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Las Vegas is a short drive from great hiking and climbing in Red Rock Canyon

Las Vegas is a short drive from great hiking and climbing in Red Rock Canyon
Climber Vanessa Portillo ascending a pitch on the Cut Your Teeth crag at the edge of Red Rock Canyon. She is being belayed below by American Alpine Institute guide Andy Stephen. (Brian E. Clark)

Halfway up a 50-foot pitch on the Cut Your Teeth crag at the edge of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas, my forearms and calves began cramping.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

“Lean in,” called Andy Stephen, the American Alpine Institute guide who was belaying me on the moderate sport climb in Calico Basin, so named because of its deep auburn and orange colors.

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Though his advice seemed counterintuitive to this novice climber, I leaned in and relaxed. (Even if I did slip, I would fall only a foot or two because I was protected by a harness that was connected to a rope that Stephen manned from the ground.)

After a few moments, the cramping subsided and I continued, carefully, up the vertical cliff that was studded with small, nubbin-like handholds and footholds known as crimps, which gave me a firm grip on my slow-but-steady ascent. Once at the top, I looked east and saw the Las Vegas strip 20 miles away. And to the west, gray mountains rose several thousand feet in the distance.

I’d met Stephen, fellow guide Sam Boyce and Stephen’s girlfriend, Vanessa Portillo, a fellow climber, earlier that morning in Summerlin.

We drove to the Red Springs parking area in Calico Basin, gathered up ropes, harnesses, helmets, climbing shoes and other gear and trekked through a wash. At its end, we ascended a trail through huge, seemingly whimsical piles of sandstone speckled with iron deposits that sun, wind and rain had weathered to a cracked and blackened finish.

Over the next few hours I tried to imitate Portillo, who seemed to defy gravity as she flowed smoothly up the Cut Your Teeth crag, before we moved on to climb the longer and more difficult Impacted Molar route.

“When it’s cold and snowy in places like Yosemite … lots of people come here because the weather is mild in the winter and into the spring,” Stephen told me over sandwiches. “With temperatures in the 50s and sunny skies, it’s great for climbing and hiking — a nice alternative to the gym. And there is everything here from novice routes to climbs that will challenge the best. We guide and instruct on them all.”

Climber on the difficult Rebel Without a Pause route in a side canyon at Red Rock called the Black Corridor.
Climber on the difficult Rebel Without a Pause route in a side canyon at Red Rock called the Black Corridor. (Brian E. Clark)

Hiking

If rock climbing isn’t your cup of tea, both the Alpine Institute’s Stephen and Alan Gregax, a trip leader with VegasHikers, said Red Rock is filled with great trails for hikers of all abilities.

Gregax, who moved to Las Vegas 30 years ago, works as a mail carrier but often leads several outings a week for VegasHikers.

“I didn’t start hiking until adulthood,” said Gregax. “When I was a youngster, my parents would drive out to the Calico One overlook and let me scramble to my heart’s content.

“When I got older, I found people to hike with through VegasHikers and that’s what got me going on actual trails. Now I head out just about whenever I can from fall into spring, as long as the weather is comfortable, for the best hiking in this region.

“I deliver mail so I get acclimated to heat, but I’d never lead people in Red Rock in the summer. Even this time of year, though, I always carry a liter of water for every hour I’m going to be out there.”

Hikers head up into the Calico Hills in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to go climbing. They are part of an American Alpine Institute group.
Hikers head up into the Calico Hills in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to go climbing. They are part of an American Alpine Institute group. (Brian E. Clark)

Here are five of Gregax’s favorite hikes, ranging from moderate to more difficult:

Calico Tanks, which many consider the most popular hike in the area, is named after an ephemeral pool of water at the end of the trail. The loop is less than three miles round trip, isn't difficult and ascends about 600 feet. The trail head is at the Sandstone Quarry pullout, about three miles inside Red Rock on the scenic loop.

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Ice Box Canyon is about the same distance and gains about 500 feet. It begins with a well-maintained trail across open country and then drops into a cool, narrow canyon that seldom gets full sun. Once there, Gregax said it requires a bit of scrambling over boulders, making it more difficult than the Calico Tanks trail. The trailhead is at the Ice Box Canyon parking lot, about eight miles into the scenic loop.

The Pine Creek trail also starts in the open and then descends into a canyon that requires some scrambling, Gregax said. At about eight-tenths of a mile, you’ll come to the remains of Horace Wilson’s old homestead, which dates to the 1920s. The round trip is about 2.4 miles, but hikers can continue a few more miles from the end of the loop and climb several thousand feet. The trailhead is about nine miles in on the scenic loop.

The La Madre Spring and Miner’s Cabin trail, which is four miles round trip and gains about 700 feet, is Gregax’s favorite. It begins at the Willow Springs trailhead and follows an old road to a spring that was dammed to water cattle. The trail crosses a creek at several points and passes two significant waterfalls before it arrives at a miner’s cabin built of native rock.

For something more strenuous, Gregax recommends the Turtlehead Peak trail, which is 4.6 miles round trip, gains 2,000 feet and is steep in some places. Loose rock and shale make the hike even more challenging, so he recommends using trekking poles. But the reward is worth it, offering great views of Red Rock Canyon, southern Utah and Arizona. The trailhead is at the Sandstone Quarry pullout.

If you go

For ideas on other hikes in Red Rock, see birdandhike.com.

The cost of climbs with American Alpine Institute guides starts at $365 per person, with lower rates for additional participants. Admission to Red Rock is $15 per car.

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