Saturday, July 20, 2019

Four Mornings in Red Rock Canyon

                The first time I drove into Red Rock Canyon from Las Vegas the canyon overwhelmed me with its desert beauty and expansive views. I came to the canyon early in the morning, as soon as it opened to visitors, so I would avoid the midday heat. I parked the rental car at the Visitor Center shortly after 6:00 AM and looked out toward the Calico  Hills to the north  and Rainbow Mountain, Bride Mountain, and North Peak to the west, all bathed in early morning light. I found it hard  to believe that the nearby Calico Hills were still at least  half a mile away and that the lowest slopes of those three peaks to the west were still  nearly three and a half miles away.
                I am used to hiking in the Eastern United States, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, where tree covered slopes block any distant  views unless I am hiking along a ridge and come upon a rocky overlook or climb above tree line. When hiking back in the east, I feel fortunate to see a hundred feet down the trail. I could, at times, see several miles in all directions as I hiked in Red Rock Canyon.
                That first morning, I stepped out onto the Moenkopi Trail, an “easy” rated trail that took me through open desert past Yucca, Joshua Trees, and Prickly Pear Cactus until I picked up the Calico Hills Trail, a “moderate” trail that seemed no more difficult than the Moenkopi Trail and that led me back to the car at the visitor center. My hiking shoes and socks were a little dusty, and my feet were warm and sweaty, but I was no worse for the wear. The round-trip hike was about 2 miles of open, easy to negotiate, and beautiful desert.
                Not ready to call it a day after just two miles, I drove the car over to the Calico I parking area where I
Calico 1 parking with rocks in the background
had just hiked through, and after parking the car, I climbed down into a small canyon to explore. As I climbed upon an outcrop, I saw a man below holding a stone to  carve his initials with into the rock face over his head. With little hesitation I called out, “That’s not cool.” Looking at me, he dropped the stone in his hand and said, “I am sorry. I didn’t know. This is my first time here.” He then asked, “Do you come here often?”  Not wanting to give away the fact that this was also my first visit to Red Rock Canyon, I replied, “I get around.” I then continued hiking down  into the canyon and  did not see another person until I returned to near the parking area.
The next morning, again entering the canyon soon after it opened to visitors, I drove directly to the Calico I parking area, intending to again hike the Calico Hills Trail, but this time  a mile up to the Calico II parking area and back. When I reached the dry wash, I saw that the trail divide, right and up toward the ridge,  and left  along the dusty wash, but the maps I was using did not show a loop. Not wanting to follow the trail up to the ridge in case it dead ended, I followed the trail through the dry, sandy, and rocky wash. This lower trail, heading toward the Calico II parking area,  seemed to promise a clear hike to my intended destination while the upper trail was questionable.
After hiking past some large boulders which I explored, including one with ancient petroglyphs,  I approached the parking area and noticed, off to the right,  large rock cairns enclosed in what looked like  wire mesh. Consisting of rocks piled into a wire cylinder about two feet wide and a yard high, each cairn leading to another, I followed them toward the ridge top. Climbing over rock ledges and up through crevices, I eventually  reached the ridge above, where I was greeted by one last cairn and a scene that reminded me of something out of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Once at the top of the ridge,  I found the trail easier to follow and hiked it back to the car. The entire loop was  a spectacular hike of two miles that at times, both in terms of route finding and the scrambling,  not always seeing where the trail led and having to rely on hands as well as feet to climb up and through some rocky slopes, qualified, in my mind, as “moderate.”
Again, not wanting to call it a day after hiking just two miles, I drove up to and parked at the Calico II parking area where once more I picked up the  Calico Hills Trail, but this time following it up to the  Sandstone Quarry trailhead. This section of the Calico Hills Trail was about as easy as the first section I had hiked the day before and not nearly as difficult as the section I had hiked earlier that morning.
Upon reaching the Sandstone Quarry trail head, I looked around and then headed back from whence I came, following the same trail, hoping to get back to the car before what looked like approaching rain clouds dumped their precipitation on me. Other than a few sprinkles, I was able to add over another two miles to my day for a total of over four miles before rain started falling and the wind increased.
The third morning I again entered the Canyon around 6:00 AM.  Driving toward the Sandstone Quarry
The Calico Tanks Trail, heading up toward the overlook
Trailhead, I debated  whether to hike from  the 4,280 feet above sea level trailhead on the  “moderate” Calico Tanks Trail up to the tanks  at an elevation of about 4,680 feet, a three mile round trip,  or to hike the “difficult” Turtlehead Peak Trail up to the 6,323 foot high summit of Turtlehead Peak, a five mile round trip. I mention the altitudes because I am used to hiking eastern  elevations between 1,300 and 4,200 feet. Since I was hiking by myself and was a little out of shape after a cold, wet, miserable eastern winter, I opted for the “moderate” hike up to the Calico Tanks rather than the “difficult” climb up to Turtlehead Peak  thinking I might hike up to Turtlehead Peak the following day.
