Few and Far Between

On the 10th, 11th and 12th of October Las Vegas received an unusual storm, dropping upwards of an inch of rain. So on Friday morning I headed out to a spot that provides a sweeping view of the Red Rock Canyon NCA and took a picture of the breaking of the storm during sunrise. It’s a shot I have been waiting a long time to capture. The never-ending days of cloudless skies makes a moment like this very rare.

 

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The Beginnings of a Trail

TL;DR This post is an account of a bushwhack between Red Rock Canyon and the Spring Mountains. It is an attempt to gain support for the creation of a 9 mile trail linking these two recreation areas.

The trail would run in its entirety across the La Madre Mountain Wilderness, which is managed jointly by the US Forest Service and BLM.

Be awesome! and like the Connect Red Rock Canyon and Spring Mountains Facebook Page to help build support for the purposed trail.

Throughout Nevada there are over 300 named mountain ranges, running primarily north to south and rising to a height of about eight thousand to thirteen thousand feet above the sea. Every one of these seems to be seeded with conifer trees, although most would point out that anything reminiscent of a forest belongs only to those of the most elevated type. Down lower in the less prominent ranges a toughened appearance is portrayed through the dominating species of bedraggled junipers and pinyons.

From the 11,916′ summit of Mt. Charleston one could march from above treeline in the Alpine Tundra down through Bristlecone Pine Forest, then Pine-Fur Forest, Yellow Pine Forest and finally Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands. All within the span of roughly 20 miles. The only obstacle is a 9 mile stretch through the La Madre Mountain Wilderness, which as of now has no trail. The purposed trail would begin at the Harris Canyon Trailhead southeast of Mt. Charleston, then head east to the Willow Springs Trailhead in Red Rock Canyon NCA.

Click here to download the purposed section’s KML file for Google Earth.

Click here to download the North Loop Trail with purposed section’s KML file for Google Earth

Below is an account of the exploration/bushwhack I did in order to find a route. It took over 12 hours to complete 9 miles. This, I think, proves the need for a path through this forgotten stubborn land that lies in transition between Red Rock Canyon and Mt. Charleston.

Should this trail become reality it would immediately make possible a 30 mile hike that begins at the North Loop trailhead in the Spring Mountains and ends at the Willow Springs trailhead in Red Rock Canyon NCA. On this trek one would pass through five life zones, trudge over the 11,916′ summit of Mt. Charleston and not cross a single road. An even longer journey could be had by beginning at the Bonanza Peak trailhead.

Harris Canyon Trailhead

At the trailhead you will find yourself in transition between the Pine-Fur forests and the upper Juniper-Pinyon Woodlands. Should you follow the established trail west you will pass over Harris Saddle then up towards Griffith Peak and finally the Mt. Charleston summit.  Should you choose to go east across country with no trail, which is the direction we traveled, you will be traversing through the La Madre Wilderness on Wilson Ridge, down past the Miner’s Cabin along La Madre Creek and on to the Willow Springs picnic area in Red Rock Canyon. It is almost entirely downhill to the end at Willow Springs. This fact played a strong bit in our underestimation of the time scale involved.

The Route

The first part of the route starts out extremely simple following a short use trail that tends to a sun filled rocky ridge. Views to the north(left) are somewhat blocked by vegetation while views to south(right) lay wide and stretch down Lovell Canyon, past Mt. Potosi and out towards California. Looking back reveals a portion of the established Harris Canyon Trail as it crosses the open sunny slopes.

Sun filled rocky ridge. Facing forward(East).

An expanse of view. Looking right(South).

Looking back(West) at the Harris Canyon Trail.

Open Spaces

Apart from the views this is a very static locale with a seemingly endless expanse of evenly spaced Pinyon Pine. Along the first several miles of the trail you encounter three open spaces. The first, as just mentioned, a rocky ridge. The second a flat wind blown saddle and the third a burned out grassland. In between, it is the ducking and dodging of tree branches that consumes your time.

Out of the trees once more. Moving up towards a burned out ridge.

Decimated Pinyon Pines lie down in defeat. Facing forward(East).

A view to the right(South) from the burned out ridge.

A typical position one would find themselves in along this route.

The First & Second Uphills

After several somewhat pleasant miles you will come to the first of two uphill sections. With the first containing a majority of the elevation gain.  After a climb up an airy semi-loose scree covered slope you will gain the ridge. Turn right(south) and skirt along the right side of an unnamed peak. Next a short downhill leads you into a densely brushed saddle.

Looking back(west)towards Griffith Peak(left) and Harris Mountain(right), from where we just came.

