Climb a Volcano

A different kind of high for hikers

dscn2410.jpg“That’s Fortification Hill,” the Maverick helicopter pilot announced as we soared over an imposing black mesa parked at the edge of Lake Mead like a gloomy iceberg. “It’s an extinct volcano.”

We continued on to the day’s destination, the Grand Canyon, but just the word “volcano” kept sending shivers of excitement right down to my hiking boots. It’s not too difficult to scale, the pilot said, and there’s a trail that leads to the top, where there’s an old military ammo case with a notebook to record your name for posterity.


A month later, in April, we went back, across the Colorado River and into Arizona, home of the flattop mound that resembles a fortress—or, some might say, Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potatoes in Close Encounters. However imposing from the Las Vegas side, it’s assailable from the east, where the surrounding hills function as a ramp. Either way, there’s no escaping the rock climb up the headwall to the plateau. Choose your hiking mates carefully!

The wildflowers and cacti were still blooming fiercely when we arrived at the trailhead sign. Kindhearted hikers have marked two paths, which join up before the major ascent. From the sign, the official trail veers right; rock arrows on the ground point the way to the narrow goat path, which rambles over the spines of the erosion piles. A new alternative trail charges right up the middle of the wash, past fluffy teddy-bear cholla, to a flight of rough-hewn “stairs” that shorten the process. (Look for the cairns to guide your way.)

We took the longer way up and the shorter way back. Immediately, the undulating dirt path is challenging and strewn with rocks. Farther on, it becomes a steep, gravelly ridge, and eventually a vertical rock scramble up the cliffs, where one step could be your last.

It’s a three-hour hike to the rocky summit plateau, at 3,700 feet, but the view makes it all worthwhile. You can see Lake Mead, Las Vegas, Utah and seemingly infinite miles of sunbaked Arizona. I never did find that ammo box register on the summit (guess I’ll have to go back!), but we did spy a family of mountain goats. And that was reason enough to celebrate.

Return to summer adventures map.

Get There:

From Boulder City, cross the Hoover Dam bypass bridge and take Exit 2, Kingman Wash Access Road. From here, you have a three-mile dirt-road journey—a vehicle with four-wheel drive is a must. Follow the yellow arrows past signs for South Mine Road and North Mine Road till you reach the two defunct bathrooms that mark a very rustic campground on the shores of Lake Mead. Take a hard right onto Fortification Hill Road and park at the yellow “Travel at your own risk” sign—this is the trailhead. Pack water, lunch and plenty of sunscreen. We two ladies started at 10 a.m., reached the summit plateau at noon, descended at 1 p.m. and returned to the car at 2 p.m. For a (literally) step-by-step photo guide to this adventure, visit