The Calico Tanks trail was at first easy to follow, but the higher it climbed up into the canyon, the harder it became to follow. More than once I would follow a clearly followable trail up onto a rocky flat ledge only to spend several minutes searching for where the trail continued. As the canyon became narrower and steeper,  I found myself scrambling more and more and wondering how this hike could be rated as “moderate” rather than “difficult.”
Near the high end of the canyon, when I stepped up over a rock and looked down upon a tinaja, or natural rock formation that holds surface water runoff, I knew I was near the end of the trail. I then saw a couple small cairns leading up to  wide but exposed sloping rock ledge ahead and to the right. I followed the cairns to the last one where, under an overhang, I was rewarded with a sweeping view of a hazy Las Vegas.  Despite the haze, I was  able to pick out the resort where I was staying, the Red Rock Canyon Resort and Spa, as well as the very recognizable pyramid shape of the Grand Luxor.
The return hike back to the car was a little easier than the hike up. At least once, however, I had to pause on a rock ledge and look around to find where the trail continued. While I had not encountered any other hikers on my way up, I encountered dozens who were hiking up as I was descending, including one large group for whom I stepped off to the side of the trail for a few minutes so they could pass. The quiet solitude of the early morning had turned into a mass of humanity by midmorning and I knew I was no longer alone. While other hikers on the trail increased my level of safety, I prefer hiking alone or with just one or two others than in or near large groups like the one I moved to the side for.
As I was nearing the trailhead parking area, I was certain that while this had not been one of my longest hikes, it was certainly one of the most difficult ones I had undertaken in a long time. It was tough both in terms of route finding and rock scrambling, two problems I rarely encounter back in the worn-down and weathered Appalachian  Mountains. Still, I was not ready to call it a day.
Looking west toward Rainbow Mountain,
                 Bride Mountain, and North Peak
I next drove over to the Willow Spring Picnic Area where I hiked the short and “easy” Petroglyph Wall Trail to view  a petroglyph wall at the base of North Peak. I was a little disappointed with the petroglyph because it seemed no  larger, though perhaps a little better defined, that the petroglyph I had encountered along the Calico Hills Trail the day before. Adding the Petroglyph Wall Trail hike to my Calico Tanks Trail hike gave me a total of over three miles for the day, a shorter but more taxing and more trying hike than either of my previous two days.
On my  final morning, I once again entered the canyon around 6:00 AM. Based on my “moderate” hike the day before, I decided not to head up the “difficult” Turtle Peak Trail and instead opted to follow the Scenic Drive to the Lost Creek parking lot. After parking the car, I followed the “easy” one-and-a-half-mile Willow Spring Loop past  agave roasting pits but did not see any of the pictographs that were supposed to be located near the trail. Back near where I started, I hiked the “easy” three-quarter mile long Lost Creek-Children’s Discovery Trail, a short hike that rewarded me with better views, a few pictographs, and a more varied ecology than the Willow Springs Loop.  With over two miles under my hiking shoes, I got back into the car and headed for the Pine Creek Trail.
From the Pine Creek Canyon  overlook and parking area, I followed the “moderate” one-and-a-half-mile Pine Creek Trail until it brought me to the “easy” three-quarter mile long loop Fire Ecology Loop Trail. This was one of my favorite trails as it meandered through Ponderosa Pines  and crossed over the shallow and easily crossed Pine Creek. I could hear drumming off in the distance as I was hiking and  wondered if Native Americans were engaged in a religious ritual or some New Age drummers were getting it on with nature.
Reconnecting with the Pine Creek Trail, I followed it all the way to near the end  of the canyon where
Looking into Pine Creek Canyon
it branched off in a one-mile loop over rocks, across Pine Creek, and back upon itself. I then retraced my steps back to the car, all the while thinking this “moderate” three-mile hike was a lot easier than the  mile hike along the Calico Tanks Trail I had taken the previous day. Adding all the distances I had hiked that morning, I realized I had covered about six miles. My last day in Red Rock Canyon provided me with my longest hike in the Canyon but not the hardest. That label belonged to my hike on the Calico Tanks Trail the day before.
The four mornings I hiked in Red Rock Canyon was the first time I had hiked in the desert in over twenty-two years  when I last enjoyed a day hike near Abiquiu, New Mexico. The time since then had dulled my memory about  what it was like to hike in such a fierce landscape, its beauty and charm as well as its challenges and dangers. As I drove out of Red Rock Canyon along the Scenic Drive for perhaps the last time, I knew I had found a new love and hoped to someday return. After all, Turtlehead Peak was still waiting for me.

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