Stepladder Mountains Wilderness is a Bureau of Land Management property located in California. The wilderness is bordered by the BLM’s Turtle Mountains Wilderness on its south side and occupies 83195 acres. Stepladder Mountains Wilderness became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1994 and provides a critical natural habitat for the desert tortoise.
The terrain in this BLM wilderness is characterized by flat bajadas and washes. The west section of Stepladder Mountains Wilderness is occupied by the 10 mile long, Stepladder Mountains. These low, elongated mountains are formed from volcanic rock. The eastern side of the wilderness slopes to the Chemehuevi Wash on the north and the Homer wash to the west. Vegetation in the area is mostly creosote brush with woodlands along washes that include palo verde, smoketree, wild lavender, and catclaw. There is also a small stand of crucifixion thorn and teddy bear cholla in the region. Wildlife you may encounter while exploring the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness include black-tailed jackrabbit, ground squirrel, kangaroo rat, quail, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, and various lizards.
Recreational activities available in the public lands include hiking, horseback riding, hunting, and backcountry camping. The peak season for exploring the area is from October to April, as summer temperatures can reach well over 120 F. There are no reliable water sources in the wilderness, and visitors must pack in an adequate supply to meet their needs.
The Stepladder Mountains Wilderness is located in the Country of San Bernardino about 17 miles southwest of Needles, California , where numerous services and amenities are available. Cellular coverage in this remote desert wilderness can be unreliable, so you should ensure you have good maps for driving and hiking in the wilderness. Maps of the area can be obtained from the Needles Bureau of Land Management Office.
To get to the Stepladder Mountain Trailhead take US Route 95, 13 miles south from Needles, or 36 miles north from the Vidal Junction, to the Pipeline Road. Turn west onto the Pipeline Road. This road can be difficult to find as it does not appear on Google Maps, but if you use a satellite view, you can locate it on a GPS device. The Pipeline Road is a dirt road with vegetation like cactus and desert scrub growing on the final sections and sandy patches that can result in depressions. A high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for traversing the access road to the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness.
Continue past the diagonally crossing road and proceed another 0.6 miles along the Pipeline Road. Look for the wash which may have tire tracks visible. Drive across the sandy wash for a few hundred yards to locate the access track, and a more easily discerned road heading south. The road is overgrown with vegetation; proceed slowly as the road has small cacti, washes, and dips running across it. About 5.5 miles down the access you will reach the Stepladder Wilderness boundary which is marked with posts. Do not proceed in a motorized vehicle past this point as vehicles are not permitted in the BLM lands.
Campsites at Lake Havasu State Park to the east have excellent access and amenities for RV units. Establish a base at the state park while visiting the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness with an RV, as the BLM lands are inaccessible to tow vehicles and RVs. The campground on the east side of Lake Havasu is about a two-hour drive from the BLM Stepladder Mountains Wilderness.
Campsites at the Lake Havasu State Park Campground have 50 amp electrical hookups and water hookups for RVs. There are some waterfront sites along the lake which are highly desirable. The campground has 47 sites with BBQs, fire rings, and picnic tables, some of which also have shade shelters. Dry camping sites are also available in an overflow area. Amenities at the campground include restrooms, showers, a dump station, and a playground. There are not a lot of shade trees, which makes the shelters over picnic tables especially valuable. Bushes between the campground and the river shelter campsites from winds off the lake.
Other recreational facilities include a swimming beach, boat launch, and dock with parking for boat trailers. From April to September there is a two-night minimum stay with a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends. Amenities in the adjacent town are also within easy walking or bicycling distance, and campers at the campground can access shopping and restaurants.
Backpackers and hikers can stay overnight in the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness for up to 14 days at one site. Backcountry camping in this area provides peaceful solitude for nature lovers. However, the environment and climate can be harsh, and experience with desert and backcountry camping is recommended. You will need to take your own water supply as there are no reliable water sources available in the wilderness. A minimum of one gallon, per person, per day is required.
Backcountry campers also need to be prepared to pack out trash and adhere to “Leave No Trace” principles. Camp stoves are encouraged over open fires. When building campfires, use previously used fire rings or create one with rocks and a depression. Collect small pieces of deadwood, not live vegetation, never leave fires unattended, and spread ashes once the site has cooled.
Backcountry camping in the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness is most popular between October and April when temperatures are more moderate. Check weather forecasts, especially between November and February when temperatures and weather systems can create cold harsh conditions for overnight camping, especially at higher elevations.
The main crest of the Stepladder Mountains is topped with volcanic breccia rock formed by a volcanic eruption. Large rock formations here are knobby and great for scrambling over and doing some informal rock climbing with minimal equipment. Use caution as the terrain is rough, and critters like rattlesnakes and stinging insects can hide in rock crevices. Have footwear with good grips and a helmet if required.
Climbing activities are strenuous, and the temperatures in this desert landscape are very high in summer. Vigorous activities are best performed when the temperature is cooler between October and April, which is the peak season in this region.
The Stepladder Mountain Trail is an attractive and less strenuous hike. There is, however, 1400 feet of elevation gain on the four-mile out-and-back trail. The hike starts in open desert terrain as you head to the foothills approaching the main peak. Pass the south side of the foothills and enter the drainage opening to the southeast.
Head west over a low pass towards the peak and find the gully between the cliffs and ledges. Scramble up under an overhang and continue to climb up the ledges that are like steps leading up to the mountaintop. The steplike formations give the mountain range its name. Rock ledges nearer the top of the mountain are great for informal rock climbing.
Enjoy the spectacular views from the elevations in the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness. Volcanic rock formations create unique vistas, and desert wildlife and vegetation in the region present excellent opportunities for wildlife photography. Keep your eye out for jackrabbit, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and quail that make their home in this desert wilderness.
Lizards and rattlesnakes are also present and the BLM lands make excellent habitat for the rare desert tortoise. Tortoises may be sheltering under scrub brush or found near washes. They spend most of their time underground in large burrows so may be difficult to spot. Do not disturb tortoise burrows. Be patient and wait for this elusive creature to emerge of its own volition.
Collecting rocks for non-commercial purposes is permitted in the BLM Stepladder Mountains Wilderness. Collectors can find a variety of interesting geological finds in the region. Take a field guide to minerals and rocks found in the California desert to identify different specimens.
Volcanic eruptions in the region have resulted in a wide variety of rocks being dispersed on the foothills, scattered on gully floors, and along rocky ledges in the region. Collection of rocks should be minimal; take a reasonable number of samples for hobby purposes only.
Just over 200 miles to the west, skiers and snowboarders can visit the Bear Mountain Ski Resort. This ski resort boasts not one, but two summits, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. The ski resort has 438 acres of developed terrain, with 26 lifts and 55 runs. Lessons, rentals, and accommodations are available at the resort.
Skiers and snowboards will find plenty of great groomed runs, and there is a snow tubing area as well for some alternative snowy fun. During the winter when conditions are too harsh for outdoor activities in the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness, you can enjoy a winter wonderland at this local ski resort.
Just 45 miles to the east, visitors to the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness area can access the Colorado River at Needles and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. During the summer, when temperatures in the Stepladder Mountains are prohibitive for outdoor activities, head on over to the river for some fishing, boating, and floating to cool off. Boat launches allow recreational users access to the river. Ensure you have a valid state license for fishing activities. The river forms the border between Arizona and California.