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A view from the lush saddle opens up the north towards the Sheep Mountains and the Desert National Wildlife Range.

After the saddle a shorter climb will take you to an even higher second ridge. Turn right(east) and skirt around the left side of another peak.

Gaining the high point on the second ridge. Facing east(straight).

From the last high point facing south(right). It's all downhill from here.

A last look south(right) reveals a beautiful expanse of the typical Nevada mountain ranges.

Soon to be left behind, Lovell Ranch lays far below. Facing West Southwest.

The Hard Part

In some portions the woods were almost impenetrable, the difficulty lay in stumbling over downed logs and ducking under spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an open area sufficiently spacious for overlooks. So many trees might be seen, some from root to spire, stuck firmly in the steeply angled mountainside that for the next grueling mile or so would be our undoing. The sunshine offset our misery and played through clustered needles, glinting and breaking into fine particles on seeping beads of amber.  The hazy outlines of impossibly distant summits  had reason to break the never ending into an imposing stretch of earth and sky.

Along with the views and the drenching beauty of deep woods came a nagging sense of urgency. The sun dripped lower into the far off horizon and the slope here on the side of some mountain became foreign and in control. Legs became heavy under the imposing doom, forcing us to throw them out as if in a panicked state. These actions did not come from fear however, but more from the repeated mundane attacks on the senses. Such is the seeming turmoil, beauty vs. pain vs. mundane.

Looking back(West) past the bushy saddle.

Looking back(Northwest). From left to right Griffith, Harris, Mummy and Fletcher peaks are all within view.

Looking forward(East) as we come up to a small hill along the ridge. The route after the hill heads left.

Now on top of the hill. The summit on the right is the last before dropping steeply down into Red Rock Canyon. The route misses this summit to the left but you could, after the trail is built, make an effort to reach it. In fact, it would be an amazing place to setup camp for a night.

This is what the route turned into just after the top of the small hill. It took us nearly two hours to go 1 mile.

The Last Saddle

So much exuberance came in our exit from the thickly forested slope as we dropped down onto the open saddle that lies above La Madre creek. The sun was now close to the horizon and the light was quickly beginning its transition into typical desert reds and oranges. We had studied the grounds that lay below us on Google Earth and 7.5 minute maps, but we were still not sure if a route existed to the bottom without a repel. We were not carrying rope but were prepared to stay the night in the case that we had to return from the way we just came. An option that we did not relish by any means.

Looking east from a point just above the saddle. Turtle Head peak is center with Calico Basin just to the right. Las Vegas lies in the distance.

Another view east with my happy face in frame.

Looking north towards the Sheep Range. We contemplated following the canyon down in the case that we had to turn around. We were pretty sure we could find an old road to take to the highway. That sounds something like the beginning to a "I shouldn't be alive" story, huh?

Looking Northeast down the ridge from the saddle. The days last light plays on the slopes of the La Madre range. La Madre summit lies beyond. We went down to the right.

Heading Down in the Dark

Moments fade quickly in the mountains, light slowing for no one. Senses become blurred, leaving you straining with vision, trying in vain to decipher the best course of action through the rock and bush. I do for the most part, enjoy these times at the end of the day. That is, when I am fairly certain of the outcome. This time I harbored a bit of concern, that once coupled with oncoming exhaustion left me stumbling down the extremely steep and loose drop into the tributary of La Madre creek. To be honest, this doesn’t happen to me often. Most of my adventures are fairly tame and would take an act of extreme foolishness to have something go wrong. So this, while frustrating and frightening, was at the same time exhilarating and refreshing. Once I realized the race for light was hopeless, I slowed down and focused on not injuring myself.

The final moments of light encompass Turtle Head as we descend into the dark unknown.

The Cliff

It was dark now, pitch black, no Moon in sight. We were working on fumes, struggling with every climb and drop over boulders in this pissy tributary. Inching our way down towards salvation, all the while thoughts in the back of our mind imagined a 100ft cliff blocking our way. In short time our worst fears were realized. Sure enough, there in the tones of black lay a drop off, of which it seemed there was no hope of descent. We dropped our packs right there and fell dishearteningly onto the gravely earth.

“I can fall asleep this instant,” moaned my brother.

“I’m not sure I have the strength to even put my pack back on,” I muttered.

After a quick rest I mustered up the strength to climb up a hill on our left, just one last shot before we settled in for the night. I don’t know if it was the thoughts of a warm bed or the first sip of an ice cold beer that lay waiting in the cooler at the truck that inspired me the most. Whatever it was, it pushed me just enough to discover a use trail.

“Halle-&%#!-lujah,” I huffed. “I found a trail!”

