The water tank perched beneath Black Mountain Lookout
The drive into Black Mountain was harrowing.
After dozing off on portions of the drive between Joshua Tree and Idyllwild I came too as we ascended the San Jacinto Mountains. Disoriented, a neon hotel tower perched alone in the valley below slipped me into a David Lynch mood. First to my left, now to my right as we navigated the hairpin turns, its hues ran green to pink, blue to red.
The vast horizons that define the west are frequented by these curious outcries of commercial humanity and I’ve always been loathe to entertain them. They appeal to a taller order of an assertion, though feeble, of humanity’s conquest of the west and its desire to stamp beacons of order and control onto the wild remains. Thankfully its electric totem diminished into the vast horizon as we pursued our flight into the empty quarters of natural space and the forests of Black Mountain emerged as nature’s last word.
Either the GPS inaccurately designated the route or we just reached the tipping point of a long, long day but we wasted almost an hour whittling down our meager measures of sanity, cruising back and forth on the dark cliff sideroad that, come to find out, was miles away from the entry to the OK Corral and Boulder Basin Campground. It is what it is. Harrowing in that taxed mental state sorta way.
But as the coin flips we found our way and I came too on Saturday morning, the campground on display, a shiny new cooking pot just birthed from its shrink wrap. I don’t think… ever? I’ve been in a campground so … new. Fresh dirt, fresh paint, freshly shorn stumps, shiny locks on the bathroom doors. I half expected a set of pillow mints crushed under our front tires. In the center of camp, the caramel scent of Jeffrey pine replaced the last vestiges of desert air and the air carried the chatter of a shadowy corvid mocking the searching bill of a woodpecker.
An imminent sunset viewed from the lookout tower
Here the mountain breezes waft between lodgepole, ponderosa and alpine granite boulders cooling the climbers seeking respite from the valley below. The Black Mountain area lies along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, near the San Bernadino National Forestand part of the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument – a world that has inspired the likes of Ansel Adams, John Muir and Maynard Dixon. USGS analysis shows two separate periods of volcanic disruption in the region birthing alkali olivine basalt aged nearly 12.3 million years in some areas and 3.6 million years in others. And two endangered species remain keen to the terrain: the Southern yellow bat and the least Bell’s vireo a grey-winged songbird of the sweetest note.
Nine Cahuilla Indian tribes still inherit the peaks, the valleys, the agave roasting pits and the network of ancient trails through the area by their ancestors for almost 2,000 years. 1774 brought the first European explorers seeking a trade route between Sonora and Monterey and eventually paved the way for gold miners, cattlemen and in the 1930s peakbaggers destined to conquer the nearby Tahquitz Mountain.
We climbed for a fair portion of Saturday in the OK Corral hugging low into the shade and steering clear of the snakes other climbers aroused. Riddled with overhang climbs the field varies from easy warm-ups to super technical grinds, the hardest being the OK Arete a v7 or v8 – way way beyond my finger capacity.
A pink glow settles over the rock, effects of the Southern California wildfires
Once evening hit we migrated to the lookout tower to catch the sunset in our own Dharma Bums way. The wildfires sweeping Southern California cast a hazy net over the western horizon wrapping a pink tint around everything within our vision. The pines to pink, the grey granite to pink, the walls of the watchful tower a petal pink.
Watching intently, our faces remained aglow and bore witness to the sun’s last rays as he dropped from the sky and slipped the last long arm under the blanket of the waiting horizon.
Update 07/16/09: Came across the Black Mountain Blogwhich states: “A Black Mountain bouldering guide is on the way… Wolverine Publishing…” You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to Black Mountain:
From the I-10, between Redlands and Palm Springs, exit on 243 towards Idyllwild. Continue up the road for about 19 miles. You will see a sign for Black Mountain that leads you to the left up a winding dirt road (NF-4S01). Follow this road for about 4 miles to reach the turnout for OK Coral. Continue up the road a few more miles to reach Boulder Basin and the other camp grounds. Boulder Basin Campground features some of it’s own climbing.
The Forest Service lookout tower is a short walk from the BB Campground and offers stunning views of Idyllwild and the surrounding region. A short distance from there is the Summit. Another climbing area is located another mile or two past the BB Campground near the group site.
You can camp at Boulder Basin for a fee, or a few free spots exist a few miles past on Rt 243.
Idyllwild Ranger Station: 909.659.2117 – when we arrived the campground was closed but we were still able to camp two nights. Call ahead just to make sure the gates aren’t closed: www.fsadventurepass.org.
Nomad Ventures– The closest shop for climbing gear is a full-service shop in Idyllwild.
Climbing Magazine’s feature story on bouldering at Black Mountain.
DrTopo.com – free download includes OK Corral, Boulder Basin, Lookout Tower, Town Square, etc.
Ventura Outdoor Store’sblog entry about the Idyllwild region.
The Southern California Bouldering Guide (by Craig Fry) has most of the old problems at Black Mountain along with other Idyllwild bouldering areas.
You can also try Bouldering in Southern California (by Joan Bertini) which does a pretty good overview of the available routes in the Black Mountain field but the images are hard to translate into what you see before you. We spent a fair amount of time wandering and just picking what looked inviting.