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Topock Gorge Backpacking, CA
mini location map2015-01-24
4 by photographer avatarJoelHazelton
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Topock Gorge Backpacking, CA 
Topock Gorge Backpacking, CA
Backpack avatar Jan 24 2015
Backpack19.00 Miles
Backpack19.00 Miles
45 LBS Pack
 no routes
1st trip
Partners none no partners
I’ve had this trip in the works for a while now with L.A. based photographer Steve Sieren. We both have been incredibly intrigued with the area, and it’s about the same distance for both of us to drive. We finally made it work this weekend.

The trip began with a late evening departure from Phoenix. I planned to camp all the way up by Needles, but I was tired by the time I hit Parker, so I opted to pull off the road and pass out early. Because of this slight setback, we started about 2 hours later than hoped on Saturday morning, about 10AM.
We started just south of the I-40, west of the Colorado River. The first obstacle was circumventing whatever sort of industrial plant sits there and blocks decent river access from the west. In and out of a couple canyons and we were at the river. Another short bushwhack and canyon traverse and we’ve made it past the gaging station. From there it was a solid mile of sandy beach walking (1 step forward, half step back) until the tamarisk forest forced us back into the desert. This is where the fun began. It was constant ups and downs as we bisected canyon, after canyon, after canyon, after canyon, after canyon. On the map it looks like you can just go farther inland and, in theory, find the ridge/peak where these canyons originate and just go over that, but in practice it doesn’t work that well. You’re dealing with constant ups and downs no matter what you do. Eventually we topped out on a mesa above Mojave Wash with beautiful views of the river and the needles. From there it was down into the wash, a bit of tamarisk fighting, then easy wash walking for a short while. After 5-10 minutes we hit a 20 foot dryfall, appeared to be 5.5-5.6 with a few large albeit sloped holds. Steve was game to free climb it and pull our packs up on a handline he brought, but I’m a bit more paranoid. Knowing we were eventually going to need to climb out of Mojave Wash anyway, I opted for an early departure from the wash to avoid the free climb. We backtracked about a minute and found a great canyon with some class 3 scrambling that took us up to the ridge above the wash.

Once out of Mojave Wash, the rugged terrain really forces you inland. This is where it gets awesome. We climbed high above the surrounding desert as we followed burro trails over ridges and through mountain passes. We could always see the tops of the needles, but every once in a while we’d reach the head of a canyon that offered a view all the way down to the river – these views were simply amazing. The landscape looks like a piece of paper that had been crumpled up and then spread out again. After route-finding our way over a couple high passes (relatively speaking – we were never over 1,200 feet or so), it was time to descend back down to river level. We crossed several more ravines en-route, and finally hit the major wash that flows around the “elbow”.
Knowing we were going to camp in this area (outside of the wilderness boundary, of course), our next task was to find water access. One would think that accessing water wouldn’t be a problem when you’re ½ mile from the 5th longest river in the US. Surprisingly, it’s rather stressful. Every single delta is choked in by massive, seemingly impenetrable forests of tamarisk (side note- this also makes landing a boat on most shores likely very tricky). First we headed over to Devils Elbow and found wall-to-wall tamarisk with no decent way around. We turned around and hiked another mile to the next access point north. Same deal with the tamarisk, except that there were a series of hilly peninsulas jutting out to the south of the mouth of the wash that we could access on game trails. We climbed the peninsulas one at a time, and each one got us slightly closer to the water. Finally on the 3rd or 4th one I spotted a scramble that would get us right to the water’s edge. Thank goodness. We purified about 6 liters of water then backtracked to find a place to camp.

After setting up camp it was time to find photos. By then it was 5pm AZ time – so only about an hour before sunset and 30 minutes before the good light – so we were in a bit of a crunch to get to a good spot. Steve had scouted out a great viewpoint via Google earth, so that was our goal. As expected, we ran into sheer cliffs and tamarisk forests when trying to access that viewpoint. We backtracked a bit to find a better ravine up out of the canyon, and immediately ran into an upset burro. Definitely enough to make us uncomfortable. While it was keeping its distance (probably 150 feet), it kept running ahead of us, then turning and staring us down and snorting. It did not look like it was going to relent. We both had big rocks in our hands just in case. Fortunately, we ended up finding a doable ravine, so we scrambled up that and left the burro down below. After shooting through the evening, we climbed down in the dark, encountered no burros waiting for us at the bottom, and had a peaceful walk back to camp and a few beers before passing out to sleep.

The next morning we were up for sunrise where we photographed another clear sky. We were packed up and out of camp by 10AM. The hike out was almost as much of a route-finding challenge as the hike in, plus hotter than the day before, and we were out by 4:30pm.

This is a wild, rugged, unforgiving, and beautiful area. While most people access it via boat, I believe on foot is the best way to enjoy the scenery. I spent time both in the high country above the river and the low country at the river, and the landscape is far more striking from above. Now that I have more of an understanding of the area, I can’t wait to get back.
"Arizona is the land of contrast... You can go from Minnesota to California in a matter of minutes, then have Mexican food that night." -Jack Dykinga
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