Castle Dome Hiking

 

   Rising out of the Kofa Wildlife Refuge, Castle Dome’s familiar, pencil-eraser shape is a

familiar sight to Yumans as a landmark toward the northeast.

   But should you decide to scale its rugged slope and hike through its ocotillo field and

talus slope you get a whole new perspective on one of the area’s better kept secrets.

   “The view (from the top of Castle Dome) rivals the view of the Grand Canyon,” says

Cristyn Weil, whose Jan. 1 hike this year resulted in her second trip to the top and a

wedding ceremony on the way up.

Weil describes the view as simply, “Amazing.”

“You can see everything from there, down to Mexico all the way to Parker,” she says.

When she and her fiancé (now husband) John decided in 2002 to get married, they

chose--in lieu of a traditional wedding--to take a hike.

   “That’s what we spend a lot of our free time doing together,” Weil says.

With a party of six, including a judge, photographer and two witnesses, the wedding

party struck out early in the morning and held the ceremony on a landing three-quarters

of the way to the top.

   After the ceremony and lunch they summitted the rock, culminating in a photo session

with the bride and groom wearing full wedding attire that Weil’s husband carried in his

pack.

   While all excursions to the top of Castle Dome aren’t wedding adventures, the hike can

be an enjoyable, yet challenging day trip for those with a variety of interests.

Big horn sheep inhabit the area and can be spotted infrequently. Abandoned mines dot

the region--but are not to be entered. The hike toward the summit explodes with

photographic opportunities and geological wonders.

   Even an occasional snake might be encountered on the trail.

But the biggest obstacles to hiking Castle Dome are simply finding the right way up and

enduring the physical challenge.

   Any trek to Castle Dome’s 3,788-foot summit is best reserved for the cooler months. A

summer expedition would require carrying too much water for comfort and the heat

would collapse even some stronger hikers.

   Veteran Castle Dome hiker, retired doctor Lester Olin, says summer is definitely not the

time to be hiking it. “You could (hike it),” he stresses. “But you wouldn’t want to.”

Instead Olin suggests waiting until the end of October to start planning any excursions.

Most hikes to the mountain’s summit require nearly a full day to complete using either

of two routes.

   Olin describes the route up the southwest side as a class 3 climb--requiring scrambling

or simple climbing and the extensive use of hands. A rope is recommended.

   The easier and most common route up the northeast side rates as a class 2 climb--

requiring some scrambling and use of hands.

   Olin has been climbing Castle Dome at least once a year since he came to Yuma in

1966. He got his start hiking as a youth back east but when he got to Yuma, he couldn’t

find anyone who knew anything about the local climbing scene.

Castle Dome was a prominent feature in the mountain landscape so he decided to

forge ahead by himself.

   “I took three or four exploratory trips before I found the right way,” he says. “There was

nobody around to tell me.”

   Even now, there is little in the way of maps or trail guides. Finding the way up Castle

Dome requires some patience and fortitude. And it helps to have someone with prior

experience along for the ride.

 

GETTING THERE

 

   The drive from Yuma is about 30 miles to the turnoff from Highway 95 at a fork in the

rode near mile marker 55. A sign for “Kofa Game Preserve, Castle Dome” also marks

the exit. From there the pavement soon ends and the gravel road takes you past the

Kofa Mining Museum. After that, the gravel road narrows and crosses several washes.

   Four-wheel-drive isn’t needed, but a high clearance vehicle is definitely a must.

Staying on the gravel road will take you to the northwest side of Castle Dome. You will

encounter a particularly nasty wash crossing that will scrape most oil pans. From there

the drive is approximately another mile of crossing washes including a drive along a low

ridge crest. This will eventually lead you to a large wash that is often marked with a

couple of campfire rings.

   Most people park in this area and begin the hike veering slightly to the northeast and

staying to the left of the wash. About a mile-and-a-half later, you will encounter a red

wall to the north that is the indicator to start heading southeast up a drainage that heads

directly to the peak into an area heavily littered with ocotillo. You know it’s time to start

the vertical ascent when you see a large, man-made arrow formed by rocks pointing to

the right in the wash.

   At that point, Castle Dome looks completely different than viewing it from Yuma. It no

longer resembles a rounded, solid mass. It looks like a jagged and rocky peak that

forms what appears to be a mittened hand, with a narrow spire evident on the north

side.

   The ocotillo area leads into a talus slope of loose rock and steep angles. Using a

walking stick is recommended by Weil. It not only helps a hiker balance on the rock but

is also handy for pushing away ocotillo branches.

Weil also suggests taking a good pair of hiking shoes with ankle support and wearing

jeans “because there’s a good chance you’re going to end up on your rear once or

twice.”

   Olin, however, says he likes to wear shorts and doesn’t mind getting scratched, but

agrees that hiking shoes with a good tread are a must.

Keep in mind that the summit can frequently be windy, and cooler temperatures may

prevail during the winter months. You will also be hiking on the northwest side on the

ascent, and will be in the shade of the mountain for a good portion of the route up with

an early morning start, so you should consider layering your hiking garb for comfort.

   As you ascend Castle Dome, aim in a southeasterly direction for the base of the spire.

Once you reach it, the trail continues through the base of the spire to the most difficult

part of the climb -- an area that requires some grappling and use of upper body strength

to pull yourself up a steep rock crevice about 30 feet.

   When you reach the top of that climb, you need to make a left turn and traverse about

75 yards before finding a fairly easy path to the top.

A frequent climbing partner of Olin’s, Dirk Frauenfelder, a retired surgeon, strongly

suggests having an experienced Castle Dome hiker on hand.

   “Even after doing it multiple times,” Frauenfelder says, “It’s imperative that someone in

the group has done it before.”

   There are no trail markers at Castle Dome. Some cairns--stacks or mounds of rocks

that mark a trail--dot the way up the slope, but they are few and far between.

“You couldn’t depend on the cairns to guide you up and back,” Frauenfelder says.

However, the difficulty in climbing Castle Dome is not just in finding the trails.

Contending with the steep climb, forging through ocotillo, cholla and other thorny plants

take their toll on clothing and bare limbs. Plus, loose rock on nearly every vertical step

adds to a lot of stress on ankles and knees.

   “I have gone up personally with kids aged 9 and made it with no problem,” Frauenfelder

says. “I’d say you have to be in reasonable cardiovascular shape. You’re talking at least

five hours (up and down) with only a 20-minute lunch on top and some rests.”

 

THE PAYOFF

 

   Those able to reach the top are rewarded with a variety of views depending on weather

conditions.

Frauenfelder reached the top once during a rainstorm.

   “The peak was above the clouds. All you could see were a few mountains higher than

the clouds,” Frauenfelder says. “It was kind of a surreal feeling because you couldn’t

see any earth.”

   On the other hand, Olin says, “At times in years past I was able to see Mt. San Jacinto

near Palm Springs.”

Typically the view from Castle Dome offers an unobstructed look at the Sonoran Desert

including the Kofa and Chocolate Mountain ranges.

Jagged peaks dominate a purple, green and brown landscape that mingles with valleys

crisscrossed by dry washes.

   Besides the view from the top, another enjoyment is locating an old ammunition box

fixed to the top of Castle Dome.

Inside is a notepad listing all the climbers who have summitted and various

memorabilia they have left behind.

   “Those old notebooks go back 10 or 15 years,” Frauenfelder says. “What has always

impressed me is that most of the climbers are not local people.”

   In fact, the list does include climbers who list their residences mostly from out of state

and some from out of the country--proof enough that Castle Dome is still a pretty good

secret--at least by local standards.