Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, NV
Distance: 5 miles
Traveled: Traveled: Sandstone Quarry Trailhead to Turtlehead Peak Summit (6,234′)
“Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah yes. This is what it’s all about.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Oh, The Vegas. I love The Vegas. Though I don’t really drink, I barely gamble, and I generally hate crowds of mindless tourists – I still, for some reason, love The Vegas.
I realized yesterday that I have visited Las Vegas more times than I have visited anywhere – by a significant amount. I’ve probably visited Vegas somewhere near 20 times. This seems ridiculous. But, despite me largely being the antithesis of a typical Vegas visitor, some of my favorite memories are from Vegas. I spent my 16th birthday there, left a few things to stay there in my 20’s (if you catch my drift), played all night long with $60 at many roulette tables, I fell in love with my husband there on New Years Eve in 2005, returned to get married there in 2007, and have come back many times since with many dear friends.
I love The Vegas.
One of my best friends and I have made somewhat of a tradition of meeting in Vegas every January. She flies out from Florida for a conference, and I come from wherever it is that I happen to live at the time to join her. During the day she goes to her conference, and as I work remote, I usually work all day – we then spend our evenings eating well, gambling too responsibly, seeing a show, and generally going to bed at an all-to-reasonable hour (for Vegas).
The last time we had met there, I detoured to Valley of Fire State Park for some hiking before heading home (I was still living in California at the time). I still think Valley of Fire State Park holds some of the coolest desert rock formations I have ever seen.
On this visit, since I was coming from the heart of winter in the Rocky Mountains, I was itching to squeeze in as much snow-free hiking as I could during my short 3 days. Also, being that January is what I consider one of the rare reasonable months to hike in the desert, I knew I’d be silly to not to take advantage of the 65 degree days (vs. the 100+ degree days the rest of the year).
I hadn’t been to Red Rock Canyon in many, many, years and decided it was long overdue. I had two days to hike, and the first day I was yearning to get a good summit hike in.
I headed out for the Sandstone Quarry Trailhead to hike 6324’ Turtlehead Peak early on my 2nd morning in Vegas. I found the trailhead parking lot pleasantly empty, and was on the trail by 8:30.
The trail starts out following a wash surrounded by red and white rock formations that to rise from the desert floor.
The desert sun felt incredible after months of my legs taking cover within pants, and I stopped to shed some layers and put on my shorts. The warm sun on my legs was the best feeling after them not having seen sunlight in many, many, months. Though I love snow, and winter, dearly – I’m not one to deny that getting some vitamin D in January fills my cup quite a bit.
I soon left the wash behind, and started up along ridge that gives awesome views of Red Rocks and the surrounding desert. The grade here isn’t all that bad (consider it a good warm up), yet most of the 2000’ of elevation gain is still to come.
At about 1 mile the trail passes right under Turtlehead Peak between two sandstone crags, with a steep mountainside wash in front of you. The trail becomes tough to find from here on, but the direction of travel is obvious: up.
Fortunately there were blue dots painted on rocks to mark the route. This part of the trail was a loose class 2 scramble, leaving me grateful I had my trekking poles (especially for the way down).
About halfway up the climb I ran into a guy named Jack, who had stopped to catch his breath. We started talking, hiking and scrambling upward together, and it turned out that he was a retired police officer and was doing this hike as a training hike for the Appalachian Trail – which he is leaving for in 5 weeks!
We hiked on together and talked about backpacking and hiking and about his lifetime dream to hike the AT. I was so excited for him that his dream was finally taking shape. Admittedly though, I was envious of his upcoming long-distance trek, as the PCT has been a dream of mine since I was 18. But talking to him reminded me that I still have many years ahead of me to accomplish that goal.
We ended up sticking together (and I found having an extra set of eyes quite helpful to find the best route up). Finally after a few wrong turns, and some minor slips and slides on the loose scree, we made it to the top of the saddle.
The views were already incredible.
From the saddle, the route to the peak is much less obvious. We soon realized that there are a zillion social trails zigzagging and crisscrossing their way along the backside of the last stretch to the peak. We eventually just opted to continue heading in the general direction of “up”.
Finally reaching the peak, the views opened up in all directions. To the west was snow-covered Mount Charleston, peeking out from between the much lower surrounding summits of the La Madre Wilderness. To the east was Las Vegas, the Strip, the open desert, and countless desert mountain ranges that I knew not the name of. The view was clear, the weather warm, no wind – I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect hike.
After having a snack on the peak and taking in the view, Jack and I headed down together, still sharing hiking stories.
On the scramble up I knew the route down would be tough, and as I suspected, my trekking poles were my saviors. The desert rock was unsettlingly loose, and getting reliable footing required concentration and focus. Coming down we ran into the late-day multitudes on their way up. None with trekking poles, some carrying water bottles in their hand (which would make the tricky scramble in front of them very difficult), most complaining and wanting to know how far they were from the summit (to which I didn’t have particularly good news from any of them, as “You’re almost there” was not the case).
It was 11:30 as we rounded toward the parking lot and people were swarming everywhere. The previously empty lot was now overflowing with cars blasting crappy music, screaming teenagers, long lines for the bathrooms, impatient drivers looking for empty parking spaces…oh, the mid-day pleasures of our popular national parks.
This is why I always hike at sunrise.
Jack and I surveyed the crowded situation, sighed, and gave each other “that look” (which can be translated as “welcome back to the real world”), and then parted ways with well wishes of happy trails. I wished him all the best on the AT, and I truly hope he lives his dream of summiting Katahdin in the late summer.
I left the parking lot knowing there were would likely be a fist-fight for my parking space, and sat in the long endless traffic jam to exit the park. This was a weekday? Sheesh. I would be coming back tomorrow (a Saturday) for another hike, and after seeing how over-crowded it was today I knew I had to get here at sunrise tomorrow if I wanted any chance of solitude.
Great post and great images! If anyone wants to give this hike a try, I have some visual turn-by-turn directions on my blog here: https://hikingguy.com/hiking-trails/las-vegas-hikes/hike-turtlehead-peak-trail/ – might be a good companion to this great post.