When I asked my Las Vegas friend Marian how she survived her city’s beastly summer heat, she had two words for me: Mt. Charleston. This dense forest, officially the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, rises like an emerald from the scrubby Mojave Desert. Mt. Charleston, at an elevation of about 7,500 feet, is usually 20 degrees cooler than Las Vegas, and, at only about half an hour northwest of downtown, close enough that locals drive up after work to walk the dog. As Las Vegas sizzled during a September visit, my boyfriend and I headed for the mountain for a bit of hiking and cool mountain air. The tab for two gave us sticker shock — in a good way: $176 for two nights’ lodging and $132 for breakfasts and dinners, beer included.
The 62-room Retreat on Charleston Peak, formerly known as the Resort on Mt. Charleston, is undergoing a face-lift to freshen a property that, as we found during a two-night stay, was tired and beset by indifferent service. The new owners promise minimal disruption during the makeover, which will add updated rustic decor, new flooring, a spa and a gym. The Retreat may lack the woodsy charm of the cabins at Mt. Charleston Lodge, but it has a lovely log facade, stacked-stone chimneys and a rooftop row of little green gables, all fronting a koi pond.
The restaurant at Mt. Charleston Lodge, perched on a canyon side at 7,717 feet, specializes in belly-filling fare for hungry hikers. We rewarded ourselves for the switchback-y slog up Cathedral Rock Trail (2.8 miles round trip) with a plate of barbecued ribs for me and beer-battered fish for my boyfriend. Inside, it’s all country cowboy — a wagon-wheel chandelier hangs from the 20-foot, A-frame ceiling and guitar-picking crooners entertain Fridays through Sundays — but timeless beauty reigns outside. The deck looks out on the windswept peak of Mummy Mountain.
The butterfly-roofed building on Kyle Canyon Road, on your left as you drive up the mountain, is the U.S. Forest Service’s fun and informative Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway. Interpretive material explains Mt. Charleston’s remarkable biodiversity — bristlecone pines that were tiny saplings during the days of King Arthur, towering limestone cliffs, an iridescent butterfly found nowhere else in the world. Ask about free, naturalist-led hikes, then wander behind the building to learn about the mountain’s tragic Cold War history. A memorial honors those killed in 1955 when a military aircraft carrying workers to test the U-2 spy plane at nearby Area 51 crashed into 11,918-foot Charleston Peak, the area’s tallest mountain.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Set aside time to check out the desert-view overlook on Nevada158, about eight miles north of the visitor center, for a lesson in the area’s stranger-than-fiction atomic-age history. It was here that thrill seekers watched atmospheric blasts at the forbidding landscape below, now called the Nevada National Security Site.
Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway, 2525 Kyle Canyon Road, Las Vegas; (702) 872-5486. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. The building and some hiking trails are wheelchair accessible.
The Retreat on Charleston Peak, 2275 Kyle Canyon Road, Las Vegas; (702) 872-5500. Two ground-floor guestrooms, restaurant, bar and spa are wheelchair accessible.