“Awesome,” my brother called up. “I’m on my way.”

What I had discovered was an old trail to a mine from the Miner’s Cabin just below. We followed it down about 10 minutes to the cabin, joyful and renewed with hope. I could almost taste that beer.

The last photo snapped. Around 12am as we cooked ourselves a hot meal. So exhausted that I couldn't even focus enough to get a decent shot.

After a hot meal of dehydrated beef stew we drew up enough go juice to make the last couple miles down to the truck. The real character of Red Rock Canyon is best realized at night, with the mystical presence of shadow, stark and perfect among the Pinyon. Sound comes as if whispered by ghosts, sprinkled throughout the woods, echoing off the red stone cliffs. The high pitched bat makes its presence known with fleeting glimpses against the night sky. All the creatures seem to be active, glaring at us from behind branch and rock. Contrary to thought is the non-threatening presence of nature at night. I feel like an invisible observer, an outdoor ninja, if it weren’t for the obvious racket of my lead filled boots.

Even though we went through the steps correctly and left a voicemail for the park rangers, we half expected one to be waiting, tapping the ground with his boot and ready to ask a thousand questions. The truck was alone however and with a final moan we threw the packs in the back and slumped down into a blissful car seat. Believe it or not, we were so spent that we lost the desire for a cold beer. In all my outdoor experiences I can’t recall this ever being the case.

In the coming months I plan on repeating the route, this time with GPS to document the route. Please head over to the facebook page and click like to receive updates as this venture continues.

Whippersnapper Backpacker

Bedtime

“Where are we going tomorrow Dad?” asked Ash.

“We are going backpacking in Grapevine Canyon!” I said.

“So we are going camping?” Ash replied. He wrapped his Angry Birds blanket tighter around himself.

“Yes, but not how we normally do.” I responded.

“Ya,” said Aaron from the top bunk. “It’s like camping, except we have to hike first.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”

The wind picked up and rustled the blinds on the window as I shut off the light. Walking down the steps I heard one of them say “I can’t wait till the morning.” I smiled and went to finish packing.

Ash

Aaron

The Next Day

Mumford & Sons blasted on the car stereo as we finished the last of the packing in the parking area by the trailhead. I filled a couple of Nalgenes, trimmed the dogs nails, locked up the truck and then we headed down into the wash. It was sandy and loose as are most washes out in the Mojave Desert. The boys were ripe with excitement however and didn’t miss a beat.

“How far are we going?” huffed Ash.

“Bout 2 or 3 miles,” I replied. “Depends on where we find water.”

“Oh ok,” he said as he rushed to catch up with his brother.

Grapevine Canyon was a spiritual gathering place for the Mohave People, who used it for ritual purposes including an event during the summer solstice. There are over 700 petroglyphs on the rocks near the entrance to canyon. A spring runs pretty much year around, which is why I choose this place. Having to carry water with kids after you are already loaded down more than usual is a burden I’d prefer to avoid.

Petroglyphs

“Whoa!” exclaimed Aaron. “They are everywhere.”

“Look at these ones,” Ash called out as he ran up to the rock walls.

We were now at the mouth of the canyon where the majority of the petroglyphs are found. The glyphs were created between 1100 and 1900 AD. 

Fun Fact:  In March 2010, David R. Smith, accompanied by two other individuals, defaced 30 areas of petroglyphs by shooting them with an automatic paintball gun. He was sentenced to serve time in federal prison and pay almost $10,000 in restitution. Ok, maybe not so fun :/

“Come on Dad,” scolded Ash. “That’s enough pictures.”

“Ok ok,” I said. “I’m coming.”

Aaron was already headed up and in short time we were making our way through the large boulders. Hints of water began to appear and the further up we went the more lush the canyon became.

Heading Up

“Don’t get too far ahead,” I called out. “You guys need to keep an eye out for snakes.”

“Ok,” they yelled back. Their pace remaining the same.

“Wait up!” I said sternly this time.

“OK!” came the response.

After catching up, it began to close in even more around us and we were forced to climb up and over a section of rock. Once on the other side the canyon opened up a bit and the grapevines were thick and green.

“I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park,” said Aaron. Pushing his way through the thick foliage and acting out scenes from the movie.

“This is so cool,” remarked Ash. Following the lead of his older brother.

Lunch

“I’m hungry,” Ash said with a face full of brush.

‘Me too,” came a call from Aaron up ahead.

“Alright,” I conceded. “Let’s stop at the next open area.”

The next open area happened to be just perfect. A large sloping slab of rock with a pretty good view.

“What do you guy’s think so far,” I asked. “Is it too hard?”

