are two reasonable trailheads. From either trailhead, the routes converge and run up steep hillsides and scramble among limestone cliffs to the crash site.
Trail Guide: Getting to Trailhead
This hike is located on the east side of Potosi Mountain, about two hours southwest of Las Vegas. From Las Vegas, drive west on State Route 160 to Blue Diamond Road. From the Blue Diamond turnoff, continue west on 160 for 5.9 miles to Cottonwood Valley Road, a dirt road that runs south (left) through Cottonwood Valley to the town of Goodsprings.
The intersection is unmarked, but there is a paved pullout on the north (right) side of the highway opposite the turnoff. Also, from the highway you can see a large dirt parking area and an outhouse about 200 yards down Cottonwood Valley Road. This is a popular parking area for mountain bikers.
Turn left on Cottonwood Valley Road and drive south for three miles to Cottonwood Pass; the last bit of road up the pass is quite rough. Watch out for bicycles careening down the road. Continue south on Cottonwood Valley Road for another 1.6 miles to 99 Mine Road. Without a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, park here and start hiking; this road leads to the trailhead.
If you continue driving, reset your odometer and lock in the hubs for a short bit of steep, rocky road. Turn right onto 99 Mine Road and drive west up the hillside. Drive up the steep, rocky section, then continue northwest on an easier road. Stay to the right at intersections about 1.3 and 1.5 miles from Cottonwood Valley Road. The first side road (to the left) runs back into Cottonwood Valley, but I think it is supposed to be closed. The second side road (left) runs west to the Dawn Mine, which can be seen in the distance.
The Dawn Mine is dangerous and supposedly still holds the body of an unlucky hiker. At the third intersection (right), 2.2 miles out, stay to the left (straight). This side road is a short cut to Cottonwood Pass, but it is a rough road better suited for off-road enthusiasts than people trying to get to a trailhead. A bit of washout is passed on the north side of the wash just before the 99 Mine.
At 2.7 miles from Cottonwood Valley Road, the road bends sharply to the north (right), and a side road cuts sharply to the southwest (left), almost making a T-intersection.
Two trailheads are possible, one up each road. To reach the lower trailhead, continue on the main road (bending north, right) and drive up the wash until progress is blocked by a short dry fall. Park there; this is the lower trailhead. I have heard that the BLM has blocked this road close to the T-intersection. Also, depending on how the flash floods move gravel, sometimes it is possible to drive up the dryfall.
To reach the upper trailhead, turn left onto the side road and drive up across the hillside. Not visible from below, an old A-frame cabin sits just around the corner. Stay in the wash as you pass the cabin; the road to the left is a driveway.
Beyond the cabin, the road gets narrow and steep as it winds among bushes and rocks, but it is suitable for a narrow 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Stay to the south (left) on the hillside at an intersection where the fork to the right drops steeply into a wash. About 3.6 miles out (0.8 miles beyond the cabin), the road ends. The turn around is a bit tight. Park here; this is the upper trailhead.
Trail Guide: The Route
From either trailhead, you can look up, above the limestone cliffs (southwest) and see the gully that holds the wreckage. To get there, you need to hike up the canyon to the north (right) of the crash site, cross southeast over the ridge to the other side, and then hike up the gully to the crash site. It is only 1.1 miles from the upper trailhead to the crash site, but it is a tough 1.1 miles—don’t let the distance fool you into thinking this is a short hike.
The routes starting at the upper and lower trailheads converge. The choices of trailheads are: Start at a lower elevation and hike up a wash, versus starting at a higher elevation and hiking across brushy side slopes to the wash. The lower trailhead is easier, but longer.
From the upper trailhead, hike northwest across brushy side slopes for 0.44 miles to the wash in the bottom of the next canyon. It is better to stay low, more or less on the contour all the way into the canyon, although the natural tendency would be to cross the ridge higher up. Staying low avoids steeper side slopes and thicker brush.
From the lower trailhead, continue northwest up the main wash for 0.16 miles, and then turn and hike southwest up a brushy side-wash. The goal is to hike up the canyon that comes down to the left (east) of a bunch of communication towers on the ridgeline. The turn is only about 300 yards out. Hiking up the side wash, the two routes converge near the first large rocky outcrop on the west side of the wash.
In the wash, the route runs up the bottom of the canyon to near the limestone cliffs that cap the canyon. From the top of the canyon, the route runs up and left (southeast) on steep scree slopes through a gap in the limestone cliffs. It probably is better to hike up the canyon as far as possible before cutting left. If you cut up too early, you will be blocked by a series of short cliffs. Staying high, there is a second-class route from the wash all the way to the ridgeline. The route was easy to follow on the way down, but it was harder to see the faint use-trail on the way up. The route gets to the crest of the ridge at a low saddle behind a knob. From out on the knob, there are nice views of the valley below.
From the low saddle, cross onto the south side of the ridge and continue upward, staying near the crest of the ridge (but avoiding the little crags) until the bottom of the gully is close and you can easily cross the side slope into the gully. At about this point, you will start finding wreckage in the gully. Continue up the gully to the cliffs. Wreckage becomes denser as you approach the base of the cliffs, which is the impact site.
The largest pieces of wreckage (see photo above) include engine parts and landing gear, which mostly are in the gully below the impact site. People already recovered the large aluminum parts (body and wings), so those are gone. However, thousands of small pieces of aluminum, lots of cabling, lots of fuel or hydraulic lines, bits of glass, rubber hoses, and many other metallic parts litter the ground.
People have been picking up the more interesting artifacts for decades, so what remains is too big to carry or not particularly interesting. There was a bronze plaque at the base of the cliffs at the south edge of debris field that memorialized the event, but it was placed illegally and since removed.
This text was used by permission from birdandhike.com, a site “intended to encourage people to visit, learn about, and fall in love with the desert,” creator Jim Boone says.