Taking a Hike: The Other Side of Las Vegas
Hiking is one of the last things someone is likely to think about when it comes to either living in or paying a visit to Las Vegas — unless the hike is from one casino to the next.
That’s a pity, because less than 20 miles away from the Las Vegas Strip and only a ten-minute drive from the western fringes of the city limits lies the stark and silent contrast of a vast and still largely undiscovered world full of natural splendor that’s not to be believed — unless you see and experience it for yourself.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a nature-lover’s paradise. Most visitors who drive through the area, around a 13-mile loop, believe the road is the main attraction. They are terribly mistaken. They are also missing out. In fact, the park offers so much more for those willing to invest a little time and lots of energy.
Red Rock has far more trails and hiking areas than initially meets the eye. One popular guidebook (“Hiking Las Vegas,” by Branch Whitney, published by Huntington Press) lists more than 30 potential routes on foot — as varied in difficulty as in topography, which is saying a lot. Along these little-traveled paths you’ll come across everything from deep rocky canyons to high mountain vistas, arid deserts to fresh-water streams, and even waterfalls. Red Rock contains more fascination within reasonably short distances than just about anything located down in the urban valley. To say this destination is a “must visit” would be an understatement. We locals are particularly lucky to have such a natural refuge away from the city as a year-around retreat. Many areas of the park are free, including the trail where’ we’re about to go. However, some of the best trails require passing through the entrance gate and paying a $7 entrance fee.
February is an ideal time to visit, although some canyon trails can still be on the cool side. Earlier this week, I joined Nick Christenson, a longtime friend and jack-of-all-trades who may be known best to readers for his extensive list of reviews on gambling books (click HERE) and casino-related news (click HERE). Giving some sense of perspective about Nick, on the day I visited with him at his home, I was surprised to learn that’s he’s teaching himself how to read and write Classical Greek. Wow. I figured anyone with enough self-dedication to learn an ancient language on his own is probably someone I can trust to be my trail guide for an afternoon in Red Rock. If we happen to run into Pathagoras, then we’re in luck.
Of the 30 or so trails within what’s generally known as the Red Rock area, about 20 can be completed within 2 to 3 hours by anyone who’s reasonably fit. Some of the most difficult trails include sharp increases in elevation, and even require short interludes of actual climbing. However, most paths are well-marked and quite safe. Female hikers can feel comfortable on these trails, even when venturing alone, since the more well-known paths tend to have other hikers along the way. On the day Nick and I visited in early February, we came across several couples, a few solo hikers, and a few dozen freestyle mountain climbers who were practicing scaling on huge rocks (which was quite a site — I decided to pass on that “adventure”).
One of the most popular collection of trails is Kraft Mountain, which rests in the Calico Hills area, situated on the north side of Nevada State Highway 160. After crossing into the park boundaries from Charleston Blvd. (which becomes Hwy. 160), the first cutoff to the right is a nicely-paved road which leads to the base of the mountains. Surprisingly, a few dozen residents live out here in some really beautiful homes. There are even a few horse stables around. This is the parking area which leads to the trail Nick and I will take on this afternoon.
Today’s plan is to circumnavigate Kraft Mountain, making a complete circle which will take about three hours. I’d estimate the total distance at about 3.5 miles. We’ll also hike about 600 feet up along a gradual incline, then cross over a ridge into a gorgeous valley with absolutely stunning rock formations, then traverse into a deep canyon blanketed in shade, hike along a dry river bed (don’t try this if there’s any chance of rain — severe floods can be deadly), then come around the back side of the mountain where we’ll encounter quite a few serious climbers (and classes), and then down a slight slope back to the parking area just in time for a cold beer.
Our journey begins with the vantage point at the start of the hike, which can be seen below. We’ll be circling this mountain off to the right side of the frame and will cut in between these two peaks. Off we go….
We’ve climbed up a bit as you can see from the same mountain, which is now off the the left side, looking downhill from the trail we’ve already covered. What’s most interesting about this is the deceptiveness of the photos. You have no idea how drastically things are about to change. Things look bare and bleak. Wait until you see what’s ahead!
Crossing over the first mountain pass, this view (below) shows the park area, with Las Vegas skyline way off to the side there at the 10 o’clock position.
We continue to climb higher. The trail is very well marked. No chance of getting lost on this portion of the hike, unless you venture off on your own (not recommended). After you’ve done it once and are more familiar with the topography, I’d say venturing off on your own is highly recommended.
Another nice view. Trust me. The photos don’t do justice to the array of colors.
We now come upon the first of some amazing rock formations. The trail takes us across the sandstone and limestone. Best of all, the grip is really good walking along the rock.
This is one of my favorite photos of the hike (below) because it shows just about everything we encounter — the sun, the shade, the mountain, the rock formations, some vegetation — all swirled in a magnificent bombardment of contrasts.
One more look at the splendid rock formations.
Here’s the most challenging segment of the hike. We must transverse down into that deep gap where it’s very dark, and even spooky. Provided you’re careful and don’t take stupid risks, it’s actually easier than it looks.
Here’s the view back up the mountain from where we came. Amazing explosion of colors, especially the red rock, which gives this area it’s name.
My hiking guide….Nick Christenson, showing off his physical prowess.
Some parts of the trail are easier than others. This is the flattest and least strenuous section of the journey, which is a dry creek bed with tiny pebbles.
Next, came a four-legged surprise — the highlight of the day.
I enlarged the photo so you can see the gray fox (below), who seemed to come out of the mountains to greet us. The fox stood perched on the side of the rocks for a few minutes and didn’t seem too frightened by the spectacle of invaders moving in on his territory. Watching this magnificent creature in the wild was an awesome experience, better than visiting any zoo. [Nick also told me that on some of his recent hikes, he saw flocks of Big Horn Sheep, which is the official animal of the State of Nevada.]
After our gray fox left us, we hiked on through the canyon and come to this pass. Every step brings a new experience.
The funnest part of the journey is having no idea what lies around the next turn. Just moments after cutting through one rocky pass, we came upon yet another. I had to take a picture. By the way, it’s about 15 degrees colder down here than up on the mountain in the sun.
The next two photos show ancient petroglyphs along the trail that are believed to be anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 years old. Because of the harsh desert climate and the lack of natural resources, there wasn’t much settlement here around Las Vegas, at least until the turn of the last century, although the Paiute Indians should be credited as our ancestorial forebearers on the timeline of human civilization.
Archaeologists are still trying to decipher the writings upon the stones. Nick, who as I pointed out earlier is mastering Classical Greek, was completely stumped by these coded messages. However, I believe that I’ve figured out what these ancient nomads were trying to tell us: “Don’t Vote for Donald Trump,” is what I make of the translation.
We’re now approaching the end of the trail, as we’re come out of the canyon and rounded the south side of the mountain. Straight head off in the distance lies Las Vegas. You can barely see the buildings rising from The Strip down below in the valley.
Over the next few months, I hope to make at least a few hikes every month and write about those experiences. I hope you enjoyed this brief journey and I encourage all my friends to come and explore these natural wonders.
Thanks for reading.
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