“Nah,” answered Aaron. “My feet hurt a little, but it’s fun.”

“Yea,” said Ash. “It’s so fun!”

“Cool,” I said with a grunt while putting the full weight of my backpack back on. “Let’s head up and see if we can find some water. If not we may have to turn around.”

“Ok.” they both said while moving to hoist their backpacks back on too.


We moved up the canyon, checking out every possible spot for water but none were found. After a mile or so of this we decided to turn back and camp near the last spot we saw water. Soon we were there and ready to find a spot for the tent.

The tent is left center.

The Camp Spot

“Alright little dudes,” I spoke out. “We need to find a flat spot for this tent.”

“How about over here,” spouted Ash

“Or what about this one,” suggested Aaron.

“We need a little bigger space than that I think,” I said. Motioning them to check up on the apex of a small hill. “Go check out that spot.”

They ran up the hill.

“Ya,” said Ash with enthusiasm. “This looks perfect!”

“Yup,” came Aaron’s response. “I think this one will work.”

“Great!” I said. “Then that’s the spot.”

Time to Explore

With the camp all setup, now comes the best part of the day. Good light, exploration and bourbon.

“You guys wanna go explore around,” I asked. I cracked the top of the flask and poured a nip into an aluminum cup from the 50’s.

“Sure!” was their response.

So we headed down into the canyon to really spend some time looking around and to find a good spot to filter water.

Filtering Water

“So this water can make us sick if we don’t clean it?” asked Ash.

“Yup,” I said. “It can give you giardia. Which makes you throw up and have diarrhea.”

“Can you die?” asked Ash.

“Most likely not,” I responded. “But you will have to go to the hospital.”

“That sucks.” said Ash.

“Yup.” I laughed.

Make Fire

We headed back to the tent. The sun was dropping fast and we needed to get a fire ready.

“Why don’t you guys dig a fire pit,” I mentioned. Instructing them to dig a hole and pile the dirt up on the sides. That way when we are done, we just bury the fire under dirt and no one will know it was there.

Now that the fire pit is done we need to go gather wood.

“We need some bark, twigs, branches and a few bigger logs,” I said. The sound of wood cracking and snapping now filled the air as we went to work collecting fuel.

“I’m King Kong” said Aaron triumphantly while hoisting a branch up into the air.

Eat and Relax

With the wood gathered and the sun setting behind the mountains, we got ready to enjoy a hearty meal and a warm spell by the fire. I showed the boys how to start a fire with a magnesium fire starter, which ended up with me falling over as the shredded bark went up like a bomb. Then listened as an ornery owl sent his hoots over the canyon and watched as the full moon rose into the starry night.

“Dad,” Ash said seriously.

“Yes?” I responded.

 “Can we eat?” he questioned.

“I love you too, son.” I said smiling as I stood up to get the cooking kit.

End Desert Begin City…

Info on the Grapevine Canyon hike here.

Albino Ram on Hogback Ridge

La Madre "The Mother" Mountain seems to watch over the Las Vegas Valley.

Occasionally, rather than the hectic hustle of an all day hike, I prefer to spend most of my time in the hills still and quiet. Sometimes more can happen when less is done. So I sat up on Hogback Ridge overlooking the La Madre Range and the entirety of Red Rock Canyon NCA for hours reading and waiting for nothing to happen. Then, something did.

A bit of Vegas beyond the Calico Rocks and Turtlehead Peak(left).

A view over the canyons.

A dignified bitch. She's getting old.

Utah Juniper allowing Turtlehead to Peak.

I heard it from behind. Having lived and explored in Montana for so long in the past, noises in the backcountry still quicken my heart. I suppose the fear of the Grizzly is just instinct, but having jumped up to see what was going, I quickly realized just how lucky I got!

What the hell is that, a Mountain Goat?

Nope, that's an Albino Bighorn Ram.

And of course he was in low light between the Sun and I. Still got a pretty good one I suppose.

Hogback Ridge facing the Las Vegas Valley.

Looks like a Barrel Cactus of fun.

Turtlehead Peak getting ready for the sunset.

Turtlehead peak sticking his head up to reach the days last light.

To score days such as these, one could assume nothing triumphant or mystical. It is frankly a moment so limited in time, that on a calendar of the universe it would not even begin to mark the smallest of events. However, through the average human pupil diameter of 11mm, one can assume that what they have just witnessed is so unique and so fleeting that the mark on the calendar of a human lifetime spans across the entirety of years.

Enjoy this timelapse I made during my time sitting around Hogback Ridge, Red Rock Canyon Las Vegas, Nevada. Music: Winter Waltz by toru-spicy.

End Desert Begin City